Iraqi Kurdistan offers a puzzling mix of stability and turmoil that reflects the political uncertainty of state formation efforts in the 21st century. The region has arguably done well for itself over recent decades, despite being caught between ambiguous US-support, the rigidity of the contemporary state system and a difficult geographical and geopolitical situation. However, darker clouds are gathering on the horizon, which makes it doubtful whether this trend can be continued.

On the one hand, since the early 1990s an Iraqi Kurdish proto-state has steadily become a successful reality in reflection of the shared Kurdish identity of 15–20 per cent of Iraq’s population, a dynamic sociopolitical culture, and the search for alternative governance solutions in the face of longstanding marginalisation and repression by successive governments in Baghdad. The Iraqi Kurds’ ongoing statebuilding project has been effective due to a number of structural factors. These include: the foreign security guarantee in the form of the no-fly zone established in 1991; increasing revenues from oil and trade in the 1990s/2000s; and the alliance of convenience between the two main Kurdish parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) (see Figure 1).‍[1] Even though full Kurdish independence is currently not on the cards after the botched referendum of September 2017, there seems to be a general consensus among Iraqi political elites that the Kurds must be adequately included in Iraq’s political settlement.‍[2]

On the other hand, the Kurdish civil war (1994–1998), the region’s economic troubles due to payment dispute(s) with Baghdad, the downturn in oil prices, its growing economic dependence on Turkey, the fight against the Islamic State (IS) (2014–2017), and its rapid loss of the disputed territories (2017) show the region’s vulnerabilities. Moreover, former President Barzani’s long rule (2005–2017), growing popular demonstrations against the KDP and PUK, and recent electoral violence by both parties (2018) suggest that Kurdish homogeneity is weaker than it might appear, party political rule more disputed, and governing institutions far from mature.‍[3]

Today, this mix makes for an autonomous Kurdish region that faces a triple crisis – political, social and economic/financial – and yet is bound to persist.‍[4] The purpose of this report is to identify and analyse key factors that are likely to influence the (in)stability of the western part of Iraqi Kurdistan in the near future. Long considered core KDP territory, this part of Iraqi Kurdistan has become increasingly vulnerable in many different regards over the past few years and forms a useful case study of some of the wider tensions that Iraqi Kurdistan faces. On the basis of a preliminary canvassing of (de)stabilising factors, the report analyses four issues: a) geopolitical tensions; b) the disputed territories; c) popular dissatisfaction with the KDP; and, d) protracted displacement. It also develops indicators for monitoring these factors and concludes with short policy recommendations.

Box 1
Key facts on western Iraqi Kurdistan

In ethnic-administrative terms, western Iraqi Kurdistan consists mainly of Dohuk governorate. Politically, it could also include the Tel Afar and Sinjar areas, as well as the disputed areas north and east of Mosul (see Figure 2).

Its main cities are Dohuk, with a population of 354,000 and Zakhu, with 197,000 people (2015 est.). The area is bisected by two main trade routes, i.e. the Cizre (Turkey)–Mosul road that runs north-south through the Feshkhaboor border area and the Dohuk–Erbil road via Zebar that runs west-east.

Dohuk governorate is home to about 1.9 million people. Of these, c. 1.47 million (77%) are locals (mostly Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Armenians); c. 355,000 (18.5%) are internally displaced persons (IDPs); and c. 87,000 (4.5%) are Syrian refugees (mostly Kurds).

Source: Times Atlas of the World (14th edition); UN OCHA, online (data per 28 February 2018; accessed 4 June 2018); UNHRC, online (data per 31 March 2018; consulted 4 June 2018).

Jüde, J., ‘Contesting borders? The formation of Iraqi Kurdistan’s de facto state’, International Affairs, 93:4, 2017.
Renad, M. and S. Aldouri, Gamble by the Kurds, London: Chatham House, 2017/18. For example, Prime Minister Al-Abadi declared on 25 April 2018 in Sulaymaniyyah that ‘Iraq will not reach stability and development without cooperation between Kurds and Arabs.’ He further added that ‘Arabs and Kurds are equal citizens of one country.’ See: link (consulted 24 May 2018). The referendum was an unofficial vote for independence among Iraq’s Kurds called by former President Barzani.
MacCaffray van den Toorn, C., Kurdistan politics at a crossroads, Carnegie: Sada, 2018.
The political dimension of the crisis refers to tensions between Erbil and Baghdad, as well as between the KDP and PUK, the social dimension to deteriorating popular satisfaction with the quality of rule and life in Kurdistan, and the economic/financial dimension to the poor state of the Kurdish economy, as well as to the region’s decreasing share of the national budget. See also: Hama, H., Systemic crisis in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, 2018, online: link (consulted 24 May 2018).