The Syrian Crisis and Its Repercussions for Erbil-Baghdad Relations

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 30 July 2012 9:51

One of the interesting aspects of the crisis in Syria is the way Syria’s Kurds are navigating between regional power brokers in Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq. In particular, there seems to be a degree of tension surrounding the relationship between the largely pro-Turkish regional government of the Iraqi Kurds and Syrian Kurds who are seeking the support of Erbil but are not necessarily quite so supportive of Turkey.

So far, no decisive policy seems to have emerged among Syria’s Kurds in this respect. As for the spillover impact on the Iraqi scene, the Syrian crisis has so far served to further strain relations between the Iraqi Kurds and the central government in Baghdad. Due to tension in border areas with Syria, central government Iraqi forces have been seeking access to areas controlled by the Kurds, and this, in turn, has aggravated the conflict between Erbil and Baghdad.

For the first time, the Kurdish peshmerga ministry has now published a constitutional defence of its position. In a letter directed to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Kurds enumerate four constitutional articles that they consider Baghdad are violating when they are seeking access to the Kurdish areas: Articles 9, 61, 111 (some sources say 11 but that makes no sense) and 121.

Article 9 of the Iraqi constitution deals with the Iraqi army. It is one of the few constitutional provisions to specifically demand proportional representation on an ethno-sectarian basis (quotas), and this is conceivably what the Kurds are complaining about, even though there are large numbers of Kurds serving in the Iraqi army controlled by Baghdad.

Article 61 deals with parliamentary powers, and presumably the Kurdish objection relates to the failure of government to have leading military officials confirmed by parliament. This is a real problem, although there are reports that the government has lately sent a list to parliament which is now awaiting approval.

Article 111, if correctly cited, deals with oil ownership (“Iraqi oil belongs to the Iraqi people in all the governorates and regions”) and is presumably a general criticism of Baghdad regarding the longstanding dispute about whether Erbil or Baghdad should conclude deals with foreign oil companies.

Article 121 specifically gives federal regions the right to organize internal security including “guards of the region” which is commonly seen as the standard reference to the Kurdish peshmerga militia which is now the official internal army of the Kurdish region.

All in all, whereas it seems clear that the central government may need to make some improvements as regards Kurdish representation in the Iraqi army (article 9) and getting parliamentary approval of army officials (article 61), it is hard to see how article 121 could override the exclusive prerogative of Baghdad when it comes to managing national security and external defence as set out in article 110-2, where “borders” are specifically mentioned. Indeed, article 121 itself at the outset explicitly stipulates that the powers given to the region should not usurp exclusive prerogatives of the central government as specified in article 110.

What this whole issue brings to the forefront, of course, is that whereas Iraq on paper may be a federation, it is in practice a confederacy in which the Kurdish entity appears to be torn between seeking independence and de facto Turkish overlordship. The Syrian crisis is likely to make these tensions more acute, given the apparent greater scepticism of the Syrian Kurds when it comes to accepting the idea of a substantial role for Turkey in deciding their destiny. As a consequence, it is possible that the autonomous Iraqi Kurds, too, will finally have to be more specific and concrete about where exactly they are heading and when.