Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s window of opportunity to make Iraq a functioning state will not stay open forever. Only a mix of three very fortuitous developments allowed him to bring Iraq back from the brink after 2014: the sheer brutality of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), a lead American diplomat unduly sympathetic to Baghdad and Abadi’s Dawa party (Brett McGurk), and never-ending divisions amongst Iraqi Kurds (with the Gorran split from the PUK in particular undermining what was previously a successful KDP-PUK power-sharing arrangement in Kurdistan).
As a result of these three factors, Baghdad received almost limitless military support to push back against the ISIS advances of 2014. That support came with virtually no strings attached by Washington – Abadi’s government could continue to deny a budget and military supplies to the Kurds, it could still fail to power-share with other political communities in Iraq, and it could even arm anti-American Shiite militias with M1A Abrams tanks provided by the United States.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, Baghdad could turn to Iranian help to unravel a divided Kurdish political establishment, which last October allowed Mr. Abadi to quickly gain back all the disputed territories Iraq’s army had abandoned to ISIS and the Kurds in the summer of 2014.
Against the odds, Mr. Abadi was able to completely roll back an Iraqi Kurdish drive towards secession. That push crested in September of 2017 with the referendum on independence, which saw some 92% of voters in Kurdistan and the disputed territories vote for independence from Iraq. With Washington apparently blasé about the Iraqi army and Iranian-controlled Shiite militias using American weaponry against its secular Kurdish allies, Mr. Abadi worked to isolate the Kurds. As Iran closed its border to Kurdistan and Turkey threatened to do the same, Baghdad used its authority to close the airports of Kurdistan as well.
Those airports remain closed today, as the collective punishment of Kurdistan continues. The budget freeze for Kurdistan continues as well, with Mr. Abadi unilaterally declaring that even if Kurdistan one day resumes getting its share of the Iraqi budget, that share will be 12% rather than 17% (without a census to point to, Mr. Abadi announced that 12% is more reflective of Kurdistan’s share of the population).
Ignoring constitutional articles on the issue, Mr. Abadi’s government also continues to insist on Baghdad’s monopolization of everything to do with oil, gas and hence finances in all of Iraq. Five months after the referendum, myriad other punishments meted out by Baghdad continue as well, despite occasional pleas from the international community for reasonableness. Baghdad cherry-picks constitutional articles it likes, while ignoring those that give rights to Iraq’s regions and governorates.
This is what politics looks like in the dysfunctional state of Iraq anytime the central government feels strong. Baghdad does as it wills and the weaker parties suffer as they must.
Change, however, is the only constant and it is only a matter of time before the next crisis hits Baghdad. It may come in the form of a riotous Shiite population in the south, fed up with corrupt politicians in Baghdad failing to deliver services or even a semblance of good governance. It may come in the form of a renewed Sunni Arab insurgency, perhaps lacking the senseless savagery of the last and hence less likely to garner Baghdad all the support it needs to stop it. It may come in the form of a breakdown within Baghdad’s Iranian sponsor, removing the support and guidance currently flowing to Iraq’s central government. It may come from all of these factors together, or others we cannot foresee at the moment.
When the next crisis comes, as come it must, the Kurds will have a new, risky, opportunity to break free of Iraq. Whether or not they choose to take it will depend a lot on how Baghdad treats them now. If the Abadi government gives the Kurds a fair deal when it is strong, respects the constitution’s provisions for autonomy and power sharing in Iraq, and treats them as partners rather than subjects, then they will see little incentive to push for secession again.
If, on the other hand, the old mentalities in Baghdad persist unchanged, then all bets are off. The Kurds might even learn from their past mistakes and face the next crisis of opportunity sufficiently united to say goodbye to Baghdad for good.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.