Renewed Challenges for Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq, and the Middle East

  • Written by:

Ahmed Ali
One hundred years after the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, there are serious questions about the current political structure of the Middle East. There are challenges of figuring out identities and governance systems. The old guard in Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia has changed. The new leaders are yet to succeed in setting an agreeable collective direction for their countries. Syria is staring into the abyss of its status as a nation-state. It has become a base for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and it witnesses ongoing violence. This new regional order places Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan at a crossroads that is familiar yet is uncharted territory. Mosul is still under ISIS control, both the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and federal Iraq are in dire financial shape, and the distrust among all communities is at a peak. With these ongoing developments, the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) is holding its fourth Sulaimani Forum in March of this year. This year’s Forum takes on extra significance given the 100 year anniversary of Sykes-Picot and it will seek to cover the myriad of national and regional challenges.

Militarily and ideologically, there should not be a mistake. The war against ISIS is still going and will be a long-term confrontation. In Iraq, the group is contained firmly as the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), anti-ISIS tribal fighters, and Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga continue to utilize the U.S.-led coalition’s airpower and training to reclaim terrain from ISIS. In November 2015, ISIS was defeated in Sinjar and in December ISIS was defeated in Ramadi. In Syria, there is pressure on ISIS as well. Strategically, however, ISIS still enjoys an upper hand as it holds on to Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa without sustained contestation from the anti-ISIS forces. Anti-ISIS residents of Mosul are desperate and they do not sense any movement to wrest control of the city from the group in the foreseeable future. Three months from now, ISIS would be in control of Iraq’s second largest city for exactly two years. During these two years, it launched programs to indoctrinate the youth and make them propagators of its message. There does not appear to be a strategy to counter this ideological threat. Therefore, the war against ISIS has to be about countering the group’s ideology as it is about defeating it militarily.

Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan are currently contending with their financial crises. It is as serious as it can possibly get. The population is discontent with its situation and has expressed this sentiment vocally. In October of last year, there were protests in Slemani that turned violent and the rest of the country has seen its fair share of anti-corruption protests in the summer. These popular outbursts of dissatisfaction forced Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the KRG to introduce reforms. It does not appear that those steps are perceived as sufficient by the population. The KRG and Baghdad will have no choice but to address the rising popular demands to not only provide financial stability, but to also diversify the oil-dependent economy. And these new mechanisms will have to be sustainable.

The economic situation in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan has had a profound effect on the people’s psychological sense of stability. There is a great deal of uncertainty that is palpable in Iraqi Kurdistan and southern Iraq. This lack of confidence has resulted in waves of migration throughout last year. The migrants have included families, single males pursuing better prospects, Iraqi Christians and Yazidis who have no belief that their areas will recover from the aftermath of the war against ISIS. This combination indicates that the resolution of the issues goes beyond defeating ISIS. There is an immediate need to rebuild homes and establish confidence-building measures. But there has to be long-term thinking by all stakeholders including the United States.

Solutions are not going to be easy to produce in today’s combustible environment. Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq, and the Middle East may still be facing the same challenges during next year’s Sulaimani Forum. At least for now though, there will be discussion with an eye towards open debate and a constructive tone in times of severe crisis.

Ahmed Ali is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) and is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Task Force on the Future of Iraq.