Date
24 August 2019
The Erbil International Airport in Erbil, the administrative capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. The region has seen a rapid rise in its international status. Photo: Reuters
The Erbil International Airport in Erbil, the administrative capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. The region has seen a rapid rise in its international status. Photo: Reuters

How long will Kurdish autonomy last?

When I recently visited the city of Erbil, the administrative capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, and Sulaymaniyah, its cultural capital, I was deeply struck by the economic prosperity across the region and the supreme confidence of the local Kurds in their own future. 

However, as a student of international relations, I harbor doubts as to how long peace can last there. Strictly speaking, there is no “structural stability” in the region. 

A self-governing Kurdistan now exists in northern Iraq as a result of the Kurdish uprising in 1991, which convinced the West of the need to establish a no-fly zone over the region through a resolution in the United Nations Security Council in order to provide security protection for the Kurds. 

And thanks to UN intervention, the Kurds in northern Iraq, who had been enjoying de facto autonomy since the 1970s, finally secured their physical border after 1991.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the new Iraqi government installed by the United States agreed to enforce a federal system in the country. 

And under the new constitution, Iraqi government troops are not allowed to cross the border into the Kurdish autonomous region. 

Since then, the Kurdish self-governing region has seen a rapid rise in its international status, becoming like a “country within a country” that even has its own immigration policy. 

Apart from the no-fly zone, the security of the Kurdish autonomous region also relies heavily on the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, which have been deified by the Kurds over the years because of their huge military successes, including liberating the entire northern region from Hussein’s regime and contributing much to the defeat of the Islamic State. 

While battle-hardened, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces remain a guerrilla army. Their best weapons were largely captured from Hussein’s troops, Iraqi government soldiers and Islamic State combatants. 

They don’t even have their own air force, which means they basically don’t have the capability to take on any regular armed forces. 

The real strength of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces actually lies in their capability of mounting guerrilla warfare against invaders by taking full advantage of the punishing and mountainous terrain across Kurdistan. 

Nonetheless, fighting a conventional war and defending big cities like Erbil and Sulaymaniya are definitely not their specialty. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces themselves are ridden with their own problems, such as rampant corruption and serious divisions among their powerful warlords. 

Over the decades, the Kurds have often compared themselves to the Israelis, and have long regarded the founding of Israel as the greatest encouragement for them. 

Yet what the Kurds might have overlooked is that unlike the Israelis, who have the unwavering support of the United States, they actually don’t have any powerful foreign ally. 

That being said, once a new political strongman rises to power in Baghdad, and is determined to restore his country’s glory and unity, stripping the Kurds of their self-governing status is very likely to be on top of his agenda. 

And as long as the rise of such a new strongman doesn’t threaten western interests in Iraq, I just can’t see any realistic prospects of intervention by the great powers to safeguard the rights of the Kurds. 

When the Kurds held an independence referendum last year, Israel was the only country that signified its support. 

And when the Iraqi army recaptured the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from the Kurds shortly after the referendum, not a single foreign power rallied behind them. 

Given that, who can guarantee that the current prosperity and stability in the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq would last forever? 

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 18 

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]

JC/CG

Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe