Futuristic Readings No.1 -2020
The Future of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region Amid Current Tensions
– Researchers: Dr. Yousif Goran, Dr. Omed Rafiq Fatah, Dr. Abid Khalid Rasul, Dr. Hardi Mahdi Mika
– Centre for Future Studies – Sulaimani – Iraqi Kurdistan Region – February 2020
Section One: Iraq Protests: Valid Causes and Unknown Outcomes
Section Two: Re-formation of the Iraqi Government
Section Three: The Sunni Region and the Future of Federalism in Iraq
Section Four: US Troop Withdrawal From Iraq
Today, Iraq and the region are going through a volatile political experience. Local, regional, and international variables are likely to impact the present and future of the region as a whole. However, the most significant current political events can be summed up into four issues, which are going to play a role in the short-term and long-term policies. These are: the ongoing Iraqi protests, the process of government formation, the idea of creating a Sunni region, and the likelihood of the US withdrawal from Iraq. In this political perspective, an analysis of these factors has been made in the light of reality, capabilities, and future scenarios arising from the current political equations. The role and position of the region in relation to these factors has been considered in addition to the analysis of the assumptions and future of political relations in the region because the Kurdistan Region is presented currently with opportunities and risks at the same time. It has an impact and is impacted as well. These factors have been classified as one leading to the other. It has started with the protests resulting in the resignation of the prime minister; and this has revived the idea of the Sunni region as well as the withdrawal of the US forces.
Iraq Protests: Valid Causes and Unknown Outcomes
The protests of October 2019 in Baghdad and other Arab areas in Iraq promoted a new political rhetoric, civil, anti-sectarian, anti-corruption, and anti-Iranian slogans, which distinguish these protests from the driven demonstrations after 2003. These protests helped reveal the real image and outmoded method of administration by which the political process was run. These demonstrations were the outcomes of 17 years of how Iraq had been managed by the political process. Such process has weakened Iraq’s position and afflicted its people with misfortunes.
The protests in Iraq are directed by civil activists, media people, educated people, and some of the political parties which had been previously undermined; but the real demonstrators on the ground consist of unemployed people, graduates, and students in addition to Muqtada Sadr sympathizers who frequently join or quit the protests based on the tweets from their leader.
The major causes of the protests are due to corruption, poverty, poor or lack of basic services, ethnic and sectarian differences, which make the division of Iraq a more feasible reality, terror, tribal militias, and the dominating Iranian influence over Iraq. Statistics and local and international indicators by the organizations attest to these facts about the causes. People, particularly, the Shiites have reasons for being upset and so radical. So far, civilian harm amongst protestors has resulted in 750 fatalities, in which 77 were activists and media-affiliated, with 22,000 injured. Despite that, protests are ongoing and a few major gains have been made. These are:
- Amendment of the Elections Law.
- Cutting the financial allowances of parliamentarians
- Resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi
- Getting 16 diplomatic missions to condemn the behavior of the Iraqi Government in support of the protestors’ rights.
- The rejection of a number of candidates by the mainstream political parties.
- Coercing the political fractions into acceptance of Mohammed Allawi’s nomination to form a new cabinet.
However, none of these outcomes could guarantee the fulfillment of the protestors’ wishes because there is a chance that in the name of reforms the political parties could infiltrate the new cabinet through their parliament blocs, and that they could have the upper hand in the decision-making process in the new elections law.
It is true that the protests have made it clear as to what they reject, but they have no unified voice as to what they want, and who their candidates are. Therefore, internal disagreements within the protestors have stirred the ultimate goal towards the unknown. These internal problems include the lack of leadership, lack of central collaboration amongst the protestors in the various squares and locations, disagreeing views between the protestors as regards the priorities of the demands, the most obvious of which is the nomination of Allawi, which has split the protestors into two fronts of proponents and opponents. Some of the demonstrators believe that the nominees for the prime minister and ministers should be free and independent with no prior involvement in politics and administration. This has further complicated the situation, and it represents an absurd reality.
Allawi stated that he would work to fulfill the demands of the protestors, which means the radicalism of the protestors might help reduce the pressure of the political parties, the less radicalism shown by these parties, the weaker position Allawi will assume in these negotiations.
The future of the protests is explicitly related to the question of government formation and its strategies to fulfill the demands of the protesters. The scenarios present for the protestors are three as follows:
- A government will be formed as per the demands of the protestors adopting procedures to achieve their demands, which seems impossible as Allawi does not have the opportunity to apply this scenario. Ideal solution would be to prepare for new elections and to bring to an end the influence of the factions and counting on the performance of the newly elected parliament.
- Ending the protests or weakening them is also a powerful scenario; particularly as there is disagreement amongst the protestors and the mainstream parties have reorganized themselves and are planning through the parliament and government to reintroduce the conventional system of allocations and political accommodation of the fractions. Eventually, the role of oppressing militias, exhaustion, and hopelessness of the protestors, the protestors will be either weakened or dispersed.
Kurds, Sunnis, and the Protests
The protests are now looking forward to the agenda and candidates of Allawi, but there are objective factors that will impact the future of the protests; particularly the positions of the Sunnis and Kurdistan, which will have influence as regards the achievement of the goals.
The Sunnis and Kurds have their own observations regarding the demands of the protests, but both reject radical mechanisms of rule because both are concerned about centralization and the totalitarian rule. The protestors have also realized that without the Kurds and Sunnis, they will not be able to pass this phase. Despite concerns about the protests, there are good opportunities for the Kurds:
The Sunnis have two goals behind the protests. These include, diminishing Iran’s influence and bringing about real partnership through a Sunni region. As for the Kurds, the goals include preserving the constitutional rights, disputed territories, and real partnership.
These demands of the Sunnis and the Kurds can be included as part of the government’s agenda and can be a pre-requisite for addressing the protestors and other parties. These could be worked on as one package to obtain a win-win situation and, hence an updated political accommodation could become part of the political process in Iraq again.
Moreover, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah are considered safe havens for the protestors, and often the region has been accused of urging the protestors. Therefore, this soft power can also be used in the negotiations of government formation.
Re-formation of the Iraqi Government
After two months of the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraqi President Dr. Barham Saleh nominated Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi to form the government in February 2020 in a very critical situation and after refusing many candidates by the protesters. The main question is whether or not Allawi will be successful in achieving this mission? What should Kurds do? For having a proper and satisfactory answer, it is advisable to look at the determinants by which Allawi attempts to form his cabinet.
1- Constitutional Determinants:
At the time, the Iraqi parliament approved the resignation of Abdul Mahdi, they asked the President to nominate a candidate to form the new cabinet as per Article 76 of the the Iraqi Constitution. According to the content of this article “the new Prime Minister must nominate his cabinet members within 30 days from the date of being nominated by the president to form the government.’’ If he is unsuccessful in forming the cabinet or could not gain the confidence of the parliament, then in both cases the president will nominate somebody else to form the cabinet in 15 days. From the given facts, the following scenarios can be expected:
- If Allawi is successful in forming the cabinet and gaining the confidence of the parliament, then the best step can be taken by him is to go for “early elections”
- If Allawi is unsuccessful, it is difficult to nominate somebody else to form the cabinet in 15 days and having a better chance to succeed rather than Allawi. Therefore, the best option is the dissolution of the parliament which is possible according to Article 64 of the Iraqi Constitution. This article states that the parliament can be dissolved by the request of 1/3 members of the parliament or by demand from the Council of Ministers with the approval of the President and by the vote of the majority of the parliament members. In this case, the President will request from the former government to go for early elections in 60 days.
- If the resigned prime minister, as he announced earlier, refused to remain in his position in case the new nominated prime minister failed to form the government (after 30 days), his position will be left vacant and the president will take over his position according to Article 81 of the Iraqi Constitution. Then, he should nominate another candidate for being the prime minister in 15 days according to Article 76 of the Iraqi Constitution to form a new cabinet.
2- Political Determinants:
What is meant by these determinants is the summation of political facts which continually have controlled every government forming process in Iraq after 2003, including the new cabinet by Allawi:
- Internal determinants: such determinants are considered as the imbalance for the parliament in which no political fraction has more than 16% of the total number of the members. This reflects the multi ethnic components of Iraq in spite of the difference in views and thinking, but this will lead the new Prime Minister — for the sake of securing the trust for his cabinet — to seek more votes from more than one bloc. The continuity of the cabinet, which will be a coalition cabinet, is conditional on the approval of the terms and conditions of other fractions. Besides that, the October demonstrations is another internal dimension at the moment which has impact and pressure on the direction of forming any government.
- External determinants: primarily, these will include the direct intervention and indirect experience of international and regional actors and powers in the election process. Each party forces to secure its interests, particularly the United States and Iran, which both consider Iraq a field to their
Under the above political determinants, we may say that Allawi’s attempt to form the cabinet has two roadmaps:
- A proven roadmap: as the previous governmental cabinets and in order to gain confidence of the parliament, he will nominate ministers from political factions and traditional entities with keeping in mind the balance among the main components (Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds) based on quotas. In this case, its chance to survive is as little as the previous cabinet for one of the conditions of the protesters is not to involve characters from the political factions based on quotas in the new cabinet.
- A new roadmap: without considering approval from traditional factions and the desire of the components, Allawi will nominate his cabinet members from independent characters. By doing so, he might not be able to gain the confidence of the parliament but he will draw the support of the protesters which will practice pressure on the Shiite majority blocs in order to gain trust.
Generally speaking, the second roadmap seems to be more viable as it will lead towards more stable and transitional situation, which is also a symbolic triumph for the protesters on the one hand and will allow the parliament to live for another year at least and give opportunity to the factions and entities gain more achievements on the other.
Finally, whichever roadmaps Allawi takes to form his government cabinet, the biggest task he can achieve is to pave the way for early elections. If not, then there are two assumptions:
- Continuation of the current parliament session till the end by easing the protesters or suppressing them by militias of the blocs.
- The crisis will deepen and the situation will get out of control which will lead to violence and the security forces will not be able to control it anymore.
In all cases, it seems that the life of Allawi’s cabinet is short. Therefore, Kurds should not care about getting governmental positions but try to calm down the situation and try to get some of their goals related to the disputed territories, budget share, Peshmerga and energy by seeing where the situation is heading according to the positive role that the protesters and the influential entities will approve.
The Sunni Region and the Future of Federalism in Iraq
The establishment of Iraq in 1921 was built upon political, administrative centralization of a component, the central government did not wish and could not involve, especially the Kurds and Shiites. After 2003, and the way used to form government was suitable for a multi ethnic country. In the 2005 constitution, and despite ensuring the federalism of Iraq, it is still incomplete according to international standards, and it must be developed more in order to ensure the continuity of the political process.
The Idea of a Sunni Region: Reasons and Complications
Some of the Sunni political factions are thinking differently from what it was back in 2005 when the constitution was written and onwards when they were against the idea of federalism. Perhaps, feeling marginalized in the fields of economy, administration and security threats need decreasing the authority of the centre, and internal and external support are the main three reasons for the Arab Sunnis to think of forming a Sunni region.
On the other hand, most of the provinces where the Sunnis live are next to the Kurdistan Region and comparing the experience of the Kurdistan Region in reconstruction, services, security, and regional and international relations is not possible with the Sunni provinces. Therefore, this model is also another motive for them to think of a Sunni region with autonomous economic and security relations and to have an effective role in regional equations.
The formation of a region for the Sunni is not without troubles, among which are:
- Lack of consensus among the Sunnis especially on the formation of the region. The Sunni provinces have different views on the creation of a Sunni region (for a number of factors).
- Demographically and geopolitically, it is hard to establish a region based on sectarian background. The Sunni provinces except for Al Anbar, does not have a homogenous population. Kurds form a large part of Mosul and the presence of Kurds and Shiites in Salahuddin, and Diyala. Also, geographic, administrative, economic, and road connections among those four provinces are difficult at present.
- Politically, the Sunnis in addition to their internal issues and different demographic, social, and economic components, have external issues with others. It is hard for the Shiites to approve a united region for the Sunnis with a political influence. The sensitive geographic position of the Sunnis bordering Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran will cause trouble for Baghdad. Added to this is the US-Iran conflict, which will make the Sunni region issue more complicated and will create strategic, international, and security dimensions.
- From the economic perspective, a Sunni region does not have enough resources, therefore it needs support from Baghdad. If Sunnis do not find additional resources for their region, it will be hard to gain Baghdad’s support without political conditions. Especially given the fight with ISIS, the Sunni areas are almost completely destroyed and are in need for economic assistance.
- From the legal perspective. Despite the fact that each province or a number of provinces have the right to form a region, but practically speaking and due to the dissolution of provincial authorities and the current situation of the government, it is impossible to form a region now and any government will not go for approving such a step in the given conditions.
Kurds and a Sunni Region: Opportunities and Threats
The formation of a Sunni region will provide an opportunity for the Kurds to strengthen the federalism in Iraq and will reduce the anxiety of Kurds and will form a coalition for the demands of regions in the central government. By this, Kurds will play a better role in Baghdad and will gain more support in many cases such as the federal council, shares and financial powers, external and internal matters as well. Despite the positive points for a Sunni region, the issue of the disputed territories is the main trouble between the Kurds and Sunnis. If the Sunnis want to have political and social stability, then they should solve the borders issues with the Kurds and Shiites. The Kurdish areas in Kirkuk, Mosul, Salahuddin and Diyala and also with the Shiites in Salahuddin, Diyala, and Al Anbar will cause real obstacle to the formation of a Sunni region.
- The situation will remain as it is: the imbalance of Sunnis and the absence of a leader, strong and united discourse and the different views might cause this project to remain on papers only and the situation will continue as it is now.
- The formation of a Sunni region in one province: due to the specifications of a province, and the procedures will be easier. Also, due to less political issues regarding administrative borders and the presence of external support, it is possible that one of the Sunni provinces will organize itself as a Sunni region (Al Anbar first and Mosul will follow).
- Expanding the authority of the provinces: to prevent the spread of the idea of forming a region and to keep political control in the capital will have advantages for the central government. It will be good to give more authority to the Sunni provinces, which will result in an economic federation based on the provinces.
- The formation of one united Sunni region: Although it is hard to form such a region due to many factors, it is still a possible scenario. It is possible to form a region based on the economic and security rights. It is also not far from reality to have multiple provinces after the formation of the region in one province to follow and join it. But most of the steps depend on the future of US and Iran conflict and the political ability of the Sunni leaders, and the availability of internal and external support.
US Troop Withdrawal From Iraq
The decision to eliminate both Qasim Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Almohandis came shortly after the current situation which Iraq is going through; as chain events related to each other and will affect each other. The missile attacks of Hizbullah on the K1 military base in Kirkuk where the US forces are present and the causalities they left as well as the retaliation of the American forces targeting the Hizbullah bases in Syria, followed by attacks on the US embassy in the Green Zone by these militias, have all accelerated the violence and the conflict. All these made the Shiite factions at the Iraqi parliament to pass a bill on 5 January 2020 to expel American troops from Iraq. Although the presence of foreign militaries on Iraqi soil is owing to the liberation of Iraq on 9 April 2003, the Iraqi Government signed a security agreement with the United States, according to which most of the American forces in 2008-2011 were pulled out of Iraq during the Obama administration.
The presence of the American forces now goes back to 2014 when ISIS constituted a major threat to security, and as ISIS advanced towards Baghdad. Through its foreign ministry, Iraq requested the UN military assistance. This official request and the threats on international security were behind the international US-led coalition, including another 66 states.
US foreign policy after the assassination of Soleimani
Perhaps, the foreign policy’s rationale behind targeting Soleimani was to besiege and counter the expansionism of Iran led by Soleimani in the region. Although, some US foreign policy analysts have often considered Trump’s performance as unstable and chaotic, it appears that the decision to eliminate Soleimani met its objective in limiting Iranian and pro-Iranian influences in the region.
Scenarios and US options
After these events, as the US opponents have increased and have become more determined to oppose the United States, the choices of the US have become less. These choices could be the following:
- Relocation of the US forces: The United States has 13 military bases in Iraq. After the US forces were targeted, it seems that they need to reorganize their forces in terms of quality (combatants, special forces, guards, advisors) and relocate them over 4 bases. Notable locations would be the bases of Erbil airport, Kirkuk, Ayn al Asad, and Baghdad airport. Other options include establishing a patriot system and perhaps suspending trainings and reducing the number of its advisors in Iraq.
- Considering the west of Iraq as another option, and specifically Al Anbar province and strengthening the bases to better protect its forces as well as getting the support of the Sunni component.
Kurds and the withdrawal of the US forces
On 5 January 2020, and when the Iraqi parliament called for the expulsion of the US troops from the country, all Kurdish blocs boycotted the session. Although this has led to the negative impact within the Shiite political circles, the Kurdish government along with the presidency of the region have officially announced that the security risks to Iraq and the Kurdish region are still there and the presence of the foreign forces is essential.
The Kurdistan Region should deal with this case from two perspectives; the first one is the security one in which the United States should be treated as supportive forces and the other perspective is the political support for Kurdistan. Most of the research canters and think tanks in the United States suggest that the US forces should remain in Kurdistan. This is based on its determinants that Kurdistan is a safe place. On the other hand, Kurds have always been an ally of the Americans as they have an independent entity. This may lead the Americans to stay longer in the area. This entity probably becomes an independent state in the future and the Americans will support it. This option, however, has two challenges: The first one is internal challenges. This is because it is possible that the Iraqi government and the Shiite politics will think about the suspension of the ties politically and economically as they behaved after the 2017 referendum in which they mistreated the Kurdish region and even halted the international flights to the Kurdistan Region.
The second challenge is the regional pressure, particularly from Iram, on the Kurdistan Region. It is not easy for Kurdistan to maintain the balance of interests between the United States and Iran at the time Iran considers the Kurdistan Region as a military and strategic targets for itself.