Limits of an Alliance in Iraq Between Kurds & Sunni Arabs ‎ / Denise Natali

May 3, 2013 – AL MONITOR – The recent clashes between Iraqi forces and Sunni Arabs in Hawija reinforce Iraq’s growing sectarianism while creating new opportunities for a Kurdish-Sunni Arab alliance. Alongside shared anti-Maliki sentiments, Sunni Arabs are seeking their own autonomous region and are looking to the Kurdistan region as a model of security and economic development.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also needs Sunni Arab support from the disputed province of Ninevah, where it has claimed territory and oil fields, as part of its larger ambition to develop and independently export Kurdish crude oil.

Still, the growing conflict between Sunni and Shiite Arabs could create greater complications for the KRG by refocusing the disputed land issues on the Kurds and Sunni Arabs — who largely populate the territories — and not the KRG and Baghdad. The emergence of a Sunni Arab region or a strengthened Sunni Arab community could also pose greater challenges to the KRG’s nationalist agenda, particularly in delineating internal boundaries (Article 140). This territorial challenge, as well as competing nationalist agendas and the radicalization and spillover of Syrian politics, will ultimately check a KRG-Sunni Arab alliance. It will also require the KRG to maintain its Shiite ties to balance power and better assure Kurdish interests in Iraq.

In many ways, Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arabs are trying to minimize their historical divide and potentially work together. Immediately after the Hawija tensions, for instance, Sunni Arab tribal leaders publicly thanked Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, for allowing injured residents to be treated in Kurdish hospitals. Commercial ties between the communities are also expanding. Building on exchanges that existed during the Saddam Hussein era, particularly in Dohuk and Ninevah provinces, the KRG is providing electricity to some Ninevah populations and is negotiating energy deals with Ninevah Gov. Atheel al-Nujaifi. Turkey is using these issues and its contacts with Sunnis in Anbar and Ninevah to encourage an alliance with the Kurds. Yet, there are important limitations to how far the Kurdish-Sunni Arab relationship can go politically. Kurdish populations, in particular the older generation, are still deeply suspect of Sunni Arabs in Ninevah, most of whom were high-ranking Baathist officers during Saddam’s rule. They regard Sunni Arab gestures toward the KRG as part of a larger strategy to manipulate the Kurds and consolidate power and ownership of the disputed territories.

Both groups also have little in common on key nationalist issues. While the KRG remains committed to implementing Article 140, de-Baathification laws and the 2005 Constitution, most Sunni Arab groups are opposed. These distinctions are evident among the Anbar demonstrators who are also displaying the Iraqi flag used by the Saddam regime as a symbol of their resistance — a symbol that is anathema to Kurdish communities. In fact, many Kurds think that their bigger problems remain with the Sunni Arabs and that their more natural allies in Iraq are the Shiites, who also suffered under Saddam and Sunni Baathist leaders and are not populous in the disputed territories.

A Kurdish-Sunni Arab political alliance is further checked by Kurdish nationalist ideology. Loyalty to the Kurdish nation is still regarded and employed politically as not “selling out” to Baghdad and Arabs. Kurdish nationalism is also ethnically defined and highly salient among young populations, most of whom do not know Arabic and have no desire to learn it, despite attempts to construct a “Kurdistani” identity based on territory. These sentiments matter because they help define the parameters of Kurdish elite behavior,particularly in light of the upcoming KRG election. One of the reasons why the Kurdish Change Movement (Goran) lost some local support in the last Iraqi election was because its leaders reached out to Arab communities in the disputed territories, which was perceived as undermining Kurdish nationalist interests.

The Kurdish-Sunni Arab dynamic will also be shaped by events and outcomes in Syria. The rise of radical Sunni Muslim opposition groups that are spilling into Iraq raises new concerns for the KRG’s own border security as well as its support for Syrian Kurds. Rising Sunni Arab power in Syria could empower Sunni Arabs in Iraq and challenge Iraqi-Kurdish claims to the disputed territories and its resources. This is why Barzani may have welcomed victims of the recent fighting to the Kurdistan region for treatment, but KRG officials insist on preserving their ties with Shiite groups and remaining neutral in the Maliki-Sunni Arab conflict.

Indeed, as the sectarian conflict intensifies and Maliki continues to undermine Sunni Arab interests, he will provide a more existential threat to Sunni Arabs that will temporarily displace their political issues with the Kurds. Differences over the disputed territories will likely be seconded to Sunni Arab aims to undermine Maliki, realize autonomy and economically develop their own region. These aims could encourage further exchanges between the KRG and Sunni Arabs, particularly in commerce, service provision and revenue generation. Still without agreement on key nationalist issues, particularly the boundaries of Iraq and the Kurdistan region, these ties will remain politically precarious and subject to future land disputes.

Dr. Denise Natali is the Minerva Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies INSS, National Defense University and the author of The Kurdish Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post Gulf War Iraq. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.