During a December visit to Germany by Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, serious internal disturbances were taking place back in Iraqi Kurdistan. Demonstrations and clashes with law enforcement took place mainly in and around the cities of Sulaymaniyah and Halabja, territories dominated by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran Party.
Attacks on the local offices of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) were widespread throughout the region. The clashes led to casualties, and the scale of the unrest led the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) to voice its concerns.
The unrest is in part due to declining in oil prices and the ongoing conflict with the Iraqi army and Shiite militia. The latter led to the loss of Kirkuk in October, with its rich oil reserves, and was accompanied by not only a shortfall in funds from the Iraqi budget, but also the growing number of refugees from Syria and other parts of Iraq fleeing ISIS. These circumstances have caused the deterioration of Iraqi Kurdistan’s economy, which has only exacerbated the social and political crisis in the region.
One of the immediate causes that provoked the civil conflict were salary cuts and the untimely payment of salaries to civil servants. Other significant factors include the frustration caused by the failure of the September referendum on independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan, although there were speculations that former President Masoud Barzani scheduled the poll as a distraction from the region’s social and economic problems, rather than as a viable path to Kurdish independence.
Since the KDP has been the main target of the public’s dissatisfaction, it is highly probable that the PUK and the Gorran Party will use the situation to consolidate their respective positions. There is a serious threat emerging for the fragile compromise that has been supported by the political forces of Iraqi Kurdistan in recent years. So, on 20 December, Gorran party members decided to leave the KRG coalition government, while at the same time withdrawing from their union with the PUK.
Undoubtedly, there will be attempts by external actors to exploit this intra-Kurdish conflict. Prime Minister Barzani has already claimed that, in his opinion, the agendas of external actors should be expected as long as the economic woes and political rifts persist in Iraqi Kurdistan. Baghdad could be one of the initial beneficiaries, because the schisms between Kurdish leaders could indicate an incapacity to lead their own country.
In addition, the weakening of the Kurdistan Regional Government could help strengthen the federal government in Baghdad and thus the Iraqi state as a whole. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, for example, was quick to proclaim that the Iraqi central authorities would protect the Kurdish protesters if the leadership of Southern Kurdistan resorts to force.
For obvious reasons, discrediting Southern Kurdistan’s ability to self-govern is beneficial to neighboring Iran and Turkey, for both possess considerable Kurdish minorities.
If Western countries adhere to a purely pragmatic approach they could also benefit from these latest developments. The most active phase of the fight against ISIS is over, and the Kurdish Peshmerga have done their part in the conflict. Along with this, the difficult economic situation in Iraqi Kurdistan increases the importance of Western states as donors, and would ultimately mean an autonomous Kurdish state would be more dependent on external financial contributions.
Some observers hope that the situation will somehow be alleviated with the 2018 Kurdish elections. However, it is not clear how a change in the region’s leading political parties could amend the difficult economic situation in the short term.
Iraqi Kurdistan already experienced a civil war in the 1990s. While the existing reasons for the current predicament persist, one can only hope that the recent clashes do not escalate to military violence.
 Also referred to as ‘Southern Kurdistan’.