Being small actors in a great game of regional powers will put limits on Kurdish ambitions, analysts say.
Sulaimania, Iraq – For the Kurds of the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimania, the word “qayran” – shortage – has become something of a mantra these days.
They use it for just about any inconvenience, any frustration, brought on by the ongoing war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, whether it’s the repeated delays in civil servant wages, the absence of customers in the bazaar or the loss of jobs.
Touted as the final showdown between the coalition forces and ISIL, the battle for Mosul rages while in Sulaimania there is a growing sense of despondency and apathy. Child beggars, allegedly part of an organised network, swarm the streets. Vehicle after vehicle bears a number plate from a war-ravaged Iraqi province.
The gloom and doom drives in daily from Anbar, Salahuddin, Diyala or Mosul.
Flanked by hills and mountains, Sulaimania residents don’t sense an imminent threat from the spillover of hostilities in Mosul, or even from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, about 100 kilometres away.
Of greater concern is the stagnant economy and the imminent arrival of 5,000 internally displaced families from a “liberated” Mosul. The city is also gripped with rumours of the possible infiltration of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” – that is fighters belonging to ISIL, also known as ISIS, entering the city in the guise of displaced people.
“We have seen many reports on Kurdish TV that the Peshmerga have caught ISIL fighters at checkpoints, trying to escape wearing ladies’ abayas,” says Galawizh Hussein, an office manager in private sector.
“It’s not so easy to roll a tank into Sulaimania because of the mountains,” she says. “What worries many people here is that we are under pressure by the international community to compromise our security.”
Iraq’s Kurdistan Region has maintained near fortress-like control over who enters the cities under its jurisdiction since a no-fly zone was applied after the first Gulf War in 1992. Aside from a period of infighting among the two Kurdish factions – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party – which ended in 1996, the semi-autonomous region has not seen war for two decades.
It's not so easy to roll a tank into Sulaimania, because of the mountains. What worries many people here is that we are under pressure by the international community to compromise our security.
With the growing refugee crisis following “decisive” battles such as Mosul, the Kurdish authorities are pressed to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people fleeing hardship and persecution elsewhere in Iraq.
There are currently about 1.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) living throughout the Kurdistan Region and that is in addition to the 250,000 Syrian refugees it has taken in since 2012. But the Kurdistan regional government has come under fire for applying what some aid groups have called “discriminatory” measures in vetting the IDPs.
“You have to understand; some of these people fleeing, they don’t even claim to be fleeing ISIL, they say they are fleeing the Shia militias,” says Hussein. “For these people, ISIL isn’t the enemy.”
There is also the fear that this war will never end. Some worry that, whatever the outcome of the Mosul showdown, the Kurds stand to lose.
“If ISIL is defeated, there will be another even angrier force that comes to fill the vacuum,” says another Sulaimania resident.
At Chalak’s Place, where Sulaimania’s artists and bohemians gather nightly to talk politics, life and arts, the chic cafe’s proprietor is pessimistic.
As scenes from the 1942 film Casablanca flicker on a giant screen behind him, Chalak Salar, 43, says he has never seen a nation so depressed. He accuses the Kurdish regional government for incompetency and blames it for stripping the Kurds of their passion and spirit.
“The regional government has mismanaged things so badly that they’ve made us forget about our Kurdish soul … People here once had the passion to die for their homeland, but today they have become apathetic,” said Salar.
“I see it on every single face I see every day. They come to my cafe, artists, filmmakers and teachers. They are all depressed. The ones who have money, they’re lucky. They used to travel once a month, but now they travel twice a month, maybe even three times a month – just to get out. I am losing money big time. We are earning 50-60 percent less than last year,” he added, channeling Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine.
Chalak’s Place habitue, Bavi Yassine, a 28-year-old filmmaker, has been working on a documentary for the past three years on “home, identity and illusions”. She says the ongoing Mosul offensive has compelled her to hold off on the completion of the film.
“As a people, we are not in a very healthy state of mind … We are losing out on our identity because of the many illogical wars going on. In 2003, people expected great liberation and a great state for the Kurds. But now you see the young generation – those born in the 70s, 80s and 90s – thinking of leaving this country at a time when this country is building camps to welcome IDPs,” said Yassine.
Shwan Attoof, 44, an actor and filmmaker from Sulaimania, says there is always a madman or group of mad men whom the West backs for its own interests and turns a blind eye to their atrocities.
“Before it was Saddam Hussein – they said it was ‘Iraq’s internal affairs’ when he gassed the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 and the West did nothing to intervene,” says Attoof whose short film “Mal oo kleel” (Home and key) was screened at Cannes last year. “Then came al-Qaeda and now it’s ISIL. It’s no different.”
He adds: “Today we are in the worst position ever – our situation, our economy. If you say anything about what the Iranians are doing, they close the border with you. Same with Turkey. And if you start talking about Kurdish independence, the Iraqi central government starts to cut your budget. And in all this, we are the ones doing the fighting on the ground with ISIL, and still the West tells us you have to go through Baghdad for your weapons.”
Is it “qayran” – shortage? Not quite for Attoof.
“The worse it gets, the more productive we are as artists,” he says, half-joking. His next project is a film about Yazidi women. “It’s the best time to be creative.”