Institutional development in Northeast Syria: Lessons from Iraqi Kurdistan and Kosovo

After more than a decade of conflict, institutions in the autonomously governed region of Northeast Syria (NES) are beginning to develop. Some years previously, Iraqi Kurdistan and Kosovo were in comparable positions. This paper analyzes institutions in NES, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Kosovo, providing recommendations as the Autonomous Administration attempts to earn local and international legitimacy.
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Executive Summary

This study is a comparison between the institutional governance structures in Northeast Syria (NES), the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), and Kosovo. Although clearly distinct regions, the development of KRI and Kosovo as post-conflict autonomous regions yield valuable lessons for NES. Drawing on four indicators, our recommendations can be summarized as follows:

Public Sector

The emergence of the public sector is a positive development for the Autonomous Administration (AA). There are, however, two important developments in KRI and Kosovo that ought to be observed:
➢ NES must establish a merit-based, standardized procedure for employment in the public sector to halt the exponential growth of the sector and aid perceptions of legitimacy.
➢ The public sector growth must be counterbalanced with investment in the private sector and ought to be stimulated on the local level.

Legislative Branch and Elections

Elections for a legislative branch are yet to take place in NES. For a successful and legitimate governance structure to take hold, this is the most viable path. Its process and structure must therefore be carefully managed.
➢ A system of representation should be adopted to reflect the ethnic diversity within the region, preferably one of proportional representation based on the local councils.
➢ Monitoring of elections and clear vote-counting procedures will be essential to ensure trust in the electoral system.

Service Provision

Providing sufficient services to the population of NES has been hindered by infrastructure damaged during the conflict. Steps must be made to begin to repair these in both the oil and agricultural sectors. Considering these repairs, the provision of energy, education, and the development of agriculture could be a strong source of legitimacy for NES.
➢ The use of oil for domestic energy production will provide a source in lieu of funding for renewable alternatives.
➢ NES’ fertile lands are to be harnessed with a focus on domestic production, and horizontal integration of production will ensure strong returns to scale.
➢ Education must be a focus of NES’ funding to achieve economic development in the long run; funding permitting, a unified Arab-Kurdish curriculum should also be sought.

Funding, Budgets, and Transparency

The publication of the AA’s budget in April 2021 was a strong step towards transparent and legitimate governance, but more can be done on this front. Difficulty also arises due to the lack of international recognition to enable trade deals, highlighting the need for a domestic focus.
➢ Dependence on oil for government revenue should be eroded; investment in agriculture offers a viable path for diversification.
➢ Transparent accounting must be prioritized over illegitimate revenue-raising to avoid exacerbating local and international mistrust.

Project Goal

The goal of our project is to analyze models of governance enacted by autonomous administrations in post-conflict regions. Through our research of institutions in KRI and Kosovo, we aim to underline historic rebel governance paths (and their weaknesses) as the AA in Syria develops. Our paper compares fundamental aspects of institutions in these three regions: the public sector, legislative branch, and elections, service provision, funding, and transparency. Through an analysis of these indicators, we aim to
highlight the methods through which autonomous administrations develop in the aftermath of violent conflict to serve as lessons for NES.

A further aim of this project is to facilitate IMPACT’s work in the region. IMPACT’s main objective is to create an inclusive, legitimate, and good governance model that offers a constructive role in resolving the Syrian crisis and plays a positive role in the region. Our research paper should be viewed as part of the larger goal of strengthening dialogues between Kurdish and Arab stakeholders in NES as the de facto state develops.

Historical Overviews


NES refers to the area east of the Euphrates river in Syria. It is made up of three main provinces, Raqqa, Aljazeera, and Deir Ezzor. This region was historically one of Syria’s richest in natural resources but this natural wealth did not translate into high standards of living for its inhabitants even before the war.

From the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Kurds, alongside Arabs, took an active part in the movement to overthrow the Assad regime. NES was the largest region in Syria to sustain divergence from the regime post-revolution. Moreover, it played a crucial role in the defeat of ISIS in late 2017.

Since the fall of ISIS, the region has been ruled by the Kurdish minority in a de facto state named the Autonomous Administration (AA). Despite being made up of two-thirds Arabs, Kurdish parties have maintained control over the region. The AA announced its federal project on March 17, 2016. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) was the initiative owner and is still the backbone of the AA, which consists of the following parties: Democratic
Union Party, Kurdish Left Party in Syria, Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party, Kurdistani Liberal Union Party, Green Party of Kurdistan, the Communist Party of Kurdistan, and the Kurdish Democratic Peace Party in Syria.

From time to time, new small parties appear while others disappear. They seem to be auxiliary parties for the PYD. A significant international military presence has been apparent in the region since 2011. This has since been declining, although the region is still heavily militarized. In October 2015, the PYD, and different components in the region, formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance. SDF declared that they aim to establish a secular, democratic and federal Syria, following the example of the revolution of Rojava in northern Syria.


The development of the KRI’s institutions can be broken down into three main historical phases. However, it should be noted that the Kurdish question has been part of the Iraqi national discourse for more than a century. These three phases should be viewed as a comprehensive account of Kurds in Iraq, but the unfolding of a much larger history.


On May 19th, 1992, the Kurdistan Front held its first parliamentary and presidential elections, officially founding the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The two political parties that won this election, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) still
dominate KRG’s legislative process today. Fighting broke out between the two parties in 1994, leading to war that continued until a ceasefire in 1997. An uneasy reconstruction period took place from 1997, involving the stabilizing of regional institutions.


The second phase of KRI’s history is marked by a series of successful legitimization efforts under the backdrop of the US-led Iraqi war. The KRG was officially recognized by Iraq in its constitution in 2005. Economically, the region’s oil power earned it a certain degree of financial success, enabling the development of its institutions and granting it some legitimacy from neighbors like Turkey. This revenue helped fund service provision in KRI. Its provision of essential services soon outstripped Iraq itself. In 2017, the governorate organized a referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq. The KRI voted decisively for independence, but the referendum was not seen as legitimate by the Iraqi central government nor by the international community. This compromised KRG’s institutional capacity.


Institutions in the past five years in KRI have been shaped by the 1) fallout of the 2017 referendum and 2) geopolitical power struggles in the region following the defeat of ISIS. Tension following the independence election has caused Iraq to slow down the economic development of KRI’s institutions in fear of it becoming too powerful. The security situation in the region, plus gains rivals like Iran and Turkey made in the defeat of ISIS in Syria have hampered the development of services in KRI. 


Throughout the past century, Kosovo’s history was marked by conflict with its neighbor, Serbia. During the Yugoslav era, Kosovo was an autonomous region and possessed significant power to act within the Yugoslav republics. Resenting the growing authority of Kosovo in the region, Serbian communist leader Slobodan Milosevic began to put more pressure on Kosovo by withdrawing its autonomous status, thus rendering it once more part of Serbia. Compounded by the oppression of Kosovar Albanians, through both institutional means (closure of Albanian language schools) and violence, protest movements rose which, although originally peaceful, turned to violence with the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

During the Kosovo War in 1998-99, violence escalated on both sides between the two ethnic groups in the region Albanians and Serbians (90% – <10%). This prompted intervention from NATO forces and finally in 1999, the imposition of the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK). Government structures were created with the strong influence of the UN, with elections hosted in 2001, 2004, and 2007. The UNMIK has collaborated with the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) since 2008, whose presence is still felt in the country. EULEX provides 1400 police officers, 50 judges and prosecutors, and 20 customs officers.

In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Elections were held in 2009 although resulting in a vote of no confidence the following year in then-President Hashim Thaci. Early elections were therefore arranged for December 2010 which, like elections since, were the subject to allegations of fraud. Tensions from the pre-independence era remain, with the majority of elite politicians being former KLA members, and tensions are particularly high in the north where a majority Serb population reside. Combined with the fraught election cycles, the judiciary has achieved little in the way of perceived legitimacy due to deep-rooted ethnic loyalties after being administered through “a complex web of central and regional courts”, and despite considerable support from EULEX. The strength of the institutions established by UNMIK has therefore been called into question.

Public Sector


NES has a large public sector, with between 200,000-300,000 employees on the AA’s payroll as of late-2019. As the institutions are in the very early stages of development, a large portion of this public sector comprises the military. As of late 2019, approximately 100,000 of the AA’s civil servants are part of the armed forces, employed either in the Asayish police force or the SDF. Since then, the AA has been expanding its public sector. The 2021 budget, published in late April, promised 7,000 new public jobs for the region. Public sector employees receive SYP 60,000-70,000 per month (approximately $100). Some of these employees, however, are also still receiving monthly salaries from the regime. This is particularly the case on the outskirts of NES, where some workers cross to regime-controlled territories to pick up wages.

The public sector in Kurdish-controlled territories has been known for its inclusion of women. For example, the position of chairperson of high-ranking boards, such as the Raqqa Chamber of Commerce, has been occupied by women.


Iraqi Kurdistan is reliant on a very large public sector. Pre-2005, its bureaucracy was dependent on the old Ba’athist system. New generations of civil servants were gearing up to take over but weren’t successful in these early days. Between 2007 and 2012, more than 80% of new jobs in the region were in the public sector. As of 2016, the state accounted for more than 60% of total employment.

Positions in the public sector are highly sought after, but difficult to obtain without connections. In a survey analyzing factors for recruitment, over a quarter of civil servants in the KRI cited political party affiliation (27%), nearly one in five (18%) said family and friendship networks and 6% said tribal affiliation.” Due to a lack of standardized selection process, informal procedures pervade the recruitment process in the KRG. Public positions and “exceptional pensions” are often offered to members of the ruling party above merit.

Despite its breadth, the civil service is not a major source of government revenue. The scale of this sector seems to be highly costly for the administration. Employee accountability is varied, and supervisors have incentives to hire more staff than they need. Some have cited an issue with “ghost employees,” where supervisors hire staff that do not come to work and split their wages in half with them. In general, public sector salaries are not high. Delays in employee payments are frequent, posing an acute problem given the size of the public sector.

Although the growth of the KRI’s public sector is unsustainable, it has not been slowing down. It has been argued that the size of the civil service is even threatening the financial collapse of the entire region.


Public administration is also the largest employment sector in Kosovo. Recruitment, like in the KRI, is generally seen as corrupt, with surveys showing that it is deemed “unlikely” that individuals can rise through the ranks on merit alone. The most feasible way to enter the civil service is through party membership. One study revealed that 60% of Kosovo’s citizens strongly believe that voting and employment are related, following the logic of “I vote for you and you employ me”.

A further study in 2016 showed that more than three-quarters of Kosovo’s population believe that family connections, bribes, party alliances, and other non-merit factors are the biggest drives of public sector employment. Although there is some drive to tackle this kind of corruption in the civil service, the courts have been reluctant to prosecute political elites for abuses of power.


The public sector in NES is large and still growing. While this is a promising sign for the development of formal institutions in the region, lessons can be learned from problems pertaining to public sector growth in KRI and Kosovo. One of the most pressing concerns in both of these regions is the prevalence of corruption in public sector employment. In both KRI and Kosovo, party loyalty is known to be a major driver of elusive job attainment.

NES is not currently exempt from this selective recruitment system. Like Kosovo and KRI, no formal structures are in place preventing certain groups from entering or succeeding in the public sector. Behind this, a shadow structure prevails in the PYD. Informal norms have seen that the highest-ranking positions in NES are almost completely occupied by Kurds. This poses a distinct problem for NES that is not apparent in either KRI or Kosovo; the majority representation in civil service is the minority ethnic group.

As it develops, the AA should ensure diversity in its public sector, avoiding recruitment based on perceived loyalty, be it by party affiliation or ethnicity. The integration of the Arab majority into the public sector is very likely to increase the local legitimacy of the institution. Moreover, the administration’s inclusion of women in its high-ranking position has earned it some (albeit small) recognition in the international community. Continuing to diversify the civil service through the inclusion of the Arab population should augment local and international legitimacy.

While developing its public sector, the AA would be advised to build a robust merit-based recruitment system. Due to the neglect of the region by the Government of Syria (GoS) and the conflict of the past ten years, few public administration employees acquired the necessary competencies. The absence of merit-based recruitment in both the KRI and Kosovo has led to the saturation of underqualified civil servants in the public sector and exacerbated corruption. With the Kosovan public administration comprising its largest
sector, corruption within it entails a pervasion of its political economy at large.

It has also inadvertently created the over-expansion of this sector. The lack of a standardized recruitment process in KRI for instance meant that managers were free to hire as they liked, leading to vast over-recruitment, salaries of which the KRG were at times unable to pay.

NES is currently forced to create jobs within the AA itself as its private sector is negligible. The budget released in 2021, for instance, promised 7,000 public jobs. This kind of job creation is not intrinsically an issue, and the development of a stable bureaucracy is an important component of governance-building. The unfurling of similar circumstances in the KRI, for instance, shows that public sector expansion cannot be limitless. Through its excess administrative levels, the AA is showing early signs of this issue.

Resources in the coming years would be better used by investing in the private sector, be it through stimulating local businesses or even in the long run, attracting private foreign investment. It is unlikely that it will attract wealthy foreign corporations in the near future. For now, creating spaces for local businesses to grow could be a more productive investment than hiring civil servants. Private and public sector development are not mutually exclusive, however. Rebuilding infrastructure for small businesses to set up could take some immediate pressure off government revenue, allowing the bureaucracy to grow at a more steady pace than KRI. The strong sense of community in NES, coupled with the power of local councils, provides a viable local economy alternative to a top-down approach.

Legislative branch and elections


On December 9, 2015, the PYD along with several Arab, Assyrian, Syriac, and other formations founded the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing under the SDF which declared the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava with the aim to establish a secular, democratic and federal Syria. 

The SDC constitutes the political umbrella and supreme authority for the Autonomous Administration of the entire NES. Functioning as a legislative branch, the SDC is the political umbrella for both the AA and the SDF. Local councils are prevalent, with each branch of the SDC having its own legislative council. It is constituted of many different ethnic bodies, each body has one representative. There is also a gender quota of 40% for all institutions and organizations in the autonomous administration. The representatives are appointed and not elected, putting the transparency and the separation of powers in NES into question.


The elections of 1992 marked the founding of the KRI with de facto autonomy. The race was tight between the two main parties. “The KDP gained 50.22% of total votes and the PUK 49.78%. Quotas were put in place for minorities such as the Christians, however, the 105 seats at the time were definitively ruled by the KDP and the PUK. 

When the warring ended in 1997, support for the parties was divided along geographical lines. The KDP controlled Erbil and Dohuk in the North and the PUK controlled Sulaimani in the South. The hegemony of these parties continued until 2013 when the Gorran party overtook the PUK, becoming, for a time, the region’s second-largest party.

Today, The Kurdistan Parliament-Iraq comprises 111 MPs, from 16 parties. The parliament requires a quota of at least 30% female MPs, and 34 women are currently serving. Elections in the region are freely held and are considered to be a more democratic institution than the Republic of Iraq.

However, democracy in the region is imperfect. Fissures in the democratic system surfaced when President Masoud Barzani extended his term past the parliament’s wishes. Barzani was elected president in 2005 and re-elected in 2009. The unstable security situation during the rise of ISIS caused parliament to extend its term by two years in 2013. Barzani sought another extension in 2015, which was rejected by parliament by and large due to opposition by the Gorran party. Parliament closed down due to this controversy, and Barzani remained president until the 2017 independence elections.


The Kosovar Assembly is a multi-party representative parliament, with 120 seats directly elected by secret ballot. There are 120 seats in total, with 20 reserved for the representation of non-Albanian communities: 10 are reserved for Serb parties, and 10 for other ethnic minority communities. There also exists a quota of 30% for female representatives within the Assembly; this is currently being exceeded, with 38 women MPs, two more than the required 36. Elections are to be carried out and monitored by the Central Election Commission (CEC).

After the declaration of independence in 2008, the first parliamentary elections were held in Kosovo on the 12th of December 2010. These followed a vote of no confidence in the then-President Fatmir Sejdiu and were therefore called early, leaving little time for substantial preparation or guarantees of quality.

Monitored by the CEC, numerous CSOs, and officials from the EU and the US, the elections were originally perceived as fair by the international community, with the EU even congratulating Kosovo on their success. This notion of success dissipated within days when claims of fraud emerged, suggested by the doubled turnout in the municipalities of Skenderaj and Glogovac and corroborated by footage of election officials doctoring ballots. Consequently, re-runs and re-counts were held in several provinces. As a result, the election result was only finalized on 30th January 2011.

Further questions were asked of the legitimacy of the 2010 elections as a result of the participation of Kosovan Serbs. Capitalizing on the ethnic tensions in the province of Mitrovica, in the north of Kosovo, Belgrade applied pressure to boycott the general elections resulting in a turnout of 48% in these Serb majority areas. The boycott was observed in the extreme in the municipality of Leposavic whose turnout was as low as 1.5%. However, it is suggested that Serbs living in more isolated regions in the south of Kosovo took a “more pragmatic view of participation,” indicating a potential shift.

Subsequent elections have seen similar allegations, and have likewise been marred by allegations of ballot stuffing and double voting. The 2014 election calls to address this has been focused on minimizing conditional voting, therefore allowing the CEC to publish a voter list six months prior to the election so that citizens can confirm their voting status prior to the campaign periods. Further, there are calls to make the recounting of votes a fundamental requirement, in order to expedite the election process and to reduce the likelihood of manipulation and subsequent complaints. Lastly, it has been suggested to eliminate postal votes due to the potential for double voting.


For the institutions of a region to obtain perceived legitimacy, the representation of its citizens is important. So far, NES has not hosted elections for positions in the SDC; positions have been appointed, not elected. There is also no clear separation of powers among legislative, executive, and judicial powers.

Holding inclusive democratic elections and separating powers is the path for NES towards legitimate institutions. The AA’s total territory should be included in this vote, as currently, the administrative levels for each local council have their own legislative body, causing unnecessary inefficiency. This is, of course, complicated by the fact that many factions do not recognize each other, a problem that did not exist in KRI, even at the height of the civil war.

Ethnic tensions could pose a problem for a democratic assembly in NES. In KRI, the strong Kurdish majority are duly represented in government; nonetheless, seats in parliament are assigned to minority groups. Likewise in Kosovo, 20 seats of the 120 available are reserved for minority ethnic groups. In constructing a legislative body for NES, this system of reserved minority seats is a possible model; it would in theory permit for representation of both Arabs and Kurds within the parliament and therefore obtain legitimacy. However, in both of the comparison regions, their legislative institutions were designed and are maintained by the ethnic majority groups, Kurds and Kosovar Albanians respectively. Herein, the application of this system to NES confronts a fundamental challenge: power is currently in the hands of Kurdish-majority parties who are less likely to agree to design a legislature with themselves as the minority. As a result, this could be seen as a long-term goal for the region as ethnic tensions are addressed alternatively in peacebuilding measures seeking mutual cooperation.

Alternatives to this could be found in a system of local elections with proportional representation. Building on the system of local governance currently in place in NES, local elections could entail a more inclusive legislative body. The success of this system is subject to the constraint that ethnic communities correspond to geographical boundaries, and where this assumption holds, the interests of minority ethnic groups will be represented in the parliament. If pursued, it is important to consider the geographical divisions that KRG experienced following the 1992 elections, even within the Kurdish population. It is also important to note that the issue of the Kosovar Serbian boycott of elections, and likewise the Turkmen boycott in KRI, will likely be avoided in NES. The Arab population is more closely affiliated with the AA than the Assad regime, therefore diminishing the likelihood of their observing a boycott.

However, if tensions worsen between Kurds and Arabs in NES, the possibility of this happening becomes more likely; if this did occur, the legitimacy of the legislature would of course be thoroughly undermined reinforcing the importance of dialogue efforts targeting ethnic divisions in the region.

Similarly, it would be a strong development if NES were to follow KRI and Kosovo in maintaining inclusive gender quotas of a minimum of a third representation within the parliament. The positive results of this have been confirmed through continued female representation in Kosovo and the election of former president Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, the second female leader in Kosovo post-war; NES would do well to follow its example. As NES currently exceeds this gender quota, it is likely to continue to maintain this progressive representation.

When they take place, monitoring the elections will be very important. After years of conflict and the absence of rule of law, Kosovo’s elections post-independence has been rife with fraud. Similarly, elections were the cause for further conflict in KRI in the 90s. The procedural aspect of elections in NES will therefore be very important. In this, we recommend that the experience of Kosovo, in particular, be considered. Therefore, in an attempt to establish legitimacy for the elections, external and possibly international monitoring of the elections will be necessary, and making the recounting of ballots a fundamental requirement in the processing of results. Further, an electoral register ought to be established in due time before the elections are planned to take place, ideally 6 months; this will allow those registered in the wrong location to amend it and to reduce the possibility for double voting. The lack of availability of the civil register and the large IDP population pose difficulties to this, but progress on this front will greatly facilitate electoral legitimacy.

Service Provision


Considering the security situation in the region, the Autonomous Administration has largely been successful in providing basic services to its populace. These services are tightly controlled by the PYD and have been a key factor in building local legitimacy.


Services such as electricity, water, fuel, gas, but some services remain under the control of the GoS, resulting in overlaps.


In most cases, Kurds and Arabs are educated separately. One major problem with the education sector is that none of NES’ educational institutions and certificates are recognized by entities outside NES, including the Syrian Regime.  This poses many challenges for people studying inside NES and it limits the interconnectivity of the region with the rest of the world.

Civil registry

The civil registry still belongs to the GoS’s Ministry of Interior. This means that every time a citizen of NES or even a Syrian refugee outside the Syrian territory is in need of an official birth certificate, passport renewal, marriage registration, he or she has to request it from the civil registry of the Government of Syria. 


NES is abundant in natural resources, including oil, cotton, and wheat. Government austerity measures since the late-1980s significantly impaired this sector, harming the economy in the NES. Pre-2011, the region was the source of more than 80% of the regime’s oil production and around two-thirds of its cereal production. During the war, much of the infrastructure needed to capitalize on these natural resources including oil equipment, irrigation systems, etc were destroyed. This lack of utilizable infrastructure has further problematized service provision for the AA. Investment by the de facto government has focused on the restoration of infrastructure that was destroyed during the war.

External factors

The siege that surrounds NES limits the resources and supply coming to the region. Most of the resources come through GoS-controlled territories with supplies often decreasing or stopping altogether. Some of the supply comes originally from Turkey and enters NES through KRG, which is very expensive. In addition, the quality of the resources is inferior as the electricity in the region often shuts down and the water supply in Hasakah, where up to 1 million people live, has been cut off by Turkey in the past.


The people of the KRI are provided with relatively effective essential services that usually outdo services provided by the Iraqi central government.


The number of hours KRI residents can use electricity has grown from approximately two hours per day in 2007 to around 17 hours and 8 minutes by 2019. Energy is provided through oil.


Public education is free throughout Iraq and compulsory until grade 6. The KRG has higher levels of educational attainment than the Iraqi central government, with children required to attend school until grade 9. In spite of the requirement, many children do not complete their education to this level. In 2013, the primary school completion rate was 65%. Relative to neighboring countries, however, KRI’s education system performs well.

Civil registry

Every administrative district in the Republic of Iraq has one or more civil registration offices, where citizens can register marriages, births, deaths, etc. As of 2011, there are 30 such offices in Iraqi Kurdistan. The system is centralized but data is processed through parallel routes i.e. vital statistics go directly to the Ministry of Health and civil registration goes to the Ministry of the Interior. Since 2013, the Iraqi central government has begun a process of digitizing its records. The extent to which this has been achieved in KRI is as of yet, unclear.


One major internal challenge for service provision in KRI is the dissonance between natural wealth and the proportion of imported goods. In tandem with the Iraqi central government, the KRG is heavily reliant on food imports. It is estimated about 50% of Iraq’s food in 2020 was imported from abroad.  Agricultural land represents about 42.5% of the total area of the KRI, of which 87.6% is rain-fed (37.2% of the region) and 12.4% is irrigated (5.3% of the region’s land).

The combination of the Ba’athist regime’s violence and subsequent internal conflict saw the effective decimation of the agricultural sector in the region. Despite this natural richness, the KRG relies on imports for food. In 2007, for example, KRG imported 65% of its total food consumption while producing 50% of Iraq’s wheat, 40% of its barley, 98% of its tobacco, 30% of Iraq’s cotton, and 50% of its fruit. Since then, this discrepancy has become even more pronounced. The expansion of KRG’s public sector has seen aggravated agricultural lethargy, including the underutilization of water assets. In spite of the region’s wealth and diversification of water resources, government mismanagement provokes some concern for potential water scarcities in the future.

External factors

External forces significantly impair the quality of service provision in KRI. Between 1991-2003, the cross-border movement of goods between KRI and Iran helped the region provide effective services, but relations could not develop fruitfully due to the “deep political fissure” between Iraq and Iran.

From 2003 onwards, the security situation in Iraq hampered the KRG’s ability to deliver effective services, not least of which due to financial reasons. Iraq received more than 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and Syrian refugees. This put significant pressure on KRG’s already strained budget. To provide for this new cohort, the KRG utilized its oil contracts while also borrowing. Public expenditure was cut and salaries for civil servants were withheld. The government was aided by the UN and NGOs here, however, who provided support in refugee camps. Continuing international tensions are likely to be as significant a challenge in KRG service provision as domestic issues, relations with Iran not least of all.



The provision of energy is limited. Relying almost exclusively on two old coal power plants, the country often suffers from power outages resulting in citizens using firewood and coal for heating and cooking. The sector itself is administered by the government and is now requesting support from international donors for the improvement of this system towards a more sustainable future. Progress has been made in this domain in the past few years, with a growing renewable energy sector.


Education is administered through a system of decentralized governance. It is provided by the state from the ages of 6 to 15 during which time it is also mandatory. Historically, education has been divided along ethnic lines, which has deepened divisions. In municipalities and communities where Albanian is not the spoken language, students are taught in their community languages, as is their legal entitlement under Kosovar law. This multi-language education system has seen positive developments in most areas, with the greatest difficulty coming from the Serbian community whose curricula are more closely aligned with Belgrade.

To comply with the European educational framework, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology undertook reforms to increase the years of compulsory schooling from 8 to 9; this will help to obtain recognition for Kosovar education within the EU and further Kosovo in its attempt at European integration.

Nonetheless, education in Kosovo is thoroughly underfunded and has resulted in Kosovo’s students being ranked among the bottom three of the 72 countries participating in the Programme for International Students Assessment. This has hindered economic and political development and is one of the key focus areas for international development.

Civil Registry

The civil registry in Kosovo is centralized and has been the subject of significant international development funding, in particular from the EU and US. It is also supported by the EULEX mission in Kosovo and is in the process of being digitized.


Agriculture makes up 12% of the annual GDP of Kosovo, with 53% of its total land being dedicated to agriculture. This sector provides up to 25% of total employment in the region, with roughly 7% of its total population being farmers. Moreover, 99% of farms in Kosovo are small farms, making the base of production particularly fragmented. While agriculture has a large role to play in the Kosovar economy it is held back by the lack of technical expertise and a severe lack of cooperation.

Paths forward for the consistent domestic provision of food, therefore, rely on greater levels of horizontal integration between farms, which will permit for “increasing the production, negotiating power, returns to scale, and decreases the cost production”.

Social Services

The supply of social services follows the lines of decentralization established in the Memorandum of Understanding signed in February 2009 between several government ministries and the municipalities. This is a method of governance that has been seen in the region before, with Kosovo participating in a multi-layer government system since the Yugoslavian era. In this agreement, they sought greater efficiency in service provision through local distribution, but it has achieved mixed success. Due to the division of government bodies assigned to either function or financing, there is only weak coordination between the two, and the goals of each municipality are often dictated to them by the central agency. In sum, the move towards decentralization has been encouraged by external agencies such as the EU, but its implementation is yet to have the desired outcome.

External factors

The limitations on service provision in Kosovo stem less from external factors than NES and KRI. Both water and energy are sourced principally within the country, the former through a conveyance system on the Ibar river in the north of the region, and the latter from two coal mines, Sibovc Southwest and Sinica. Relations with Belgrade are poor and Kosovo does not rely on Serbia for service provision. It should, however, be noted that Belgrade supplies funding for some institutions in the province of Mitrovica in the north of Kosovo.


The provision of services in NES has been subject to considerable constraints. Within the region itself, the administration is confronted with the challenge of damaged infrastructure, meanwhile, assistance from neighboring areas is not forthcoming.

All three of NES, KRI, and Kosovo possess significant energy supplies; NES and KRI both have reserves of oil while Kosovo relies on its two coal mines. As a result of the conflict, NES’ infrastructure for the extraction of these resources has been severely damaged, reducing its capacity to provide energy. The experience of KRI and Kosovo offers two different paths forward. KRI relies extensively on its oil supplies for the provision of energy; while this has had mixed effects on its economy, it has proved a fairly reliable source of energy. To follow suit, NES would have to rebuild the infrastructure for extraction which would be costly. Although also relying on domestic fossil fuels, Kosovo’s provision has followed a rather different path. In recent years, the region has seen greater investment in renewable energy resources, and the close of one of its two coal power plants. From an environmental stance, this would be a positive progression for NES. However, it must be noted that this development in Kosovo was triggered by significant pressure from the EU and was aided by considerable funding from the World Bank. As a result, this appears a less feasible path for the AA to pursue than the oil-based model set out by KRI, but the question of infrastructure financing remains to be answered.

Enabling the provision of food is another key way for the AA to gain legitimacy, and given its high proportion of fertile land, its importance ought not to be understated. Unfortunately, it encounters similar struggles in this to its provision of energy – agricultural infrastructure has been damaged extensively, and in particular its irrigation systems. This is a similar problem that KRI encountered following the violence of the Ba’athist regime. Its subsequent development could be seen as a possible progression for NES post-conflict. Despite producing a considerable variety and quantity of goods, KRG has had to import up to 65% of its total food consumption; its products are sold and exported mostly to Iraq. With regards to NES, the lack of international recognition and tensions with the regime poses questions for where NES would export to and highlight in turn the need for domestic food production.

Lessons can also be learned from Kosovo, whose agricultural sector forms a significant portion of both landmass and GDP. Despite having a large means for production, Kosovo’s agriculture has been organized through thousands of small-holdings and consequently hindered by fragmentation. This ought to be considered in NES as it moves forward in its attempt to increase local production capacities – horizontal integration will help to realize the potential of its landmass for domestic food production. With investment to repair infrastructure and strong management, domestic food production could be a strong suit of the AA.

Education must be made a priority in NES. The education system established in KRI, teaching in Kurdish, is very strong and is integral to the economic and social development of the region. Conversely, the multi-language system of Kosovo has seen sparse funding and can be seen as a contributing factor to poor economic and social development. One problem that the AA will encounter in its provision of education is ethnic divisions and the issue of language. Again, Kosovo provides a useful foil for this, with its legal obligation to provide education in communities’ mother tongues. This system would, if sufficiently funded, enable community identities to be retained. Indeed, NES’ system of local councils would be well suited to support such a structure.

However, the experience of Kosovo has demonstrated that large funding is required for multi-language curricula, indicating that this may not be an option for NES in catering to both Arab and Kurdish populations. This is a problem not seen in KRI due to the overwhelming Kurdish majority. It remains to underline that education will be integral in NES’ development; its aim must be to follow in the footsteps of KRI with recognition for its education system, seeking to avoid the systemic failings and resulting economic setback seen in Kosovo.

Currently, the provision of a civil registry in NES is still centralized with the regime. Not only is this difficult for citizens based in NES on account of the tensions between the regime and the AA, but poses further problems for the IDP population in the region. This is a problem encountered by KRI with the registry centralized in Baghdad. However, the presence of local registration centers in KRI makes this process more accessible and outlines a possible model for NES. Implementation of such a model would rely on relations between the AA and the regime becoming more cooperative. The institutional apparatus of Kosovo is surprisingly well-equipped in civil registry provision, even digitizing the registry in recent years. This development was enabled through considerable development aid, therefore making this only a long-term goal for the administration in NES.

Although to be considered a long-term goal, the provision of social services in NES could benefit from the Kosovo model. Similar to Kosovo, NES has a strong system of local councils, which are a strong platform on which to offer social services to vulnerable individuals and families. Local provision of such
services will more likely render effective output, and programs can be designed according to local needs. If this path is to be followed in NES, it ought to pay heed to the experience of Kosovo, demonstrating the importance of a streamlined administration of funds and function for effective social
service provision.

The deep decentralization of the AA is already showing cracks. Local council strength, while helpful in legitimating the administration in local communities, has impaired central planning and decision-making, resulting in confusion among both citizens and employees. At a minimum, greater collaboration between the councils is recommended. External factors pose difficulties for both NES and KRI, but the pathways to address these problems are beyond the scope of this paper.

Funding, budgets, transparency


The AA receives its general expenditure funding from several sources, like oil sales and border crossings. Oil is not a lucrative revenue source for NES compared to other regions, however, selling for half of the market price. This is due to the blockade on NES that prevents the advancement of legitimate oil sales.

Other income sources include agricultural products, private monopolies on cement, iron, and cigarettes, as well as money transfers from abroad. In addition, it relies on public services fees, especially border crossings. It is estimated that NES earns approximately 1 million USD per day from border crossings. The distribution and the exact capital made from all these resources remain fairly vague. The NES’s first official public budget expenditure announcement since its inception came only on April 28th, 2021. 2.47 trillion Syrian pounds (SYP) were set for the public budget for 2021. Beforehand, it declared a budget in 2018 but as questions concerning the legitimacy and transparency of the spending of the budget started rising, the budget was soon withdrawn.

The importance of the public budget comes in its potential role in expanding the region’s economy out of its recession by controlling inflation, influencing income distribution, work incentives, consumption methods, monitoring the country’s resources and their uses, and controlling expenses.


The value of the Syrian lira declined heavily against the US dollar due to hyperinflation. Syria is now witnessing the sharpest rise in inflation in its history. This came as a result of some of the following domestic factors: loss of oil export revenue, international sanctions on the Syrian banking system, trade deficits, and inadequate central government intervention. However, over the past two years, in particular, the drastic drop of the Syrian lira value is mainly due to external factors. These include the ongoing economic crisis in Lebanon and the enforcement of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019. The Caesar Act is United States legislation that sanctions the Syrian government for war crimes against the Syrian population. The Act was signed into law by President Trump in December 2019 and came into force on June 17, 2020.


In the 1990s, smuggling and border crossings were a major source of income for the KRG. Since then, the oil industry has seen steady development. Northern Iraq, where the KRI is located, accounts for approximately 20% of Iraq’s oil reserves.

Even before the independence referendum in September 2017 and the takeover of certain Kirkuk-area oil fields by the central government of Iraq, the KRG had experienced budgetary constraints that caused payment delays to international oil companies (IOCs). After the KRG lost control of nearly half of the production from the Kirkuk-area oil fields after the referendum, its budgetary problems have become even more problematic.”

Today, the KRG is heavily funded (approximately 90%) by oil revenues. As of the end of 2019, estimated production levels in the KRI reached almost 500,000 barrels per day. Such is the extent of the oil wealth, “if the KRI were an independent country, the amount of oil and gas reserves would place it among the top 10 oil-rich countries in the world.”  Iraqi Kurdistan oil wealth has not been independent, however, but complicated by contentions with the
central Iraqi government. In 2014, a trade deal was reached whereby Baghdad would grant the KRG payments equal to 17% of its federal budget in exchange for control over the region’s crude oil exports. This arrangement ended in 2017, causing budgetary difficulties for the KRG.

Even before the independence referendum, reliance on oil revenues has been an unstable wealth for the KRG. The 2014 oil crisis wrought economic devastation upon the region. The takeover of half the production control in oil-rich Kirkuk by the Iraqi central government has indicated that shared economic interests can be as much of a barrier to conflict resolution as a facilitator.

The dominant thought in the Iraqi central government is that the KRG is moving towards another independence push. It is possible that the central government has been reluctant to invest in the region since 2017 for this reason. The development of its financial sectors could strengthen the Kurdish independence movement, sparking fears in Baghdad.

Moreover, even in relatively stable times, the region has been criticized for the management of its revenues. Management issues are exacerbated by the varying practices across KRG governorates. The lack of a consolidated balance sheet between these councils worsens the overall administration of public
finances. Oil profits are generally “spent immediately,” leaving no savings for
currency reserves. It is thought by some scholars that the KRG has no financial reserves whatsoever.


Kosovo’s funding is heavily reliant on the international community. More than 15% of its annual GDP comes from remittances from emigrants with a further 10% gained from international aid. This is due to the interrelated effects of high levels of informal economy and weak private sector development.

The lack of formalized economic structures in Kosovo has exacerbated challenges for the region. In fact, the Ministry of Finance stated that the high level of informal economy was “the main challenge” for the government. The issue includes unfair market competition, undeclared employment and is negatively affecting revenues for the Kosovo budget. While the prevalence of informal economy is certainly impeding formal development, the history of government corruption warrants a critical view of the scale of this problem. Other factors that could be driving Kosovo’s funding problem are the lack of private sector development and widespread government corruption.

As of 2020, Kosovo has made relatively minimal progress in developing a market economy. Economic growth took place in 2019, but the private sector developments were “constrained by a widespread informal economy, a slow and inefficient judiciary, a high prevalence of corruption, and the overall weak rule of law.”

Kosovo has managed to sustain economic growth, however, this has not translated into ubiquitous tangible gains in quality of life for its citizens. As of 2018, total unemployment was at 30%, with youth unemployment as high as 60%. Educational attainment is low in Kosovo, foreshadowing sustained economic issues in the future.


NES’s efforts to export oil, while necessary to generate immediate revenue, threaten a repeat of KRG’s financial crises. The overreliance on the oil trade in KRG has exacerbated its financial instability. The effects of the 2014 oil crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan are a testament to this. Although it is as yet too early to predict the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the oil trade, early indicators including the negative price of oil in April 2020 suggest that it will catapult the industry into further flux.

As oil becomes less popular in the global market due to growing awareness of the long-term damages of fossil fuels, oil is unlikely to be as profitable as it was for KRG in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This issue is compounded by the contested right to the natural resources in NES. An overlap between oil reserves currently exists between the GoS and the AA. Lessons can be learned from the KRG’s trade deal with the Iraqi central government. Certainly, the deal initially provided both parties with mutually beneficial financial outcomes. The subsequent takeover of oil-rich areas like Kirkuk by the Iraqi central government, however, demonstrated just how fragile a revenue source this is. Moreover, this agreement was only possible because of the Iraqi central government’s recognition of the KRG’s legitimacy. As it stands, it is highly unlikely that the Government of Syria will extend the same recognition to NES.

This is not to say that the AA should give up on oil revenue completely. The volatility of oil wealth must be traded against the very real need to generate as much revenue as possible in NES. This pressure is evident from the current sales of oil for less than half of its market value. The AA’s current reliance on border crossings as an income source is unsustainable in the long run.

Trade deals with external parties have proven fruitful for KRG both in terms of generating revenue and building legitimacy in the international community. The KRG’s oil agreement with Turkey demonstrated that economic interests can, at least in part, overcome political divisions. The extent to which this will be possible for NES, however, is doubtful. The strength of the PKK in NES renders it unlikely that Turkey would agree to a trade deal, given that the PKK is categorized as a terrorist organization in Turkey.

With comparable, if not identical political concerns, however, a deal was reached between KRG and Turkey. If NES could find a short-term trade partner to buy oil, this revenue should be used to diversify other areas of the economy. The failure of the KRG to sufficiently diversify has contributed to the making of its ‘rentier economy,’ which NES would be shrewd to avoid.

One area of the economy that should be prioritized is the agricultural sector. Neglect of this sector in areas with vast natural wealth has caused problems for both KRI’s economy and food security. Rebuilding the agricultural infrastructure that was destroyed in the war could provide an alternative model to KRI, which is now overly dependent on food imports.

Furthermore, Kosovan reliance on financial transfers from abroad has impaired its capacity to build a market economy. Approximately 25% of Kosovo’s GDP comes from abroad, be it through remittances from emigrants or foreign aid. Given the declining US and EU interest in Syria, it is unlikely that NES would be able to obtain funding of the same scale as Kosovo. In the absence of viable government revenue sources, NES would be prudent to attract as much private sector investment as possible. Neither Kosovo nor KRG have sufficiently created stimulative market spaces, leading to overburdened government financial reserves.

To earn legitimacy, NES should improve transparency regarding its funding. The AA’s release of its budget in April 2021 constituted major development in this regard but it still has some way to go. Currently, the AA has no clear security budget. This has problematized relations with the SDF, further compromising legitimacy. Income accounts, along with expenditures, should be published. This is complicated by the likely reason behind the administration’s reluctance to publish revenue sources – that it is not being generated through entirely legitimate means. That being said, the lack of transparency regarding accounting has exacerbated mistrust both locally and abroad. Transparent accounting is crucial to gaining legitimacy and will be imperative if the NES is to earn international recognition.

Concluding Remarks

The authors of this paper wish to finish with one further thought. The comparison of Kosovo and KRI led us, through numerous avenues, to the observation that the structure of Kosovo’s institutions appears to far surpass those of KRI. Yet, KRI continuously seemed to exceed the former in terms of substance. Where KRI enjoys local legitimacy and a degree of economic independence, the complete lack of public support for institutions in Kosovo hints that its formal structures may be more interface than body. This discovery provokes two further conclusions for this paper. Firstly, the structure of institutions, while significant, will never encapsulate an administration’s success. Secondly, the set-up of Kosovo’s institutions has largely been possible through international aid of the kind that NES is unlikely to receive. The KRG has managed, however, to secure relative success without direct aid from foreign countries (development aid goes to the Iraqi central government). As NES begins to formalize its institutions, KRI’s success amidst decades of geopolitical turmoil may serve as a note of hope for the region.

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