Since ISIS took over Mosul in mid-2014, the Kurds have become renowned for fighting and defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq, despite their relative lack of resources. A video made by France24 from the front lines presents the Kurds as a disciplined, organised, reliable and capable fighting force. At first glance then, Kurdish groups appear to be the perfect match for Western efforts to defeat ISIS and build a more stable regional order.
However, Kurdish military success does not stem from Kurdish political unity. The idea that a ‘greater Kurdistan’ could exist and would help to solve the crisis in Iraq and Syria, appealing as it may be, is entirely inconsistent with reality.
KURDS IN IRAQ: UNITY AND DISUNITY
The Kurdish Region of Iraq, governed by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), is an autonomously administered, landlocked area in northern Iraq. It borders Iran, Turkey and Syria.
The recent history of the Kurds in Iraq is marked by the Iran-Iraq war, during which the Kurds sided with Iran. In response, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish population in the late 1980s, as he did against Iran.
After the First Gulf War a no-fly zone in northern Iraq was established, protecting the Kurds from Saddam’s vengeance after his military was forcibly removed from Kuwait. This protection was the first major step towards Kurdish autonomy. The second came after the removal of Saddam, when a US-brokered constitution adopted in 2005 formally created the semi-autonomous region that exists today.
While Iraqi Kurds struggle with the central government in Baghdad, the two primary Kurdish political parties also have a long, complicated history of conflict. The last war between them ran from 1994 to 1997 and was resolved through a US-brokered power-sharing agreement. Further moves towards unity took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which put the Kurds in a strong position to negotiate increased independence after the removal of Saddam’s Baathist regime in 2003.
But rather than consolidating their unification, Iraq’s Kurds have remained deeply divided. Most recently, on May 17, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) signed an agreement with the main opposition Change Movement (Gorran) to create the strongest opposition bloc to the KDP in recent history, threatening to upset the fragile balance between these two parties. Together, the PUK and Gorran control more seats in parliament than the KDP does. There are 31 other seats held by minor parties and independents.
The PUK and KDP’s rivalry is personal as well as political; their leaders today are the same as during the intra-Kurdish war. Reports indicate that international arms supplies to the Kurds have primarily benefited the KDP. This has reduced the PUK’s power, pushing them closer to their traditional ally, Iran. In this way, the external support given to Iraqi Kurds in the scramble to assemble a ground force capable of fighting ISIS has driven a wedge between the two largest political factions.
Claims of corruption and nepotism within the KDP and the PUK further undermine the KRG’s stability; three parliamentarians say more than $1.6bn of oil revenue has gone missing over the past 18 months.
THE PROSPECTS FOR A GREATER KURDISTAN
The Kurdish issue extends far beyond northern Iraq. Indeed, approximately 30 million Kurds inhabit a contiguous, mountainous area that stretches across parts of Iran, Armenia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. While Kurdish groups in each country share a desire to establish a ‘greater Kurdistan’, each have unique internal political dynamics and structures that are not aligned to such an outcome.
If Kurds were coordinating to create a greater Kurdistan one would expect to see the Kurdish-controlled Iraq-Syria border crossings to be open. Instead, it operates like any other international border, requiring official paperwork. Similarly, the leadership within each area is almost entirely made up of local Kurds – in Syria, Syrian Kurds are in charge, in Iraq, Iraqi Kurds. While Turkish Kurds have stronger pan-Kurdish ambitions, even there the leadership is composed primarily of Turkish-Kurds.
Severely constraining any coordinated action towards establishing a unified Kurdish state are the conflicting interests of different Kurdish groups themselves. On one hand the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been locked in a decades-long conflict with Ankara; on the other good relations between the Iraqi KRG and Turkey have been crucial to the development of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly when it comes to trade.
The oil pipeline that runs from Kirkuk in Iraq to Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast is the most significant KRG-Turkey connection and an economic lifeline for the KRG. The pipeline generates the majority of Iraqi Kurdistan’s revenue, some US$600m a month. The pipeline was inoperable for approximately 4 weeks in early 2016. While the cause of the disruption is unclear, accusations that the PKK had attacked the pipeline were voiced (and denied). Underlining the desire for closer ties from both Ankara and Erbil, Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Iraqi Kurdistan in 2011.
However, the southeast Turkey-based PKK is classified as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and NATO members. The decades-old conflict between Turkey and the PKK has included extensive violence, including the current air campaign by Ankara as well as PKK-linked bombings targeting police, military and civilians. As a result, the PKK sees the KRG as a traitor for its close ties to Ankara.
Fundamentally, the PKK-KRG relations are complicated by their contrasting relationship with Turkey; while the Kurds in Iraq are reliant on Ankara, Turkish Kurds have been fighting it for decades. The KRG’s most valuable partner is the PKK’s worst enemy.
In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the dominant Kurdish group. Washington has supported the PYD with millions of dollars in weapons, training and support to fight ISIS in northern Syria. In late May, images emerged of American soldiers wearing insignia of the YPG, the PYD’s military arm. This support has been vocally criticised in Turkey, which claims that the PYD is transferring American-supplied arms to the PKK. The fact that Washington and Ankara are NATO allies makes this particularly troublesome for diplomats on both sides. For Turkey, the PYD’s close ties with the PKK is a major issue: the Kurds are Turkey’s main concern, not ISIS. However, American support for the PYD and other groups inside Syria is often routed through Turkey’s Incrilik Air Base, which the US has permission to use.
Meanwhile, the YPG are working to push ISIS out of parts of Raqqa province, laying the groundwork for an attack on the city of Raqqa. In an illustration of internal Kurdish politics the main Kurdish opposition party in Syria, the KNC (Kurdish National Congress), complains that the PYD is furthering a non-Kurdish project by taking over predominantly Arab territory. This is because the YPG is fighting as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is made up of Arabs, Assyrians and other groups as well as Kurds. The KNC, which is supported by the KDP in Iraq, hopes for a Kurdish region of Syria like that of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Turkey has recently softened its approach to the Syrian Democratic Forces. President Erdogan has stated that the SDF is mostly Arab and so can be supported in their fight against ISIS in Syria. Turkey has made clear that the Kurds are not to remain West of the Eurphrates river in Syria, and Washington has made guarantees to this effect. This highlights how central the Turkey-Kurdish issue is to Washington’s fight against ISIS in Syria.
EXTERNAL CHALLENGES TO A GREATER KURDISTAN
Turkish policy is diametrically opposed to a greater Kurdistan, which would require Turkey to give up significant amounts of territory. The Iraqi central government holds the same basic view and, because neither the US nor Turkey support a fully independent Kurdish state in Iraq, the establishment of a greater, cross-border, Kurdistan is highly unlikely.
In Syria, the PYD and several allied groups recently announced the creation of a semi-autonomous ‘federal region’ stretching along the Turkish border. The proposal has been widely denounced by global and regional powers. Dividing up Syria is viewed by most as the first step towards the country completely disintegrating, with Iraq likely to follow. Dividing Iraq or Syria along ethnic lines would likely to subject the region to extended armed conflict as border disputes emerge and as the likelihood of ethnic cleansing, or at least ethnic-centric vilification and persecution, increases. The counter argument is that these countries are already beyond repair and so a new political structure needs to be created.
Another regional power, Iran, stands to benefit from closer ties with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Such ties reduce US influence and, in the medium to long term, gives Iran leverage over strong forces that might oppose Iranian-backed regimes in the region. However, Iran has no intention of supporting the seven million Kurds in Iran and so it will never intentionally support a wider Kurdish independence movement.
Then there is the United States, struggling to tie this deeply fractured region together. American foreign policy has been resolute in seeking to avoid redrawing borders. However, Washington’s prioritisation of degrading and destroying ISIS has resulted in it supporting groups that in other circumstances it would not.
On May 20, the head of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, visited northern Syria to meet with various groups in preparation for an offensive on the ISIS-stronghold of Raqqa. Since then, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include the YPG and other non-Islamist militant groups, have been making progress in their efforts to eventually retake Raqqa, supported by the US. A recent push by regime forces, backed by Moscow, has raised fears of a race to take over Raqqa. In a worst-case scenario this could lead to Russian and US forces operating in incredibly close proximity and backing different forces on the ground.
BIGGER FISH: THE FUTURE OF THE MIDDLE EAST
The Kurds are front and centre in the fight against ISIS, but the main battle in the Middle East is not against ISIS. Rather, it is a struggle for power and influence in the post-2003 region and an extension of long-term political, religious and ethnic conflicts. Actors at every level – local, regional and global – are fully engaged in this competition.
The Kurds are not a monolithic force, but rather are several divided groups with relatively small spheres of influence. They operate within a larger context, defined by regional rivalries and global power plays.
Kurds are not exempt from these tectonic forces; in fact, they are playing the same game. If stability, unification and independence are considered marks of victory, then a Kurdish success looks to be a long way off.