Self-Determination – A Kurdish Nation-State?
With the Middle East now undeniably one of the most unstable regions today, the Kurdish question has been resurrected yet again. The chaos caused by ISIS in Iraq and Syria has created opportunities for Kurdish actors to increase their strength politically. As new developments take hold, the on-going saga bears implications for Turkey, Iraq, Syria and of course Iraqi Kurdistan, which hopes to emerge as a new autonomous state from those crumbling around it.
Kurdish minorities and their place in the Middle East
The Kurdish bid for independence highlights the difficulty the region has had in building national identities based on various minorities that live within the countries’ borders. Since the rise of the Islamic State, much has been blamed on the Skyes-Picot line; a remnant of colonial times that is still at the heart of issues today. In the aftermath of World War One and following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the newly created borders that sprung from the secret agreement between France and Great Britain paid little regard to the various tribal, ethnic and sectarian divisions. The countries that emerged grouped together various communities and religions that had lived side by side for centuries. The various waves of displacement under Saddam Hussein, the Iraq War of 2003 and now ISIS has changed what was once a religiously pluralistic country.
The Kurds are one of the largest minorities without a sovereign state of their own; 30 million inhabitants live within the borders of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. The biggest concentration of Kurdish inhabitants is found in Turkey, but no matter where they have settled, their existence has always been built on shaky ground. One such episode took place under Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s and became known as “the War of Annihilation” which resulted in the killing of 180,000 Kurds in an attempt to “Arabize” the region. Iranian Kurds have also suffered repression and marginalization and Kurdish history itself is dominated by in-fighting between the various groups.
Kurdistan’s fight against ISIS
The growth of ISIS power and efforts to push back the Islamic State has helped elevate the cause of Kurdistan, Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. When the city of Mosul fell in the summer of 2014, Kurdistan’s regional leader, President Barzani deployed its Peshmerga forces to the disputed borders between Kurdish territory and Iraq to defend the region against ISIS attacks. This opportunistic maneuver meant an increase in territory for the region of Kurdistan, which included Kirkuk, a city at the heart of the Iraqi-Kurd tensions for its high oil producing capacity. Although initially successful in its counter attack, by the beginning of August 2014, the Peshmerga were beginning to lose momentum. The Kurdish army was now fighting on two fronts and their soviet era weaponry was no match for the jihadists, who had captured state of the art American equipment. It was only when the Yazidi “genocide” was broadcast around the world did the threat of ISIS become real and bolstered support from the international community for action. On August 8th, Obama announced the go ahead for US-led air strikes in Iraq on humanitarian grounds.
The US and the Kurdish Question
The complexity of the Kurdish predicament is apparent when looking at the inconsistent approach Washington has adopted in response to Kurdish aspirations. The Obama administration, in light of past events and alliances, has had to tread carefully. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Turkish fighters from the PKK (a world wide recognized terrorist organization), are currently the only ground forces successfully pushing back the Islamic State. This is where the problem arises for Washington. Although US funding and support for the Kurdish forces has helped short-term aims of pushing back ISIS, the US runs the risk of further empowering Kurdish aspirations. By taking back ISIS held territory, the Kurds could find themselves in a stronger position to claim for their own the de-facto borders ISIS leaves behind. This could lead to further instability in the region and would see the break-up of Iraq’s borders, which the US has been trying hard to keep intact since the war in 2003 under “One Iraq”. This scenario has already taken place in Syria. Following the civil war, the Kurds took advantage of the void left by Bashar Al- Assad’s forces fighting ISIS. The PYD (Kurdish Democratic Party) has since been self-governing 3 states within Syria with the help of the People’s Protection Unit (PYD).
Oil as Freedom
The question of oil has complicated Kurdish relations with its neighbors and increasing tensions between the two sides has made Baghdad hostile to Kurdish aims. The Iraqi constitution states that the Kurds should be allocated 17% of the country’s oil revenues, a figure which is representative of its population. Since its inception, the Kurds have accused Baghdad of giving less than agreed. Tensions have continued to grow since the discovery that Kurdish territory is situated on oil rich land, estimated to be a quarter of Iraq’s total oil reserves. With Western companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron flocking to the region to help exploit the oil, Iraq’s government saw the Kurds as one step closer to achieving independence if it could control its oil and gas resources independently from Baghdad. Turkey has also aligned itself with Kurdistan as its position is influenced by tensions with Baghdad’s Shi’ia led government that supports Assad. The problem lies in the constitution which made no provisions on how to treat newly discovered resources, thus making it open to interpretation. With Kurdistan unilaterally exporting its oil to Turkey and thus breaching the constitution in the eyes of Baghdad, the Iraqi government has responded by withholding the revenue payments to its semi-autonomous region.
Independence for the Iraqi Kurds continues to be a difficult issue to solve. Kurdistan’s position raises many issues and presents a difficult balancing act with past history and new alliances forming. The various actors in the region, who all have a stake in the Kurdish question, will watch carefully the future developments that unfold. Will The Kurds win or lose from their fight against ISIS is yet to be known.
About the author
Marie Mulville is currently studying for a Master’s in Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at City University in London. Marie’s interests include the Middle East, European Politics and Security.