While the international community is focused on the campaign against the Islamic State, the stage is inadvertently being set for the Middle East’s next major conflict, as the West heavily arms the Kurds without considering the potential regional impacts.
In the absence of plans for a major foreign ground offensive, it is easy to see the West’s rationale. Of all the forces fighting the IS, the Kurds are arguably the safest bet. The Iraqi army melted away in the face of IS advances; there is mutual enmity between the West on the one hand, and the Syrian regime, Iran, Hizbullah and Shi’ite militias on the other; and there is a lack of faith and trust in a fractured Syrian opposition.
However, bolstering Kurdish fighters may have major repercussions, particularly for the countries with large Kurdish populations: Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. The West says it supports the territorial integrity of these countries, but is risking the breakup of Iraq and Syria by emboldening Kurdish forces that are now better able to defend and extend their gains in territory and national status.
In July, Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, announced that a referendum on independence would take place in “a matter of months.” He added that “it’s the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence. From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal. Iraq is effectively partitioned now.” At the same time, his Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa said: “The time has come for the Kurdish people to determine their own future.”
In November, it was announced that the referendum would be postponed in light of the fight against the IS. “When you have this priority, some other priorities will be delayed,” said Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff. However, there is no suggestion that the vote will be cancelled, despite considerable external pressures. Doing so would cause a serious backlash against Barzani from his own people, so there may be too much momentum to change course.
Besides Iraqi opposition to Kurdish independence transcending sectarian divisions, the referendum is arousing further anger because it will include the considerable territories that the Kurds have captured since the summer. This includes oil-rich Kirkuk, the hotly-contested city that they consider their historic capital. Tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds have increased in recent years over the latter’s unilateral measures, particularly oil sales.
“The Kurdistan regional government has indicated that it hopes it can attain a relatively simple break from Iraq with the approval of Baghdad, pointing to Czechoslovakia as a potential model,” wrote Washington Post reporter Adam Taylor. “Unfortunately, the breakup of Yugoslavia and the problems that have dogged the subsequent nations since may well be an alternate model.”
Syria and Turkey
In neighbouring Syria, where arms have been flowing to Kurds battling the IS over the city of Kobane, the predominantly Kurdish, oil-rich northeast of the country has had de facto autonomy since the early days of the revolution against Bashar al-Assad. Autonomy was declared in November 2013, and again in January this year.
As well as weapons supplies from the West, Syrian Kurds are being aided by their ethnic kin from Iraq and Turkey, who have answered their call to arms. Ankara’s reluctance to get directly involved against the IS in Syria has led to threats from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to end peace talks with the Turkish government and renew its 30-year-old insurgency if Kobane falls.
Though regional developments have not led Iran’s Kurds to become more restive, Tehran is nonetheless mindful of the potential for a resurgence
There have been widespread demonstrations by Turkish Kurds against Ankara’s inaction, deadly crackdowns on these protests, and a resumption of fighting between the army and the PKK.
Though regional developments have not led Iran’s Kurds to become more restive, Tehran is nonetheless mindful of the potential for a resurgence in the separatist movement that began in the early 20th century, and resulted in a short-lived Kurdish republic in the northwest in 1946.
The Kurds, described as the world’s largest stateless ethnic group, number some 30 million people, and comprise significant proportions of the populations of Iraq (20-25%), Turkey (20%), Syria (10-15%) and Iran (7-10%).
The current chaos in Iraq and Syria has allowed Kurds there to more assertively pursue their national aspirations (Iraqi Kurdistan has been autonomous since the 1991 Gulf war). It has also led to unprecedented cooperation between Kurdish forces and communities from both countries as well as Turkey.
However, the various warring parties in Iraq and Syria, as well as their neighbours, reject Kurdish independence or further autonomy. This opposition is not limited to their own countries but to each other’s, for fear of a domino effect. Just as conflicting forces currently have a common enemy in the IS, the Kurds risk a papering over of the very divisions that have allowed them to get this far.
Opposition in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria is not only based on territorial integrity but also economic prosperity, as the areas where Kurds are predominant are resource-rich, particularly in terms of energy and agriculture.
There is also widespread suspicion of a potential alliance between Israel and an independent Kurdish state. These suspicions have been greatly heightened by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement this summer that “we should… support the Kurdish aspiration for independence.” Given regional dynamics, Israeli endorsement is likely to harm such prospects.
The biggest difficulty for Kurdish national aspirations is that to a great extent they depend on the blessing of states that will not give it. With any independent Kurdish state landlocked and surrounded by Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, its viability would be uncertain.
In addition, the US – to whom Iraqi Kurds owe their autonomy – opposes the breakup of Iraq, and would be unlikely to support a Kurdish state if it meant antagonising Turkey and Iraq, both crucial regional allies to Washington.
Opponents of Kurdish national aspirations may not be willing or able to react beyond condemnatory statements, and may eventually succumb to realpolitik. Alternatively, the Middle East could end up in a war as wide-reaching and destabilising as the one taking place today, caused by the West’s supposedly good intentions. We may not have to wait long to find out.