This is the second of a two-part series on the topic. The first of which was posted week on the Defence-in-Depth blog.

Turkey’s transborder Kurdish problem

There can be little doubt that both Ankara and Turkey’s Kurdish nationalists have been influenced by developments in Syria. Many of Turkey’s Kurds are inspired by the example of their Syrian counterparts. Although the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP) may have prioritized a resolution in Turkey, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) probably saw its struggle in a wider pan-Kurdish context. Many Kurds in Turkey were bitterly angered by Ankara’s passivity in the face of the Islamic State (IS) siege of the Kurdish border town of Kobane.

During 2011, Turkey moved fast towards demanding the Syrian regime’s overthrow once it became clear that Damascus was ignoring Ankara’s advice on how to respond to the popular revolt that Syria was now experiencing, and notwithstanding the earlier courtship between the two governments. Ankara sponsored the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and called on its allies to help establish a ‘no-fly-zone’ and a humanitarian corridor along the Syrian border with Turkey. Instead, Turkey found itself confronted both with the radicalization of the Syrian opposition and with a Kurdish dimension to Syria’s travails.

It was the Kurdish factor that loomed largest. Ankara reacted fiercely to the early 2013 declaration by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that the three self-governing and largely Kurdish entities that it had established were to be known as ‘Rojava’. Ankara did little to help Syria’s Kurds defend the border town of Kobane against IS, and criticized the US for air dropping supplies to the town’s defenders. Ankara also protested when the IS-held town of Tal Abyad fell to the Kurds in July 2015. Ankara fears being faced with a Kurdish self-governing zone along the length of its southern border, and has resorted to shelling Kurdish led forces in Syria in order to prevent their advance, intensified its support to groups that would obstruct Kurds on the ground – including Ahrar-al Sham and other decidedly jihadi elements – and prevented the PYD from participating in the Geneva peace talks on Syria.

Ankara’s problem with the PYD is that it is affiliated with the PKK. Kurdish self-government in Syria might give inspiration to the closely-related counterparts in Turkey. Turkey had tried to pressure the PYD to join the SNC and to commit to Assad’s overthrow, but the Arab nationalist SNC is also opposed to Kurdish self-government. Turkey’s hostility to the PYD has put it at odds with both Washington, DC and Moscow. The PYD’s armed wing has proved to be Washington, DC’s most effective and cooperative local force in its struggle against IS in Syria, while Moscow’s stance hardened in the wake of the November 2015 shooting down of a Russian jet that had strayed into Turkish airspace. The repercussions were several, but have included a heightening of Russian support for PYD forces and a determined bombing campaign against Ankara-backed elements inside Syria. Moscow has joined with Washington, DC in arming and training Syrian Kurdish forces, and has called for the PYD’s presence at the Geneva talks.

The PYD hopes for a federal arrangement in Syria, which in any case seems the best and most likely outcome should the violence there ever come to an end. After all, Moscow and Tehran are now in a position to ensure the survival of the regime. No one force is capable of an overall victory in Syria, the Alawites were surely unlikely to submit to Sunni rule, and no-one inside Syria looks capable of defeating the PYD’s forces. Sunni Arab forces are hopelessly fragmented. Ankara can play the role of spoiler – although in doing so it is putting at risk its relationship with Washington, DC and might provoke an even harder Russian response – but it cannot engineer a Syria more to its liking. In short, Turkey’s struggle with Kurdish oppositionists in Turkey is now extended to Syria, and it is a struggle that looks set to extend far into the future.

Iraq’s ‘good Kurds’?

Turkey’s relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) offers the exception to the rule of Ankara’s opposition to Kurdish identity politics. Turkey dominates the KRG’s economy, and enables the export of KRG oil from the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Turkey has even trained Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Until recently at least leaders in both Erbil and Ankara spoke of the ‘strategic’ relationship between them. It was not always like this of course. Ankara greeted the 1991 emergence of the KRG with dismay, sought to destabilise it, declared its independence to be a ‘red line’, opposed its acquisition of further territory, championed ethnic Turkmen against it, and referred to its leaders as ‘tribal’. Turkey’s so-called ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ policy was part of the explanation for the shift. Trade and energy considerations also played a role. In any case KRG President Masoud Barzani is not a pan-Kurdish nationalist but a devout conservative concerned only with the fortunes of the KRG, or rather of his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) ruled part of it. He is prepared to cooperate with Ankara against the PKK, which he regards as ideological and political rivals, and is in desperate need of a regional friend.

However, with the June 2014 capture of Mosul by IS the atmosphere changed. Ankara failed to come to the KRG’s aid, leading some Iraqi Kurds to question the depth of Turkey’s commitment. The KRG’s economic crisis – caused by a combination of reduced oil revenues, an internal political crisis, corruption, the termination of its subvention from Baghdad, the IS threat and the burden of over a million refugees – has rendered the KRG a less attractive economic proposition for Turkish investors. Barzani’s legitimacy inside and outside the KRG has waned. Iran’s influence has become more pronounced, and there is now high profile assistance to the KRG from the west. Some senior Iraqi Kurds are disappointed at Turkey’s murky links with IS and other jihadi groups, and also at the increasingly unpredictable behavior of Turkey’s president.

Furthermore, the depth of the ‘strategic relationship’ between Ankara and Erbil will face considerable challenges in the future. How might Ankara respond to Barzani’s promised referendum on Kurdish independence? Will it assist the Kurdish Peshmerga in their already-developing struggle with Shia militias – and perhaps in due course with Sunni Arabs too – over the territories that Erbil disputes with Baghdad, such as Kirkuk? Will Ankara accept a territorial enlargement of the KRG? What if the KRG, perhaps via the more pan-Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran parties, becomes more supportive of the PKK/PYD?

Turks and Kurds as neighbours

Until the breakup of the Ottoman empire there was little antipathy between Turks and Kurds. The new Turkish Republic then chose to suppress rather than embrace Kurdish distinctiveness. Turks acquired a virulent and exclusive nationalism which they are yet to shake off. The reaction of many Kurds has been one of revolt and alienation. There is no reason to suppose that Kurds, in Turkey or elsewhere, will resign themselves to the denial of self-determination that was visited on them a century ago. Sadly, there is little evidence that Turkey will embrace its Kurdish citizens and neighbours for what they essentially are – Kurds – and to allow them the self-identification that Turks so jealously guard for themselves. On what basis should we assume the next one hundred years of Turkish-Kurdish relationships will be much different from the last one hundred years, except in their detail?


Image: Putin and Erdogan. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



This is the first of a two-part series on the topic. The second of which will be posted next week on the Defence-in-Depth blog.

Turkey’s very own Kurdish problem

Turkey’s AKP government’s attempts to seek a resolution to the country’s domestic Kurdish problem had by the second half of 2015 deteriorated into violent conflict throughout the predominantly Kurdish populated southeast, between the state’s security forces and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Turkey’s political leaders have declared their intention to militarily defeat the PKK – something the Turkish state has failed to achieve since the PKK first resorted to violence in1984 – rather than resume negotiations with it. The current round of violence, which is accompanied and partly explained by Ankara’s growing political authoritarianism, includes Turkish bombing raids against PKK bases in the Khandil Mountains of northern Iraq, the imposition of curfews lasting from weeks to months, and widely reported excesses on the part of the security forces. Urban districts have been flattened by government shelling, and tens of thousands have fled their homes. The government has stripped the MPs of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP) of their parliamentary immunity, which clears the way for their prosecution and imprisonment. Subsequently, the HDP leadership is contemplating setting up in exile.

Events such as these have occurred throughout the history of the Turkish Republic. Ankara’s treatment of its Kurdish citizens since 1923 has been littered with executions, curfews, decades of emergency rule throughout the southeast, forced evacuations, intense ‘Turkification’ campaigns, the exclusion of foreigners from Kurdish areas of the country, population flight, the destruction of towns and villages, imprisonment of activists, the banning of Kurdish political parties, all sorts of abuses of human rights and the law, and even the denial that Kurds exist as a distinct people. However, what has shocked some observers about this latest round of violence is that it immediately followed what many had thought was a serious attempt to address the country’s Kurdish problem.

But to what extent did the events leading up to the resumption of violence in July 2015 really constitute a ‘peace process’? At no point did President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicate his readiness to accept any item on the Kurdish side’s wish list. These included the release from prison of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the recognition of Kurdish as an official language of the Republic, state education in the Kurdish language, some kind of devolution – dubbed ‘democratic autonomy’ by the Kurdish movement – a disbandment of the government armed and funded Kurdish ‘village guard’ militias, a change to the ten percent electoral threshold, an amnesty for PKK fighters, and so on. Nor would the government countenance the Kurdish side’s suggestion that some third party mediation be introduced into the process.

Rather, Erdogan sought to impose his terms from above. He insisted that the PKK should disarm unconditionally, and dissociated himself from the so-called ‘Dolmabahce Accord’ that emerged from a meeting of government figures and HDP MPs in February 2015. His anti-HDP and nationalistic rhetoric became harsher once he recognized that the HDP stood to exceed the ten percent threshold and gain sufficient parliamentary seats in the June 2015 election to deny the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a majority. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas also declared his unwillingness to support Erdogan’s aspiration for a more presidential constitution. Erdogan’s belief that Turkey’s generally conservative Kurdish voters could be persuaded to forsake Kurdish nationalist candidates and support Islamist parties dates back to his Welfare Party days in the 1990s, and this is what he hoped to achieve.

Many in the PKK were skeptical of the government’s goodwill from the outset. Furthermore, both the PKK and the Turkish military treated the ceasefire that accompanied the ‘peace talks’ as an opportunity to prepare for the next round of violence. The military hardened existing fortifications and built new ones. Kurdish youth, many of them members of the PKK-affiliated Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) and no doubt soon to become the next generation of PKK fighters, dug trenches and threw up barricades, while elected Kurdish officials declared their support for the establishment of Kurdish autonomous zones. In any case, in the wake of the HDP’s electoral success in June 2015, the government used the excuse of the killing of two policemen in the aftermath of the bombing at Suruc near the Syrian border which killed over thirty Kurdish activists to launch its military campaign. Although the government simultaneously declared its opposition to Islamic State (IS) and permitted US access to the NATO base at Incirlik, most IS activists that were initially detained were subsequently released. Although IS terrorist attacks inside Turkey and the intensification of IS cross-border shelling into Turkey from Syria in recent months has undoubtedly alerted the Turkish authorities to the threat posed, Ankara’s pursuit and prosecution of IS activists still seems desultory when compared to its campaign against anyone associated with the Kurdish cause.

In its one hundred year history, the Turkish state has either denied the Kurds exist at all, sought to obstruct any Kurdish political voice, or offered them assimilation either on the basis of ‘Turkification’ or, under the AKP, on the basis of a shared Islamic faith and appreciation of the benefits of the AKP’s economic policies. In fact, many Kurds are assimilated, but the Turkish state has never embraced or even truly grasped the fact that Kurds are at least as different from Turks as, say, Poles are from Germans or, if preferred, the Irish and Scots are from the English. There will be no settlement of Turkey’s Kurdish question until and unless Turks accept the ethnic, linguistic, cultural and historical distinctiveness of the twenty percent or so of Turkey’s citizens that are ethnically Kurdish rather than Turkish. There are few serious signs that this recognition is imminent.


Image: Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of the Russia High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


This is the fifth in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015.  An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


Turkey remains isolated in its approach to the Islamic State (IS) threat. In contrast to its NATO partners and to most of its middle eastern neighbours, Ankara is steadfast in its refusal to actively engage with the US-led campaign against IS. Notably, this has involved denying use by US bombers of the NATO base at Incirlik. Turkey’s President Erdogan did not hold back on criticising US arms airdrops to the besieged Syrian Kurds of Kobane, as described in Rod Thornton’s recent post, fearing that they could end up in the hands of Turkey’s PKK, with which the Syrian Kurdish PYD is affiliated. He also alleged that some of the arms fell straight into IS-controlled territory. Allegations that Ankara has at minimum turned a blind eye to jihadists crossing into Syria from Turkey, and may have facilitated them in other ways, persist. Unsurprisingly, questions have been asked in the US about Turkey’s understanding of what it is to be an ally, and President Obama seems to be giving his Turkish counterpart the cold shoulder.

Turkey’s stance has set back its position in the region too. The KRG, with which Ankara had built a close economic and political relationship, openly expressed its disappointment at Turkey’s failure to come to its aid as IS turned on Erbil after the fall of Mosul. Tehran did step into the breach and has augmented its engagement, as a consequence of which Iranian influence with Iraq’s Kurds has risen as Ankara’s has fallen. Turkey had already fallen out with Baghdad’s Shia-dominated government and with the Assad regime in Damascus of course, and has since entered into wars of words with Cairo and what passes for the government in Libya over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in those two countries. Turkey now has few friends in its neighbourhood. Its failure to come to the aid of Kobane’s Kurds caused widespread demonstrations and rioting amongst its own Kurds and raised doubts about Turkey’s own domestic peace process.

Ankara’s logic is that the radicalisation of the Syrian opposition resulted from the drawn-out and ever more brutal struggle against the Assad regime. The west’s failure to come to the aid of Syrian moderates allowed this to happen, and caused much frustration in Turkey. Its demand is that the overthrow of Assad should be prioritised over the war against IS, and that a humanitarian corridor and no fly zones should be established in northern Syria. For this to happen, the US must take the lead, and Turkey would then follow. Syria’s Kurds feel that this is a ruse to allow a Turkish troop presence in the area, which could put an end to their experiment in self-government. Certainly Ankara opposes Kurdish self-rule in Syria, and suspects the PYD of collaboration with Damascus. Ankara has also called for a programme of training for moderate opposition elements. Washington has now agreed to lead such a programme, but whereas the US intends to deploy such forces as emerge against IS, Turkey believes they will be pitted against regime forces too. This apparent disagreement is likely to come to the fore in the not-too-distant future. In Iraq, Ankara argues that IS successes there are a consequence both of the initial 2002 US-led invasion, and of the subsequent marginalisation of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs by the US-supported Shia government of Nuri al-Maliki. There is more than a grain of truth in this assessment.

In fact, Ankara’s position is not without substance, at least in some respects. The anti-IS campaign has alienated many Sunni Arabs in Iraq, Syria and the wider region. It has meant a blind eye has been turned to the even greater death and destruction inflicted by Assad’s essentially Alawite government, which in effect is being strengthened in so far as IS, one of its more effective opponents, is being weakened. The same logic applies to Jubhat-al-Nusrah, the AQ affiliated force which had itself struggled against IS and which to a degree is being strengthened as IS is being weakened – if it is being weakened, that is. The anti-IS campaign also appears to have attracted a seemingly ever-increasing flow of jihadis from further afield. In Iraq the mostly Shia armed forces and government, who are barely trusted at all by the country’s Sunni Arabs, are receiving military and other assistance from the west. Worse still, Iranian-backed Shia militias, many of which have a reputation for taking reprisals against the Sunni population, are leading the fight in Iraq, often with western-supplied arms transferred to them by Iraq’s security forces. And assisting the Kurds in Iraq, Syria and, indirectly, in Turkey too, might in due course undermine the territorial integrity of each of those states. In other words, it is not only Ankara that may have got things wrong. But Turkey’s pro-Sunni and anti-Kurdish agendas might also be policy dead-ends.

Ankara has additional reasons for remaining aloof. It is home to up to two million Syrian refugees, many of them unregistered. Ankara fears there could be IS cells amongst this vast swarm of people, and which it would prefer not to provoke. A prolongation of the Syrian struggle could swell these numbers still further, which could lead to a native Turkish backlash and an expansion of the Syrian conflict into Turkey itself. Of course, some kind of accommodation with Damascus might hold out greater hope of bringing an end to the fighting in Syria and even of defeating IS, but recent hints from Washington that this option might be under consideration prompted a fierce reaction from Ankara. Turkey’s opposition to the Syrian regime has been so unrelenting that it can’t easily turn back now. It is holding out for a Sunni victory. Ankara is also aware of IS sympathisers amongst its own population, and has no wish to incur their wrath. And, as ever, Ankara does not wish to add impetus (and arms) to Kurdish demands inside Turkey by in effect siding with Syria’s Kurdish fighters.

In fact, Ankara has adjusted its behaviour a little in recent months. Under US pressure, Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters were eventually allowed to transit Turkish territory in order to come to the aid of Kobane. Border controls have been tightened up. Turkey will contribute to the training programme for Syrian moderates. Its troops are training a limited number of Kurdish peshmerga, as well as units of the Iraqi army. Ankara has also declared its readiness to aid any – preferably Sunni Arab-led – assault on IS-held Mosul, although not with ‘boots on the ground’. But its minimal interpretation of the obligations of alliance, its failure to share the more widespread assessment of the regional threat posed by IS, its cold-hearted stance towards Kobane’s defenders, and its pro-Sunni leanings, have lost it a great deal of trust. Furthermore, its failure to oppose with any determination the jihadi elements of the Syrian opposition, and the suggestion that it might even have supported them, has aroused suspicion that Ankara shares an ideological –although not behavioural –affinity with IS in its desire to see the emergence of a more unified Sunni community in the middle east, albeit one preferably overseen from Ankara.

President Erdogan’s foreign policy advisor, Ibrahim Kalin, has referred to Turkey’s ‘precious loneliness’. The implication is that Turkey is acting on principle, and is playing a long term game. In the meantime it is prepared to be patient, and diplomatically isolated if necessary, until it is proved right. This suggests a remarkable self-confidence. But the consequent isolation might be real, long-lasting, and ultimately very damaging to Turkey.

Image: “Erdogan gesturing Rabia” by R4BIA.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Kurds as Proxies against the Islamic State

This is the fourth in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015. An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


There has much discussion recently about the role of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the current conflict with ISIL (IS/Da’esh) in Syria and Iraq. The Kurds appear to have become the regional proxies of choice that US and other Western forces can do business with in order to counter ISIL. But who are these Kurds and who are these ‘peshmerga’? These questions and others associated with this issue are actually not that easy to answer. It is important, however, as Western forces go forward in the conflict with ISIL, that some level of understanding is developed as to the nature of the various Kurdish forces operating in the region.

Western involvement in the conflict with ISIL first took shape in August 2014 on Mount Sinjar. A large number of Yazidis (a non-Muslim Kurdish group) were forced to flee there to escape the advance of ISIL forces across northern Iraq. Their plight drew in US special forces who landed on the mountain in order to assess the situation. They had expected these Yazidis to be guarded by peshmerga from the nearby semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq known as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). But they were no KRG peshmerga fighters there. The Yazidis were actually being looked after by fighters from the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist group that had operated for so long in Turkey. Realising that they could not talk to such ‘terrorists’, the US forces quickly withdrew.

Common sense did later prevail and it was recognized in Washington and in other Western capitals that if the Yazidis were to be rescued then political niceties had to be put to one side and the PKK personnel had to be dealt with.

But why were the PKK on Mount Sinjar? And what had happened to the KRG’s peshmerga forces? Well, those peshmerga forces had melted away before the ISIL advance and had left the Yazidis to the tender mercies of ISIL. These peshmerga were, after all, simply ill-armed and ill-trained militia who, for the most part, acted on behalf of individual tribal or political leaders. But desperate to save the Yazidis, the President of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, had asked for help from the Syrian Kurds across the border. In doing so, he was basically asking for help from his bitter enemies. The main Syrian Kurd political party – which is linked to the PKK – is known as the PYD. The PYD, like the PKK, is secular, left-wing and progressive in orientation. Such a standpoint stands in direct contrast to the politics of Barzani’s ruling party in the KRG – the KDP. This is, in nature, tribal and conservative.

The PYD did then send its best fighters to Mount Sinjar. These were from the armed wing (the HPG) of the PKK. But what were these PKK fighters from Turkey doing in northern Syria in the first place? Well, they had come across the border after the Turkish government and the PKK leadership had agreed a ceasefire in March of 2013. The PKK’s campaign in Turkey was thus supposedly over. But some renegade PKK members did not accept the ceasefire and left Turkey for Syria. There they joined up with the PYD, which itself had been formed from PKK members back in 2003.

And then the ISIL siege of Kobane began in September. The most effective fighters operating at Kobane were again from the PKK’s HPG. It was no wonder then that the Turks – despising the PKK and all its works – initially refused to allow any help to cross the border and assist the Kurdish resistance at Kobane. If they had helped, they would have been assisting their mortal enemy of the past 30 years. In many ways, the Turks preferred ISIL to take Kobane; at least they knew they could deal with ISIL. What Ankara ultimately fears, once the crisis in Syria is over, is the creation of a Kurdish entity in northern Syria that could act as a base for terrorist attacks against Turkey.

Ankara is, though, quite happy for a Kurdish entity to exist in the KRG under Barzani. It knows that, for various reasons, it can control what happens there and take advantage of Barzani’s antipathy towards the PKK. The Kurds in the KRG led by Barzani are Ankara’s ‘good Kurds’; their ‘bad Kurds’ are those of the PKK.

As Kobane burned, the world’s media watched on from nearby Turkish territory. A something-must-be-done call went up and Washington lost patience with Turkish intransigence. US aircraft made an airdrop of weapons onto Kobane in October. The irony is that the Americans were, more than likely, dropping Iranian weapons which had been provided by one of the political parties within the KRG – the PUK – which is opposed to Barzani’s KDP. This gave Washington the excuse (to Ankara) that it was not providing its own weapons to the Kurds at Kobane but rather those supplied by other Kurds. Wherever these weapons came from, Ankara was apoplectic. The view was that the Americans were delivering weapons to the PKK which could one day be used against Turkey. But this event did spark the Turks into life. They realised they needed to be seen to be doing something themselves to help Kobane in order to both quell domestic unrest among Kurds within Turkey and to prevent further U.S. airdrops – but they needed to be in control of that help. Thus we then had the movement, agreed by Ankara, of a convoy of peshmerga forces from the KRG crossing Turkish territory into Kobane. This took in ‘heavy’ weapons but only, on Turkish insistence, with the understanding that they would be taken out again once these KRG peshmerga pulled out. This reinforcement exercise actually only involved 150 peshmerga. The KRG wanted to send more, but the PYD/PKK fighters in Kobane did not want a larger number: their fear was that these KRG peshmerga, working for Turkish ends, might start to take over control of the situation in Kobane.

The issue now is that since the siege of Kobane has been lifted then the various groups of Kurds involved will no longer be unified by this common ‘Kurdish’ goal. They will go their separate ways. They will seek now their own goals within the situation of regional anarchy created by the collapse of central Syrian control and by the spread of ISIL in northern Iraq. A land grab involving different Kurdish elements now seems inevitable and in this land grab Kurd will be set against Kurd. We can see this already around Sinjar in Iraq. The PKK fighters who protected the Yazidis are still based around this town. Barzani’s KRG fears that the PKK will now try and set up its own ‘canton’ at Sinjar (and elsewhere inside Iraq) and represent a challenge to his own regional authority (and, indeed, Baghdad’s).

Such are the vagaries of taking on the Kurds as Western proxies. Without a common ‘Kurdish’ purpose they are just as likely to fight each other as they are to fight ISIL.

Image: “Peshmerga on a T-55-Tank outside Kirkuk in Iraq.” by Boris Niehaus – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The war against the Islamic State and the plight of Iraqi Kurdistan



The 10th June fall of Mosul to the irregular forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), now calling itself the ‘Islamic State’, accompanied as it was by the total collapse of the lavishly equipped and US-trained Iraqi army, presented both threat and opportunity to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). As its peshmerga forces exploited the vacuum left by Baghdad’s fleeing soldiers and took full control of areas, including oil-rich Kirkuk, that the Kurds had long claimed as rightfully theirs, many proclaimed the Kurds as the true victors. In absolute terms, they had augmented their territory by forty percent, increased the energy resources under their control, and had also captured some equipment left behind by Iraq’s army. In relative terms, Baghdad now appeared far too weak to resist Kurdish demands, an impression that was intensified by the ultimately successful pressure on Iraq’s stubborn Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to step down.

Although numerous skirmishes broke out between Islamic state forces and the peshmerga, Islamic State forces seemed more intent on advancing southwards towards the Sunni Arab towns and villages north of Baghdad, thereby appearing to threaten still more dramatically the prospects for Iraq’s very survival. Erbil’s preference was to defend its gains rather than to engage in the fight between the jihadists and Baghdad’s Shia-dominated government. With Ankara, Iraq’s Kurds had long argued that Maliki’s policies were alienating Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, and firmly believed – and still believe – that the Islamic State’s successes owed a great deal to support from Iraqi tribal leaders, Ba’athists, and ordinary citizens. KRG President Massoud Barzani’s call for a referendum on Kurdish independence demonstrated Kurdish headiness and stoked a wider excitement that Kurdish independence was now irresistible.

Yet within weeks the picture shifted dramatically. Now it was the turn of the peshmerga to evaporate before Islamic State advances in the north, as thousands of Kurds, Christians, Sunni Arabs, and members of the Yazidi minority fled towards a KRG whose capital, Erbil, now itself appeared threatened by the militant advance. The peshmerga had long been denied the American military assistance afforded to Baghdad for fear that it might precipitate Iraq’s breakup, while Baghdad had long been withholding the payment of peshmerga salaries. In order to defend the KRG, protect the thousands of Yazidis and others that had become victims of the Islamist State’s advance and of its brutality, the US initiated a still-ongoing air campaign against jihadist forces in northern Iraq.

The reputation of Iraq’s peshmerga was punctured still further by the leading role played by Syrian Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) in rescuing thousands of Yazidis trapped in the mountains, and by Turkish Kurds from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in liberating the town of Makhmour from its Islamic State occupiers. The humiliation was deepened still further when Barzani felt obliged to thank them for their efforts, as he had hitherto regarded them as undesirable competitors for his leadership of the region’s Kurds.

Although the fog of war persists, the KRG’s complex circumstances can now be seen more clearly. Washington and its allies have now initiated indirect arms supplies to the peshmerga, insisting that any deliveries must first receive a green light from Baghdad. Washington has also continued to actively oppose the KRG’s oil exports via a recently-constructed pipeline into Turkey, thereby aligning itself with the position that Baghdad alone can sanction oil exports from Iraq. Washington is also obliging the Kurds to participate fully in the effort to put together a post-Maliki government of national unity in Baghdad, even though most observers regard the endeavour with skepticism given Shia majoritarainism, Sunni Arab alienation, and the widespread Iraqi Arab rejection of Kurdish demands for greater autonomy. Each of these positions is determined by the US commitment to Iraq’s unitary state.

Furthermore, over a million refugees have so far flooded into Kurdistan, threatening to overwhelm its ability to cope and to destabilise what has hitherto been the only stable part of the country. Although international aid is beginning to trickle in, Baghdad is offering little support to the Kurdish authorities. Erbil’s predicament has been made worse still by Baghdad’s withholding of the KRG’s share of the national budget since the beginning of the year. The KRG is broke.

So, what next for the KRG? To put it brutally, the US position appears to rely increasingly on Iraq’s Kurds to confront Islamic State forces on the ground, while continuing to obstruct Kurdish aspirations for greater autonomy. The US remains absolutely committed to the idea of a Shia-led Iraqi government despite the record to date, which has been to marginalise Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and to fail to address the constitutionally-sanctioned Kurdish positions on the so-called ‘disputed territories’, notably Kirkuk, and on the development of energy resources in Kurdistan. In the negotiations to put together Washington’s much-vaunted ‘government of national unity’ in Baghdad, the Kurds will seek to have their grievances addressed, and the Sunnis will take a great deal of coaxing before they again trust a Shia-majority government. Constitutionalism, inclusiveness, genuine power-sharing, and the de-sectarianisation of Iraq’s institutions, including its armed forces, will not be achieved overnight, if ever. Yet the Kurds and Sunni Arabs are likely to be held responsible for any failure.

It is doubtful that the Kurds can alone beat back Islamic State forces on the ground, and unlikely too that Iraq’s army could either do much better or find itself greeted as a liberating force by Iraq’s Sunnis. At the moment, Kurds, Shia militias, and elements of the Iraqi army are cooperating in the ground war against the Islamic State – with contributions from Iran. Even if they succeed, the Sunni Arabs will remain sullen and Iraq’s Kurds dissatisfied. More likely, if and when Islamic State forces retreat, Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish Iraqis will turn on each other.

In any case, in the battle against the Islamic State, Syria and Iraq constitute a single front. After all, Islamic State originated in Syria, funded and supported from within the Gulf states and Turkey, notwithstanding its capture of Iraq’s Anbar province last year. It is hard to see quite how the country can be put back together. Assad does not look like losing – and if he does, we can anticipate some sectarian cleansing of his Alawite co-religionists – and the ‘opposition’, consisting as it does of around one thousand separate groups, does not look like winning. Whether in the form of the Islamic State or by some other nomenclature, militant Sunni jihadism looks set to persist and even grow, in Iraq, Syria, and throughout the entire region and beyond. Interestingly, the most formidable opponent of the Islamic State in Syria has been the YPG, which has successfully defended Kurdish self-governing enclaves but which, as an offshoot of Turkey’s PKK, is generally regarded as a terrorist organisation and has received no assistance whatsoever.

Given this regional turmoil, the future looks a long way off for Iraq’s Kurds. The KRG is being destabilised, its forces are being used as fodder in battles that are not entirely their own, and its economy is facing ruin. Its best hope now is that the region’s intensifying turmoil will eventually bring the West to the conclusion that the Kurds represent its best friend in the region and maybe its best – or even only – hope of establishing an island of security in a sea of confusion, collapse, violence and animosity. But Washington has a very long way to go before it gives up on its commitment to a Shia-dominated Iraq or, in practice, its prioritisation of the war against Assad over all other considerations. How much regional collapse does it take before the US finally embraces the aspirations of its best friends in that troubled vicinity? Don’t hold your breath.