By Manish Rai
Nearly a century after failing to achieve nationhood in the post-Versailles period, the Kurds are now on the move. A greater Kurdistan nation-state taken from the four countries where Kurds are minorities seems improbable. But greater autonomy is growing within Turkey and Syria if not Iran, and an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is becoming more likely by the day.
Kurds who are scoring significant victories over Islamic State are by far the most effective force fighting IS in both Iraq and Syria. But they appear to intent on keeping all the ground they’ve taken from the notorious terrorist group for their own national project, endangering the larger cause of keeping these two battered nation-states in one piece, and raising the prospect of another war patiently waiting at the conclusion of the current one.
There is no doubt that Kurds are the most mighty ground force against Islamic State today. The recent run of victories in Syria illustrates the Kurds battlefield capabilities. Six months after winning in Kobani, the Turkish border town where as many as 1,000 ISIS fighters died, Syrian Kurd fighters took another border town, Tel Abyad, creating a corridor on Syria’s northern border and far more important cutting off the main supply line to Raqqah, ISIS’s capital 60 miles due south. But the efforts of the Kurds are also driven by the desire of achieving nationhood.
The Kurds fight so well largely because, in addition to trying to defeat an extremist enemy, they’re fighting for something else: A country of their own. The future Kurdistan may be severely buffeted across Arab portions of the Middle East. Neither Syria nor Iraq (currently) have effective and powerful central governments, though in the past, they have always crushed Kurdish nationalist movements. So Kurds smell the great opportunity for building an independent Kurdistan now.
The Kurds, despite their large numbers (about 30 million worldwide), as well as their shared language, culture and identity, have never had a nation and were divided in four countries in Sykpes-Picot order created after World War I by Britain and France. But they’re getting closer to one nation with every victory in the battlefield. In Iraq, Kurdish forces armed by both Iran and the US have taken perhaps 10,000 square miles from ISIS since last fall. They also snapped up the disputed city of Kirkuk, rich in oil and cultural significance to Kurds and Arabs alike and are preventing Arabs from returning to some villages. Houses are marked “Reserved for Kurds,” and Kurdish checkpoints declare, “No Arabs Allowed.”
These acts on the ground are clearly intended to create “facts on the ground,” A political reality that Kurdish leaders will point as they navigate their relationship with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, to which they are currently bound by oil-revenue contracts, if little else. As valiantly as the Kurds have fought, losing an estimated 1,000 men and women over the last year against ISIS, they see the conflict in terms of national liberation.
Massoud Barzani, who leads the Kurdistan Regional Government, has repeatedly said Kurds will not fight for the rest of Iraq or for the idea of it. Iraqi Kurds are using US airstrikes and the political vacuum in northern Iraq not only to push back ISIS, but also to recapture disputed territories and oil fields. As for the Kurds, they say they will back up Iraqi forces seeking to retake Mosul but will not be the spearhead. Their aim is defensive to secure their borders with the rest of Iraq, especially those they have expanded since the summer, but not to help Baghdad restore the status quo ante.
A future independent Kurdish state faces many political, economic, and administrative challenges, but its success could be a game-changer in the Middle East. But it’s a hard reality as well that the West has not changed its official position towards Iraq, Syria and Turkey and still want the borders to remain intact, which goes against Kurdish inspiration for independence.
So Kurdish leadership has to negotiate their relations with the West going forward. Kurds can’t be ignored in the present Middle East scenario. Domestic upheaval and political changes throughout the region have made Kurds critical players on many fronts in the Middle-East. Kurds have a long history of marginalization and persecution by many regimes and, particularly in Iraq and Turkey, have repeatedly risen up to seek greater autonomy or complete independence. Now, day by day, they feel they are getting closer to their ultimate dream of independent Kurdish state. Kurdish nationalist aspirations which are at a high at this point in time could reshape the Middle East.
Manish Rai is a columnist for the Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org