War on Islamic State caliphate boosts the birth of Kurdistan

Refugees from the war in Syria continue to arrive to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Despite the seemingly impossible situation, children created a mural that reads, “hope gives wings to humanity.” Photo by Samantha Robinson, European Commission, public domain
Refugees from the war in Syria continue to arrive to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Despite the seemingly impossible situation, children created a mural that reads, “hope gives wings to humanity.” Photo by Samantha Robinson, European Commission, public domain

October 31, 2014  

Before going to war it is always a good idea to have a clear purpose and outcome in mind.

Yet six Royal Canadian Airforce CF-18s are set for bombing missions in the Middle East without any clear vision of what victory will look like. The whole thing is depressingly reminiscent of the Libyan campaign in 2011 when allied warplanes enabled rebels to oust and kill dictator Moammar Gaddhafi. But then they all declared “mission accomplished,” packed up their kit and headed home. Meanwhile Libya has turned into bloody chaos and a killing ground for rival Islamic factions, tribal fighters and would-be new dictators. There are many days when Gaddhafi, for all his evil, looks a lot better than what Libyans have got now.

Sadly this latest international escapade to try to neuter the Islamic State movement in Syria and Iraq does not appear to have any clearer line of march or long-term strategic purpose than the Libyan adventure.

But there is a worthwhile objective that could raise this campaign above the bombing of psychopaths in stolen trucks. It is to use this conflict to propel the creation of an independent state of Kurdistan. The 30 million Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without a homeland and for hundreds of years they have been viewed with hatred and mistrust, abused and persecuted. The Kurds’ home territory overlaps the current borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran and an internationally recognized state of Kurdistan could provide a very useful buffer state in this troubled neighbourhood.

Already the Kurds have shouldered much of the grim foot-soldier work in the fight against the rampant Islamic State forces. There is little doubt that Washington, the men at NATO headquarters and the allied Arab states would like much of the door-to-door fighting to be done by the Kurds while everyone else flies at 30,000 feet and lobs bombs on likely targets.

Well and good. Some of the Kurdish fighters have already shown themselves to be a match for the Islamic State thugs. The defence of Kobani on the Syrian border with Turkey and, in August, the rescue of Yezidi Kurds, Christians and other minorities trapped on Mount Sinjar in Iraq have been exceptional feats of arms. But if the Kurdish fighters are going to do the brunt of the infantry fighting, they deserve to know what they are fighting for beyond survival until today’s sunset.

There is already a nascent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan has had quasi independence since the early 1990s when the U.S. and Britain imposed a “no fly zone” over the region to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s revenge after the First Gulf War. The Iraqi Kurds now have a largely autonomous state within the Iraq federation. They have massive oil reserves and relatively stable politics. There are well-founded speculations that the Iraqi Kurds will declare full independence within a decade.

But there are serious internal and external impediments making it a Herculean task to weld neighbouring Kurdish regions into a single Kurdistan.

The most likely prospect for Kurdish expansion is the Kurdish region of northern Syria abutting Iraq and Syria. Since the civil war erupted in Syria as the country was engulfed by the shock wave of the Arab Spring early in 2011, the regime of President Bashar al Assad has allowed and even encouraged the Kurds to go their own way. Until they became a target for Islamic State psychopaths, the Syrian Kurds had established a functioning administration in their region, including managing border posts with Turkey and Iraq.

However, the siege of Kobani has pushed to the surface some of the internal and external pressures working against the creation of a complete Kurdistan homeland. The dominant political group among the Syrian Kurds in Kobani and northern Syria is the Democratic Union Party known as PYD. Although the PYD is a distinct political group, it is closely affiliated to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been fighting for Kurdish independence in eastern Turkey since the 1980s. It is outlawed as a terrorist organization by the Turkish government, the U.S. and the European Union. Ankara’s strong resistance to allowing arms and reinforcements to cross its territory into Kobani just over the border is based on the fear that these will boost the PKK.

It’s easy to argue that Ankara is its own worst enemy in dealing with the Turkish Kurds. Peace talks aimed at providing the Kurds a culturally secure region within Turkey have stagnated. In recent weeks there has been a serious upsurge in conflict in eastern Turkey between Turkish security forces and Kurdish fighters. There has also been an up-tick in extreme anti-Kurdish nationalism among Turks. Ankara will remain as adamantly opposed to Kurdish eastern Turkey joining Kurdistan as it has ever been.

As part of its efforts to contain the PKK, the Ankara government has in recent years developed a working relationship with Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). For the KDP in northern Iraq this has been an entirely pragmatic alliance. It has allowed the Iraqi Kurds to export their oil and do other business through Turkey without having to deal with the corrupt, obstructive and oppressive administration in the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

In return, the KDP has made little fuss when Turkish forces have made raids over the border against KPP camps in Iraqi Kurdistan.

That has changed since August when both Turkish Kurds of the KPP and Syrian Kurds of the PYD rushed to the aid of Iraqi Kurduish fighters, known as Peshmerga (those who confront death) in their resistance to the onslaught by the Islamic State thugs. In particular, it was KPP and PYD fighters who broke the Islamic State siege of Mount Sinjar, where thousands of Yezidi Kurds were trapped and awaiting death either from exposure or the butcher’s knife.

This and other successful engagements against Islamic State fighters has raised the status of the KPP and the PYD among the wider Kurdish community and at the same time lessened Ankara’s influence over the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government in its capital or Irbil.

The KDP in Irbil has also played a significant role is constraining the separatist aspirations of Kurds to the east in neighbouring north-western Iran. Much of the leadership of the Iranian Kurds’ Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) is in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan. But the Irbil Kurds of the KDP have maintained good relations with Tehran for their own protection and therefore limit the actions of the PJAK.

There are growing signs of rapprochement between Iran and the West, especially Washington, both over Tehran’s nuclear program and their common purpose in fighting the Islamic State uprising. Iran’s Republican Guard and its allied fighters from such groups as the Lebanese Hezbollah are important elements of the ground troops fighting the Islamic State. Military men with recent experience of the region all say there is undoubtedly co-ordination of the U.S.-led air raids with Iranian-guided troop movements on the ground.

What the foreseeable ending of Iran’s isolation from western governments and the possible liberalization of politics in Tehran could mean for the Iranian Kurds is hard to predict. There is some speculation political reform in Tehran could lead to some form of autonomy for Iranian Kurds and thus the prospect of the region joining Kurdistan in the future.

For all of these reasons, the emergence of an independent Kurdistan from the war against the Islamic State remains a distant prospect. But there are good reasons to believe significant steps toward that goal are being taken now.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com  

Map of Kurdistan region. Map by Ferhates, Wikipedia, Creative Commons
Map of Kurdistan region. Map by Ferhates, Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Related reading:
Nation of Kurdistan springs from Arab chaos, July 4, 2014, by Jonathan Manthorpe 
Washington and Tehran find common cause against Islamic State. August 21, 2014, by Jonathan Manthorpe 
Libya finds its new Qaddafi. July 25, 2014, by Jonathan Manthorpe 
Al-Qaida Jihadists Suspicious of Iraq-Syria Caliphate. July 16, 2014, by Jonathan Manthorpe 
 Who are the Yazidis? By Christine Allison 
Verbatim: Desert depredations. By F&O


Jonathan Manthorpe
Jonathan Manthorpe

Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has traveled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.





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