After nearly five years of fighting, Syria still bleeds instability. The death toll of the crisis has been estimated to surpass 470,000, and still climbs as President Bashar al-Assad wars with moderate and radicalized rebels. The once-isolated civil war has transformed into a globalized quandary, impacting the social and political fabric of the Middle East, Europe, and liberal international order through the largest refugee population in history. But the conflict has also emerged as a battleground of immense opportunity – for foreign powers pursuing regional hegemony, extremist groups seeking global prepotency, and autonomous peoples preparing for statehood.
The Kurdish population dispersed across northern Syria, Iraq, and southern Turkey, has capitalized upon the political labyrinth in the Levant. The United States has famously backed Kurdish brigades, the Peshmerga forces, defending crucial territories against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They have become a popular alternative to placing American boots on the ground in the Washington policy arena, as well as a geopolitical asset in the region. Such reinforcement has skyrocketed the Kurdish population into the international limelight as a key contender for statehood once strife subsides. However, it is the American mischaracterization of the Kurdish people and the fragmented nature of their politics that will be the Achilles’ heel in any statehood objective. Unless the Kurdish people overcome the obstacles of nationalist fragmentation, recognition will remain a distant reality.
Deconstructing the Kurdish Objective
Kurdistan has become a subject of recent western fascination, however, has been a resilient force in the region for centuries. Before the construction of national identities and contemporary borders, the Kurds existed as an ethnic population of the Mesopotamian Plains. After generations under foreign and imperialist rule, Kurdistan received its first omen of statehood with the arrival of ethnonationalism in the demise of the First World War. The Treaty of Sevres fuelled their declaration of independence in 1927 in the Republic of Ararat — yet was short-lived. Despite attempts by the United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and other foreign entities to install a Kurdish autonomous state, post-war waves of pan-Arabism and nationalism stood in the way of complete secession. Only were the Kurdish populace able to achieve a degree of political autonomy when under the guise of existing states, as Kingdoms, regions of limited self-rule, or autonomous zones. This power struggle is still very much alive today. The war between self-determination and the existing statehood landscape has transcended the 20th century; the fourth-largest stateless population has become of of the most significant flashpoints of the contemporary international order.
Despite challenging political circumstance, the Kurdish people have thrived. The robust city of Erbil has become an oasis within northern Iraq – oil rich, democratized, and a destination for many refugees. Exxon Mobil even announced an oil deal with the Kurdish regional government for resource development – a signal of rising Kurdish prominence in the political and economic realm. The city has its own parliament, police force, and even a license plate system. The inclusion of women in police system and fighter brigades, lack of heavied political Islam, and overall positive inclination towards the West has been welcomed by policymakers and Washington. The most impressive feat of the Kurds, however, has been their ability to dodge the seemingly inevitable power vacuum of the region. The Kurds were wise to mobilize militant forces not only to protect their own autonomous zones, but to ally with the weakened Iraqi forces and make a case for foreign assistance.
Yet, the West misses the mark in properly characterizing the Kurdish people, their plight, and their chance for future statehood autonomy. While the Kurds are often conglomerated as one movement, autonomous efforts could not be more fragmented. Many have analogized the Syrian conflict as a phenomenon where nationalism gives way to ethnic, religious, and sectarian identity – breaking down the barriers of the artificial 1917 Sykes-Picot borders. However, Kurdistan is severely splintered across Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi nationalist lines. In Iraq, the Kurds live in an autonomous zone established after the Gulf War. In Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) rules in its autonomous zone, protecting the zone from rebels and ISIS fighters with their Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Units or YPG) forces. In southeast Turkey, the Kurdish population lives under constant suppression, despite a recent peace deal between the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK) and Erdogan’s government.
While many predict Kurdistan to become a recognized, autonomous state after the crisis in the Levant, there are many obstacles in its wake. The fragmented nature of Kurdistan across Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, is the largest challenge; different national “experiences” have transformed different Kurdish agendas. In Turkey, the PKK is more leftist, critical of the United States, and less inclined towards total independence, instead promoting an autonomous region within Ankara’s political arena. In Syria and Iraq, the Kurdish population is more pro-west and has proven a greater interest in establishing a recognized Kurdistan. Another Kurdish handicap is the lack of diversified economic opportunity in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq and Syria. While the oil sector has brought immense wealth to the region – luring foreign investment and relative stability – any official statehood venture would require intense diversification of the Kurdish economy. The Iraqi Kurds have instituted relative independence of their oil sector from the Iraqi government, however have experienced back-and-forth battles over shares of revenue and economic reintegration. In 2015, Iraqi Kurdistan was able to increase oil production from 2011 figures by 600%, however was still gravely $18 million in debt. Like any oil-dependent country in the region, economic diversification will enable Kurdistan to transform from a de facto nation to a de jure statehood system. Recent Turkish dependence upon Iraqi Kurdish oil – all while relations sour with Turkish Kurdish peoples over the failed PKK peacetime deal – has complicated smooth relations between the PKK and PYD, something necessary for any future, unified Kurdistan. All regions will have to face these structural inefficiencies, objectives, and political fragmentation before the dream of an independent Kurdistan can become reality.
The United States’ use of the Kurdish forces and population as a bulwark against regional terrorism has also perplexed chances of Kurdish statehood. A $400 million aid package has enabled the Kurdish Peshmerga to join the Mosul offensive and drive the Islamic State from occupying one-third of Iraqi territory. Yet, limits will emerge in the United States’ agenda against the Islamic State — while the U.S. wishes to utilize the Kurds against radicalized factions, the Kurds hold a divergent objective of securing existing Kurdish-held territory in Iraq. In what many attribute as a “marriage of convenience,” fragments of the Kurdish leadership — such as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) — are convinced statehood is within their grasp with such American reliance. Using the Kurdish population as a mechanism and convenient alternative has gifted Kurdish leaders false hopes of independence. The Kurdish people are, to an extent, used to empty promises; successive governments have continually presented the Kurds with unfulfilled offers of independence or autonomy. Yet, the turbulent and ungovernable landscape of neighboring countries have illustrated a mirage of opportunity for an independent Kurdistan. The United States’ strategic interests in the region walk across a narrow tightrope between Turkey, Iran, Gulf powers, and Russian intervention in Syria. Full support of Kurdish statehood should be expected to further exacerbate regional complications, as well as the objective of halting the civil war.
The conflict in the Levant is far from its culmination. Sectarian factions, radicalism, religious and ethnic identities, and foreign powers all collectively seek influence in the region. The Kurds have proven to be reliable force on both defensive and offensive fronts in a climate of complete discord. Through Kurdish assistance, the United States has become seemingly reliant on the Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State and other extremist factions and has considered the luxury a pro-American Kurdish buffer state would offer their foreign agenda in the region.
The public mischaracterization of the Kurdish population themselves increases chances of miscalculation, and can prove costly in what will be the most challenging foreign policy dilemma of the next administration. While Kurdistan has been an instrument played in American de facto presence, policymakers should realize the precarious Kurdish state of affairs, and understand the limits that accompany a fragmented, but resilient, nation.