Kurdish Statehood after ISIS
The Islamic State’s caliphate has been “100 percent” defeated, said U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this week. American drones circle the Islamic State’s final stronghold in Baghuz while Kurdish forces prepare for what both groups hope to be the final offensive against the terrorist organization. Since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s official decree establishing the caliphate in 2014, the world has been asking how this terror group could be stopped. Now that the end is in sight, that world is asking, “what happens next?”
There is one group with a particularly vested interest in this question: the Kurds. From the beginning, the Kurds have been big players in the fight against the Islamic State. Their intimate knowledge of the terrain, alliance with the U.S., and desire for global recognition has often pushed the group to the front lines of the fight. Now that the fight is largely done, many Kurds are left wondering if their contributions to the combat will make their fight for statehood any more likely.
To begin, it is important to note that not all Kurds belong to the same state, support the same political party, or stand behind the same armed forces. Kurdish lands stretch into parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia. In southern and eastern Turkey, the main Kurdish political party is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose armed unit is called the People’s Defense Forces (HPG). In northeastern Syria, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the dominant political party, whose military wing is called the People’s Protection Units (YPG). In northern Iraq, there exists an autonomous Kurdish region with armed services called the Peshmerga. The YPG established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an armed alliance backed by the U.S. that includes Kurdish fighters from all regions in addition to Arab, Turkmen, and other ethnic groups. These are the Kurdish groups that play the largest roles in the fight against the Islamic State.
In order to address the question of statehood, the question must be broken down by geographic location. In Turkey, Kurds have been systematically disenfranchised via banning the Kurdish language, acts of violence on behalf of Turkish authorities, and jailing of Kurdish advocates. The historic tension between Turkey and its Kurdish population has not been ameliorated under the rule of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who fears that international acclaim for the Kurds’ role in the fight against the Islamic State will embolden the Kurds under his domain to fight for their autonomy from Turkey. Although President Erdoğan and President Trump have disagreed in the past, the two leaders currently seem to want to be on the same page about the situation in Syria. The U.S., as a strong ally of the SDF in the fight against the Islamic State and as a historically powerful influencer on the international stage, will play a large role in the possibility of Kurdish autonomy in Turkey. If the U.S. and Turkey plan to stay allies, the U.S. will pull support from the SDF and allied Kurdish groups in order to appease Turkey and will thereby strike a heavy blow to the quest for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey. As it stands now, the geopolitical reality renders the prospect of Kurdish autonomy in Turkey highly improbable.
Kurds already enjoy a high level of autonomy within the borders of Iraq relative to their Kurdish brethren in other nations. The two main Kurdish political parties within Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), govern together in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). A referendum on independence for the Kurdish territory received support from 90% of voters in 2017, but the Iraqi government refused to partake in negotiations and later dispatched forces to take territory from the Kurdish region. Part of the territory lost to pro-government forces included Kirkuk, a city with massive oil reserves that is still contested today. The dispute’s victor will profit not only in oil, but in territorial gains. Profits from the oil field would give Kurds a mechanism by which they could fund their sought-after sovereign state. By taking the land, the Iraqi government ensured that Kurds would not have the means to fund a fight against their control.
When the Islamic State came for northern Iraq, the Peshmerga fought them over the oil fields in Kirkuk while the U.S. performed airstrikes over Erbil. The Kurds, along with Iraqis, fought to liberate Mosul with air support from Western nations, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Canada. These partnerships could prove integral in the fight for statehood for Kurds. Three of these nations (the U.S., U.K., and France) are permanent members in the United Nations Security Council, a venue that has seen demands for statehood before. If partnerships with these nations are secured, the Kurds would have powerful international allies that could help them gain recognition for their contributions to the fight against the Islamic State and bolster their demands for statehood.
It could be argued that Syrian Kurds have the most political mobility given the current state of affairs in their country. In the midst of a civil war, the Syrian government has threats more immediate than Kurdish demands for autonomy. The forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad moved from Kurdish-populated areas in 2012 in order to fight more pressing battles, allowing the Kurds to retake control of the northeastern part of the country. The PYD is not currently making demands for statehood and the Syrian foreign minister has expressed willingness to negotiate on the subject of Kurdish autonomy. While the world is waiting to see who will emerge with the most power in Syria, the Kurds are in a powerful bargaining position on the international stage. They were major players in the fight against ISIS, partaking in and leading global coalitions with major Western powers, all of whom oppose the Russia-backed Assad regime. They could use this conflict to call on Western powers to demonstrate their opposition to the Assad regime by supporting the formation of a Kurdish state.
It is worth noting that not all Kurds want an internationally-recognized Kurdistan, and choose instead to focus their efforts on representation and equal treatment within the countries they live. The reason the question of statehood is particularly interesting in this moment is because of the power the Kurds have gathered as a direct result of their successful efforts to combat the Islamic State. As stories of Kurdish bravery came from battlefields to the rest of the world, many following the news became newly aware of the historic abuse against Kurdish populations. With the support of the international community behind them and the relative weakness of the states in which Kurds reside (in the cases of Iraq and Syria), now may be the best time for those fighting for Kurdistan to strike.
Chulov, Martin. “The Rise and Fall of the Isis 'Caliphate'.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Mar. 2019, www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/23/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-isis-caliphate.
Rogers, Katie, and Ben Hubbard. “'Gone by Tonight': Trump, Maps in Hand, Predicts the Collapse of ISIS.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Mar. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/03/20/us/politics/trump-isis.html.
“Who Are the Kurds?” BBC News, BBC, 31 Oct. 2017, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440.