Kurdistan is a nation that encompasses parts of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, but it is not a state. In post-Saddam Iraq the Kurds have had success in forming a new autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) with their own military. In July last year, KRG President Masoud Barzani asked his parliament to prepare for an independence referendum. The Kurds have a rich heritage of rebellion, having fought with Iraq, Iran, Syria,Turkey and, of course, Islamic State, all within a 25 year time frame. Yet it is this recent role as an effective ally against ISIS that has increasingly come to define the Kurds in the eyes of the West.
Frustrated in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Western states understandably have little appetite for more messy ground wars. Hence the emphasis on air power against ISIS with the U.S. and several other states providing close air support for ground forces. But on the ground, utilising other people’s armies (OPA) facilitates the pursuit of military objectives by outsourcing the blood intensive combat roles to the armed forces of other countries. The Kurds have become especially important since the Iraqi army melted away en masse. The Iraqi army has, by some estimates, lost enough hardware to arm in excess of 150,000 combatants. American built Humvees, artillery, small arms, even tanks, have all been lost to ISIS and in significant numbers. As a result, Kurdish Peshmerga forces now receive most Western military support, and yield results. ISIS’s ideology of violence has made a peaceful settlement impossible and their eventual fragmentation into obscurity is the most likely option. Sadly, the future of the Middle East after ISIS is unlikely to be a peaceful one, and Kurdistan could be instrumental in any future conflict.
Peshmerga fighters seem to be the only force capable of effectively countering ISIS. Consequently, they are pressuring the US and other states for both funds and modern weaponry. Germany has so far pledged anti-tank systems, 16,000 rifles, 8,000 pistols, 6 Million rounds of ammunition, and more than 100 military vehicles. Equally substantial arms shipments have also been sent by Albania, Australia, Croatia, The Czech Republic, France, The United States and others. Arming the Kurds is proving effective in combatting ISIS. But while this may be the solution to today’s problem, this ‘solution’ could well become tomorrow’s problem.
The KRG has found itself in control of 40% more territory than it administered before the war with ISIS began. Crucially, the KRG now controls Kirkuk, commonly acknowledged to be the Kurdish cultural capital, and its accompanying oil field, which is responsible for almost half of Iraqi oil production.
It is entirely conceivable that the KRG could emerge from the war with ISIS richer, better equipped and better organised than the rest of Iraq, a position that would virtually make Kurdish independence a reality. Strategic evaluations of Kurdish assistance based only on its value to Western foreign policy objectives neglect potentially significant risks in the years ahead. Arming the Kurds makes short term sense, but it may prove harmful to regional stability.
There needs to be a serious re-evaluation of the logic behind arming the military of an aspiring state with huge stockpiles of weaponry. If creating peace is the ambition for Western policy in the Middle East then the Kurdish policy appears to be a dangerous panic reaction as opposed to a solution. Such short-term thinking is the hallmark of what has been worryingly described a‘whack-a-mole’ Middle Eastern foreign policy where the pressure to ‘do something’ takes priority over more considered strategic calculations.
Internally, a future Kurdistan would face problems with racial politics and with respect to which peoples it seeks to represent. Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without their own state. The foundation of a country along broadly ethnic lines has proved to be extremely problematic in the past. The Yugoslav wars are a vivid lesson about the horrors of ethnic nationalism in practice.
Following a Kurdish declaration of independence what remains of Iraq could descend into further Sunni and Shiite sectarian violence as happened from 2006-2007. Thus, an independent Kurdistan might not only be bad for Iraq, but also dangerous to neighbouring states, especially when we consider the ethnic Kurds who reside outside the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey has faced an armed insurrection from Kurdish nationalists since the mid 1980s, a conflict that would surely be exacerbated by a formal declaration of Kurdish independence.
The ethics behind politics and the use of violence become completely distorted when ethnic nationalism is the foundational principle of a state. By gifting the KRG weapons, hardware and training, a precarious situation has become even more dangerous and the conditions for a new phase of Middle Eastern violence have been created.
Image courtesy of troyenekvist