Brian M Downing
After the end of World War One and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds expected the statesmen at Versailles to recognize their right to self-determination. An independent Kurdish state appeared within reach. The British, French, Turks, and Persians had other ideas. Partition and repression followed.
Today, after doggedly fighting ISIL, another betrayal looms. Iran, Iraq, and Turkey are warning against Kurdistan independence and positioning troops along its borders. How far can the three powers go and how can the Kurds respond? How will states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia react?
In addition to participating in military threats with Iran and Iraq, Turkey is threatening to cut off Kurdistan’s oil exports. Without oil revenue, Kurdistan will be devastated. The three powers are insisting on the region’s abandonment of the idea of independence and the surrender of airports and oil terminals.
They may also demand that the Kurds retreat from Kirkuk and adjacent oil fields. Peshmerga took them in 2014 after the Iraqi army fled ISIL troops, legitimizing their seizure by noting that the areas were historically Kurdish until Saddam Hussein began an Arab settlement program to consolidate his rule.
Kurdistan’s only allies are Israel and the United States. Neoconservatives have long advocated Kurdish independence in high councils and the media. Sympathy is there, meaningful support isn’t. American logistical capacities are formidable, though not in that landlocked part of the world. The three powers can surely cut off land and air access.
Turkey, Iran, and Iraq are threatening Kurdistan with invasion or at least incursion. After Gulf War One, the US and NATO established an aircap over Kurdistan. Saddam’s troops couldn’t return, Kurdistan’s autonomy could begin.
Kurdistan is accustomed to freedom and will not go gently into submission. If the three powers go beyond limited incursions and attempt to take Erbil and the Kirkuk fields, they would encounter fierce, well-armed fighters with strong popular support in the craggy mountains. A protracted, low-level war would ensue. Sympathetic attacks would almost certainly occur in southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iraq. This prospect will likely restrain the three powers.
Sunni Arabs and foreign help
The Kurds are not the only group in the region seeking to preserve their autonomy. The Sunni tribes of western Iraq and eastern Syria do not want a return to Shia rule – not from Baghdad, not from Damascus. Kurdistan would much prefer to stay aloof from as much of the region’s strife as possible, but the three powers are forcing them to look for allies.
The Sunnis of western Iraq are organized by the Dulayim confederation. It provided a disproportionate number of Saddam’s officers and security leaders, fought the US occupation, formed the Anbar Awakening against al Qaeda, and is now reducing ISIL’s presence.
To the west are Syrian Arabs who are less well-organized, though some are in the Dulayim Confederation. They, in conjunction with Syrian Kurds, are carving out territory along the border with Turkey and east of the Euphrates River. Arabs and Kurds compose the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces which are taking Raqqa from ISIL.
This provides the potential for foreign assistance. Israel is eager to weaken Iran across the region and wants a reliable path to its longstanding Kurdish allies. Saudi Arabia is watching the encirclement of Kurdistan with concern. It may also see opportunity.
Though the royal family in recent weeks has stepped back from overt conflict with Iran, Shia enemies are weakening Kurdistan and increasing their power and resources in the region. Iran and Iraq are also strengthening lines of communication with allies in Syria and Lebanon.
Saudi coffers, though less than bountiful now, may send money and arms to fellow enemies of the Shia to the north. Israeli special forces may strengthen ties with Kurds throughout the region. Saudi Arabia and Israel will use their considerable influence in the US to defend the cause of Kurdistan.
Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.