Originally published on September 15, 2014, on Geopolitika.lt (in Lithuanian)
The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has brought another group, the Iraqi Kurds, to the centre of the world’s attention. Who is this group that has been fighting ISIS so viciously? Where is it located, what is its history, and, more importantly, how will the very emergence of ISIS shape its geopolitical situation?
Unsuccessful Attempts to Form a Nation State
According to different sources, the current Kurdish population varies between 30 million and 38 million, which can be compared to countries like Venezuela or Poland. This ethnic group is predominantly Muslim but is not Arab, and has its own language close to Persian and Pashtun. It’s not surprising that this group has its own history and traditions, yet their national aspirations have never materialised into a modern nation state. What is known as Kurdistan stretches across territories belonging to five countries: Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. The majority of Kurds live in Turkey (approx. 14 million, or 18 percent of the Turkish population), approx. 8 million are in Iran, 5 million in Iraq and around 2.5 million in Syria.
Historically, not every ethnic group has formed a nation state, and Kurds are considered to be the biggest ethnic group without one. In short, Kurdish national ambitions were crushed by the treaties signed after the First World War, after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. The Treaty of Sevres, signed in 1920, promised Kurdistan an autonomous territory status, however, in 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne divided Kurdistan into territories given – by the West – to newly formed states. Before the war even ended, France and the UK had decided, in the Sykes-Picot agreement, how to divide the Ottoman lands. This is how the winners have proceeded, completely disregarding “the Kurdish question”. The UK put itself in charge of Iraq, France was ruling the nowadays Syria, and Kemal Ataturk, supported by the Kurds in his dismantling of monarchy in Turkey, didn’t grant the Kurds any autonomy. In other words, the Kurdish story is a cautionary tale of Western powers drawing lines on a world map following their self-interests, without any consideration for major ethnic or demographic factors.
The Emergence and Fight for Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys a status of an autonomous region, which is more what Kurds living in other countries comprising historic Kurdistan have at the moment, yet attaining such a status came at a high cost. A rebellion of 1961 is considered the beginning of the First Iraqi-Kurdish War that lasted until 1970, when the government of Saddam Hussein offered the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) an agreement that would grant autonomy to the region. This agreement is what officially set up what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. However, de facto, autonomy was not granted, and in 1971 Iraqi agents tried to assassinate one of the KDP leaders. For several years the Peshmerga, Kurdish forces who have been fighting the Iraqi government since 1973, received support from the US, Israel, and Iran. Now, these forces constitute the Iraqi Kurdistan army.
The Second Iraqi-Kurdish War started in 1974 and reached its peak towards the end, in 1975, when Saddam Hussein launched a bombing campaign, destroying Kurdish village. From the 1970s until the end of 1990s, the Iraqi government has been forcibly displacing Kurds from their native lands. According to Human Rights Watch, the end of the 1970s saw approximately 250,000 Kurds displaced and their villages destroyed. In the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), the Iraqi Kurdistan forces showed support to Iran and received a horrible punishment for it. During the Anfal Campaign, an ethnic cleansing operation also referred to as the Kurdish genocide, approximately 100,000 Kurds “disappeared”, and chemical weapons were used, for example, in the infamous Halabja gas attack in 1988. During the Gulf War that started soon after, around 1.5 million Iraqi Kurds were forced to leave their homes and look for shelter in Iran and Turkey.
It’s crucial to note that Iraqi Kurds are not a politically monolithic group. In addition to the KDP, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (with Jalal Talabani as its leader) is another major party in the region. Between the 1970s and the US invasion in Iraq in 2003, there was major fighting between these groups, resulting in thousands of casualties. In 2002, the parties signed a peace treaty, which led to Talabani becoming the first non-arab president of Iraq in 2005. He remained in this post until 2014, leaving a record of bringing improvements to the Kurdish situation in the country.
Fight against ISIS and What that Means for Iraqi Kurds
Although the majority of Iraqi Kurds are Sunnis (like ISIS fighters), the Peshmerga (the Iraqi Kurdistan army) don’t support ISIS and are actively fighting its expansion to the north of the country. For example, together with controversial bombings by the US forces, the Peshmerga are holding onto the city of Mosul at the moment. Naturally, there is the intrinsic value and importance in fighting ISIS on the ground. At the same time, this is also an opportunity for the Iraqi Kurdistan to move closer to its geopolitical goals.
After the Peshmerga forces stopped the expansion of ISIS to the north, they have taken over the city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk, with its oilfields, is an oil refinery centre and a city that the Kurds had wanted to see in Iraqi Kurdistan for some time, yet the Iraqi government has kept it outside of Kurdistan’s borders. Also, if the fight against ISIS continues and the sectarian divisions get deeper in the country (which is something Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is partly blamed for), we might see Iraq at the edge of collapsing, which could potentially help the Kurds with their national aspirations. In his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Halgord Hikmat, the spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga Ministry, admitted that if Kurds declared their independence now, this could be an example for other ethnic groups in Iraq. A unified Iraq doesn’t seem viable, Hikmat said, adding that the very method used to establish Iraq as a country in the previous century cannot guarantee its future as a unified region.