How Daesh is helping cement Kurdish dreams of statehood

Published March 9th, 2016 - 12:45 GMT
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter holds a position on the front line in the Gwer district, 40 kilometers south of Erbil. (Photo: AFP)
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter holds a position on the front line in the Gwer district, 40 kilometers south of Erbil. (Photo: AFP)

In its rampage across Syria and Iraq over the past two years, Daesh has sought to erase national borders in favor of creating a caliphate. But in trying to forge its own state, it has inadvertently helped to create another: Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Kurdish region of northern Iraq now shares only 30 miles of borders with territory held by the Iraqi government in Baghdad, according to a recent report in Newsweek. Much of the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders--over 500 miles, in fact--are shared with lands currently controlled by Daesh. The fact that the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq is now almost completely severed from the central Iraqi government gives a physical dimension to a separation that already existed in almost every other way--politically, militarily, linguistically, culturally, religiously and ethnically.

Iraqi Kurdistan has been semi-autonomous for years, but recently the region has become even further divorced from Iraq’s Shia-led central government. In 2014, Baghdad slashed the Kurds’ share of federal revenues as punishment for the Kurds’ construction of an oil pipeline to Turkey. The Kurdish government in Erbil started independent oil exports to Turkey in June, and is now averaging earnings of $682 million a month

In the fight against Daesh, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have stepped in where the US-backed Iraqi army has failed. In the summer of 2014, after the Iraqi army retreated in the face of major Daesh advances in northern Iraq, Peshmerga battalions successfully captured the city of Kirkuk, saving it from succumbing to the extremist group.

Peshmerga forces also recaptured the small city of Sinjar from Daesh in November. That victory was important because Sinjar sits on the key Daesh supply route from Raqqa to Mosul, which the Peshmerga disrupted when they seized Sinjar.

All told, the Kurdish Peshmerga have captured 8,000 square miles of territory from Daesh in the past two years.       

As a result of these victories, calls for Kurdish independence have grown ever louder. Last month, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani called for a referendum on independence. “The time has come,” Barzani said at the time. “We can’t remain hostages to an unknown future.” A recent Economist headline proclaimed: “Iraq’s Kurds Are Independent In All But Name.” US Republican presidential candidates like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have called for greater autonomy for Kurds in Iraq, who number about five million. (If you add Kurdish populations in Syria, Iran and Turkey, the Kurds number about 30 million, making them the largest ethnic group in the world without self-determination.)   

So if Iraqi Kurdistan is already its own state, why don’t we officially recognize it as such? For one thing, there are powerful people opposed to Kurdish independence--including Syria, Iran, Turkey and (perhaps most significantly) the United States, which seems to fear that a Kurdish breakaway in Iraq would further destabilize the Middle East. The White House said in July that President Obama “is committed to the united, federal, and democratic Iraq that is defined in the Iraqi constitution” and will “continue to support unify the country.”   

The benefits to Kurdish independence could be big not just for Kurds but for the rest of us: the region is a beacon of stability in the otherwise volatile Middle East, and granting it sovereignty would allow the US and other world powers to supply it directly with weapons which can be used in the fight against Daesh--something that isn’t possible as long as Kurdistan is not an official country. 

Yet without the support of the US or Kurdistan’s neighbors, it seems Kurdish dreams of sovereignty will continue to remain unfulfilled. As the battle to fell the black flags of Daesh becomes more intractable--as the Iraq we once knew descends deeper into chaos--one finds oneself wondering why.  

By Hunter Stuart

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