As Donald Trump returns from his first international tour as American president, one thing that stands out is, as usual, the difference between his and Barack Obama’s approach to diplomacy. Whereas Obama’s first Mideast destinations were Turkey and Iraq, Trump’s were Saudi Arabia and Israel, a country Obama did not even visit until his second term in office.
Trump’s trip also included stops in Brussels, Sicily and the Vatican in Rome. Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, these represent four of the five most significant allies of the United States within the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region: Italy, Israel, the Saudis and the EU.
The fifth ally, which appears to have been snubbed, is Turkey. The Turks were not honored with a stop during Trump’s first trip to the region, as they were during Obama’s.
Turkey failing to make it onto Trump’s travel itinerary might seem to be of little significance, if it were not for the flurry of unpleasant events involving the Turks and Americans that have occured this same month. Read more
Catalans, Kurds, Given No Other Choice, Announce Referendums
Both the Catalans and Iraq’s Kurds have announced independence referendums this week over the objections of their central governments.
The two might seem a world away. Catalans have virtually no security concerns. The Kurds are waging a war on two fronts: one against Turkey to the north and another against the self-proclaimed Islamic State to the south.
Forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad have for the first time bombarded Kurdish rebel positions in the northeast of the country, marking a shift in the regime’s strategy.
The largely Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) claims that regime forces carried out airstrikes in the Al-Hasakah Governorate and attacked urban areas with artillery, killing and injuring dozens.
CNN reports that American officials were nearby when the attack occurred.
The United States support the YPG in their fight against the self-declared Islamic State, a fanatical Sunni Islamist group that occupies territory in between the Assad regime’s and the Kurds. Read more
Kurdish Independence Would Reverberate Across Region
The secession of the Kurdish Autonomous Region from the Iraqi state increasingly appears to be a matter of when, not if. It is already essentially de facto independent, as the Kurds conduct their own foreign policy and trade deals from their capital in Irbil with little regard for Baghdad’s wishes.
It is therefore unsurprising that early last month, Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, reiterated calls he previously made in 2014 for a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan.
While there are no immediate plans for actually carrying out such a referendum, it is worth considering the impact that an independent Kurdish state would have on the Middle East.
The formal independence of Iraqi Kurdistan would effectively signal the end of a unified Iraq. Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Sunnis have been worried that they would be dominated by the Shia population. These fears intensified under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who sought to secure power for his Shia party and the resultant friction directly contributed to the defection of many Sunni leaders to the Islamic State in 2014.
An independent Kurdistan would overwhelmingly shift the population balance inside Iraq in favor of the Shia, making reconciliation with the Sunnis next to impossible. Short of a massive and unending occupation of the Sunni provinces, it is unlikely that Baghdad would be able to control western Iraq, leading to the breakup of Iraq in all but name.
Similarly, the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is likely to inspire other Kurdish groups in the region which are seeking independence. This would probably lead to an intensification of the violence in southeastern Turkey, although it is unlikely that this heightened violence would succeed in taking and holding territory due to the strength of the Turkish state and military.
More important would be the effects in Syria, where the Kurdish PYG militia has carved out an autonomous enclave in the northeast of the country. The independence of their Iraqi brethren would likely encourage the Syrian Kurds to fight on for formal independence as well, thereby lengthening the Syrian Civil War and helping to prevent a negotiated reunification of that country.
Finally, it should also be noted that a full entrance onto the international stage will not solve Kurdistan’s historic domestic divisions.
The Kurdish Autonomous Region is split between two parties which control different areas and maintain separate Peshmerga militias and which fought what amounted to a civil war during the mid-1990s. While these two parties are currently in coalition as the government of the KRG, they are facing resistance from the Gorran opposition movement, which has staged protests over government corruption and President Masoud Barzani’s utilization of the fight against ISIS to justify extending his term by mandate.
A longer-term view
In the long run, the real question is how the Kurds will align themselves regionally. While Irbil and Ankara have maintained good relations in recent years, Turkey’s ongoing and historic problems accommodating its Kurdish population will make these relations hard to maintain indefinitely. This is especially true given the resumption of violence between the PKK and Turkey, which could serve to inflame Iraqi Kurdish sentiment against Turkey.
The other potential regional partner for the Kurds would be Iran. Aligning with Iran would not require the same sort of historical blinders as an alliance with Turkey, as the Iranian Kurdish population is much smaller and better accommodated than the Kurds in Turkey. To be sure, there has been occasional violence between Kurdish separatist groups and the Iranian state, but these clashes are inconsequential when contrasted with the decades-long struggle between the PKK and Turkey, which has cost upwards of 30,000 lives.
These systemic factors will likely slowly drive Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran closer. Iran already has a fairly positive relationship with Kurdistan — it maintains two consulates in the region and enjoys a fair amount of trade with Irbil.
Presently, any further improvement in relations is somewhat undercut by Iran’s support for the Iraqi government. However, following a Kurdish declaration of independence, this support would cease to be an obstacle, paving the way for closer relations with Tehran.
An alliance with Iran would benefit both parties. The Iraqi Kurds have been one of the most effective groups in combatting the Islamic State and would be valuable allies to Iran.
For its part, Iran has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to use foreign aid to reward its regional allies, which would be especially attractive if continued low oil prices perpetuate the current Kurdish budget shortfalls. This sort of working relationship has already started, as Iran was able to provide the Kurds with additional weaponry to fight ISIS in 2014.
It may seem strange for the Kurds to abandon a decades-old arrangement with the United States to work with Iran, but it is important to remember that the historic cooperation between Iraqi Kurds and America has primarily been based on coincidental shared interests. American military aid during the Cold War waxed and waned relative to the fears of Soviet influence in Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdistan is relatively less important to the United States than it is to Iran, as the former has a host of other regional allies to call upon and is preoccupied by the need to confront other pressing problems around the world. As such, Iran should be able to provide more support to Kurdistan than the United States.
Given these changes in regional geopolitical dynamics, it would be strange if the Kurdish Regional Government did not reevaluate its priorities post-independence and ultimately move closer to Iran.
Thus, while Kurdish independence sometime in the near future seems likely, it is unlikely to result in a more stable Middle East. An independent Kurdistan will precipitate instability domestically and regionally in both the short and long terms by making extant states untenable and altering long-standing alliances.
After almost a century of broken promises and political strife, the Kurdish population of the Middle East seems to be coming into its own. Kurds in Iraq and Syria have been essentially the only force to persistently enjoy success in combating ISIS and have provided enclaves of relative stability as their respective states have crumbled.
The Iraqi Kurds have been especially successful. Since the formation of the Kurdish Autonomous Region following the American invasion of Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds have essentially created their own state based around their capital at Irbil, complete with a largely autonomous income from oil sales and trade with Turkey. Due to a variety of domestic, regional and international factors, the time is now ripe for Iraqi Kurdistan to formally declare independence and sever the ties which bind it to Baghdad.
Domestic and regional disarray
Domestically, the Iraqi government has been hobbled by the corruption and blatant sectarian favoritism of the al-Maliki regime and further undermined by the collapse of the military in the face of ISIS. The Islamic State’s presence in the center of the country has further estranged it from Irbil as it is now impossible for the central government to project power in the country’s Kurdish North.
At the same time, regional powers are preoccupied by other issues and unlikely to intervene. The primary opponent of Kurdish independence has always been Turkey; however, Ankara is mired in a mix of domestic and external problems. The breakdown of the peace process with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) poses a variety of threats to Turkey domestically even while the Turkish government faces a deteriorating security situation on its southeast border with Syria, where the fighting between the Syrian Kurds and the Islamic State threatens to spill over into Turkey proper.
These problems are compounded further by political and economic tensions with Russia stemming from Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet last year and by the two countries backing opposite sides in the Syrian Civil War.
It is also worth briefly noting that even if Turkey were not distracted by this host of problems, it is not clear that it would be in Turkey’s immediate interest to oppose the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. Both Ankara and Irbil have benefited from good relations and increased trade, which have given Turkey access to Kurdish oil and provided the Kurds with a source of income independent from Baghdad.
There were even signs during last year’s election that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reconsidered his stance on Kurdish independence.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the main international factor which has worked against Kurdish independence is now less applicable. The United States, which has historically provided Irbil with aid and weapons, has traditionally encouraged the Iraqi Kurds not to seek outright independence due to Turkish opposition.
However, Turkey’s insistence on fighting the YPG instead of ISIS has placed Ankara and Washington at odds. This means that even if Erdoğan’s government should decide to oppose Kurdish independence, these strained relations would help prevent the Turks from using the United States to diplomatically pressure the Kurds.
Furthermore, should the United States decide to oppose independence for whatever reason, Washington would find it very difficult to impose its wishes. Even if the United States were not preoccupied with problems across the globe, the simple fact remains that Washington needs Irbil more than Irbil needs Washington.
In order to combat the Islamic State in Iraq, Barack Obama needs an effective local partner and the Kurds have repeatedly proven to be the best available option. Thus, while Washington may make some statements opposed to a Kurdish declaration of independence, they are unlikely to change their material support for Irbil.
Importantly, all of these conditions are transient. Given time, the Iraqi central government may yet regain control over much of the country and Istanbul and Washington will almost certainly mend the rift between them.
It is unclear when, if ever, a similar alignment of forces will be in effect to permit the low-cost independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. Irbil thus has a powerful incentive to act soon, with important implications for regional security in the short and long term.
Turkey blamed a Kurdish rebel group on Thursday for a bomb attack in its capital that killed 28 people and warned its rival Russia against supporting the Kurds.
“If these terror attacks continue, they will be as responsible as the YPG,” the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, said about the Russians.
The YGP, or People’s Protection Units, are a Kurdish militia in northern Syria that the Turks consider a terrorist group.
But they are backed by Russia and the West — if for different reasons.
The Russians see the Kurds as a wedge against Turkey which has supported the uprising against their ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
European countries and the United States support the Kurds because they are also fighting the self-declared Islamic State, a fanatical Sunni Islamist group that controls territory in both Iraq and Syria.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he hoped that the attacks in Ankara would help convince Turkey’s NATO allies that the YGP and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are one and the same.
Western countries do consider the PKK a terrorist organization. A ceasefire between the far-left paramilitary group and the Turkish state broke down last year.
The YGP has denied responsibility for Wednesday’s attack, which targeted the heart of Ankara’s administrative district.
A statement published in The Kurdistan Tribune said the group had “never been involved in an attack against Turkey” and accused Turkish leaders of “deliberately distorting the truth.”
The attacks came only days after Turkey started shelling Kurdish positions across the border in Syria.
It was only the latest terrorist attack on Turkish soil connected to the war in Syria. More than a hundred people were killed in bomb attacks in Ankara in November. Ten tourists were killed in Istanbul last month. Islamic State sympathizers were implicated in both cases.