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The Kurds, ISIS and the war over identity and control

Contrary to what many believe, the war between ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and the Kurds did not begin with the former’s control of Mosul and subsequent expansion towards Erbil. In fact, the struggle began around a year ago when ISIS forces attempted to gain control of Ras Al-Ain, a town in the Kurdish region of north-eastern Syria along the border with Turkey. ISIS militias faced much resistance from military units set up to protect the Kurdish people.

What seems to be a new point in the Kurdish story is the west’s new found concern to defend and protect the Kurds and their land, one of the few relatively successful outcomes of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is as if America’s defence of the Kurdish region was a way out of its ethical dilemma in Iraq and a strategy in response to the creeping threat posed by ISIS. The war over Iraq’s Kurdish regions is a battle for areas rich in oil, as well as religious and historical significance.

When ISIS gained control of Mosul, the Kurdish Pashmerga (militia) forces rushed to exert their control over Kirkuk. Kurdish regional leaders also declared that they would implement the guidelines of article 140 (of the Iraqi Constitution, which states that measures should be taken to reverse the Arabisation policy employed by Saddam Hussein; thousands of Kurds returned to Kirkuk following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and a referendum will decide whether enough have returned for the area to be considered Kurdish) in Kirkuk’s near future. At the time, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki accused the Kurds of cooperating with ISIS to divide Iraq.

A few weeks after this accusation, ISIS forces began to make their way towards Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, where they found the Pashmerga ready to defend Makhmour, Sinjar, Zammar and other areas. It was there that ISIS surprised Erbil and the rest of the world when it proceeded to commit horrendous crimes against Yazidis, Ashwaris, Sabean Mandians, Shabaks and other members of Iraq’s historical and religious minorities.

The Kurdish leadership, which had been preoccupied with its differences with Baghdad and the war for independence, had no choice but to suspend talks with the Iraqi government to rush back and defend their region against ISIS, in the absence of any international force. It now looks as though Kurdish existence is also threatened by ISIS so the Kurds have called on the Arabs and the international community to help them in their struggle. Even America agreed to join the fight against the militant group although the US administration issued a statement recently that it would not return to Iraq having withdrawn their occupation forces from the country.

The war on the ground began as if it had been a war over the identity and control of the Kurdish regions. What started as a fight to protect Kurdish communities in Syria later expanded to Sinjar and the historical homeland of the Yazidi minorities before the Pashmerga had a chance to reach those areas and defend them. What renders this battle even more interesting is that this is the first time in history that Kurds from Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey have gathered together in one place (Sinjar) to fight for the collective honour and dignity of the Kurdish people.

At a stroke, the Kurdish national struggle was revived despite the geographic difficulties that resulted from the Sykes-Picot Agreement over a century ago. The struggle was reborn when ISIS attempted to define the borders of the Kurdish region before the Kurds had the chance to do so themselves.

Perhaps Kurdish leaders believed initially that what was happening in the Kurdish region was an international conspiracy that aimed to undermine independence hopes. However, the Kurds found themselves in a new reality that was born out of ISIS control over Mosul and a new political equation in Baghdad that sought to replace Al-Maliki with Haider Al-Abadi from the Dawa Party who recently gained Arab, US and Iranian support. The presence of ISIS encouraged politicians to build bridges between Baghdad and Erbil, as it threatens the existence of Arab and Kurdish parties.

Cooperation between Baghdad, Erbil and the US administration was considered the starting point for Pashmerga forces to stop ISIS on the Niveneh Plains in the Diayala, Kirkuk and Saladdin provinces. Even so, ISIS had gains in Niveneh, Sinjar, Zammar and the Mosul Dam before the Pashmerga were able to regain control thanks to Iraqi-US aerial support. As a result of this the ground attacks have been reduced to hit-and-run operations from one area to the next.

Many analysts are now wondering what the reason behind the Arab rush to save Erbil really is, particularly since the US administration urged representatives in Baghdad to take action against the Islamic State’s territorial gains, which will soon encroach upon Baghdad. US President Barack Obama’s decision to launch raids against ISIS quickly gained support from Britain, France, Germany and other Europeans. The international community decided subsequently to take action against ISIS under UN Resolution 2170, which aims to fight against ISIS-induced terrorism.

The western decision to intervene was reported to have been influenced by many factors. Among them was the western desire to protect religious minorities in Iraq while also combatting the terrorist threat of the so-called Islamic State. However, Obama was quick to emphasise that American involvement also sought to protect US interests in the region and although he did not specify what these interests were, it is almost certain that he was referring to protecting oil supplies and investment as well as the privileges enjoyed by oil companies (such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron) across the Middle East. It is important to note that such US companies intend to increase production considerably over the next few years. As for US presence in the Kurdish region, it is reported that several thousand Americans currently live in Erbil.

On the political level, one could argue that this form of international intervention could pave the way for a new political map in Iraq after Al-Maliki’s departure and could perhaps usher in new forms of US cooperation with the region’s countries regarding Iraq’s political future.

On the whole, one can say that US military intervention led to several positive results for the Pashmerga as follows:

1. Secure air cover that would allow the Pashmerga to carry out ground attacks against ISIS.

2. A boost to the Kurdish forces’ morale, especially considering the severe setbacks they faced after ISIS gained control of much of the Sinjar area.

3. Arming the Pashmerga with new and sophisticated weapons after the government in Baghdad had banned the Kurdish forces from acquiring weapons in the past.

4. More international sympathy for the Kurdish struggle for independence and their fight against ISIS in light of the recent crimes committed against religious minorities, most notably the massacre against the Yazidi population.

5. The current situation in Iraq and the threat embodied by the presence of ISIS have given way to a new relationship between the west and the Kurds, one that goes against the traditional relationship between the two parties, in which the former viewed the latter from a strictly strategic standpoint. Prior to the recent developments, the west often viewed the Kurds as a threat to the region’s security as opposed to a nation and a group of people who had the right to self-determination and independence.

The west’s intervention coupled with the Pashmerga’s efforts have thwarted ISIS’s progress and taken the battle to the next level by countering the movement’s deadly moves against Iraq. More importantly, recent interventions have also recreated a semblance of Sunni-Shiite balance, which was lost by the Maliki regime.

We can basically argue that ISIS fell into the trap of geographic expansion when it gained control of vast areas in Iraq, Syria and established a quasi-state stretching from Manbej near the Syrian-Turkish border to the outskirts of Baghdad. The area that ISIS controlled is considered vital to both Iran and the Gulf States. In addition to this expansion, the issue of political equilibrium in Baghdad gave way to the initiation of a new political process that undermines the social dimension of ISIS’s discourse against the Maliki regime. Thus, it would not be surprising if the aim behind US intervention in Iraq was actually an attempt to uproot Iranian influence in Baghdad and build a new bridge of cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil. Perhaps America’s goal is not to eliminate ISIS per se, but to pave the way for a new Iraqi policy towards the Syrian crisis.

While it is true that defeating ISIS will be difficult, the group’s rise in Iraq has alerted the international community to the imperative of preventing it from making any further gains. The goal of intervening in Iraq is to place ISIS in a bind with only one option: to take its troops and its weapons and head north into Syria. ISIS’s ability to gain control of areas north of Aleppo and strengthen its performance in the battles in Syria’s northern and eastern regions allowed the group to gain control of Raqqa and Dayr Az-zur in addition to Aleppo. Thus began ISIS’s northern migration from Iraq to Syria, allowing a new Kurdish success story, one that will afford the Kurds the opportunity to impose their own conditions on Baghdad and work towards their independence.

Translated from Al Jazeera net, 21 August, 2014

 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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