HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Enemy of My Enemy

Last Thursday, 21 countries met in London to formulate a plan to destroy the Islamic State in Iran and al-Sham (ISIS). This coalition represented nearly all of the combatants in the military effort, but one group was shunned entirely: the Kurds. Why would a group that is so immediately affected by ISIS be shunned from this conference? The answer dates back to the fall of the Safavid and Ottoman empires, when the Kurdistan territory was divided between Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.

Kurdistan is divided into Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Source: Wikipedia.

The relationship between Kurdistan and the official governments of these countries is strained at best. In the 80’s, the Iraqi government launched a genocidal campaign against the Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan allied with the United States during the Iraq war, and has emerged with an autonomous government. In Turkey, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) has been fighting the government in Ankara since 1978. In the recent Syrian civil war, the Kurdish Supreme Committee deployed People’s Protection Units (YPG), which took control of Kobane, Amuda, and Afrin. Iran has seen relatively little conflict, since there are much stronger cultural ties between Kurds and other Iranians.

Today, there are autonomous Kurdish regions in both Iraq and Syria known as Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava, which were claimed by taking advantage of the instability following the Iraq War and Syrian Civil War. These autonomous governments have been allies to the United States, and Iraqi Kurdistan is “functional the way we would like to see,” according to President Obama.

The case for not inviting Kurdistan to the conference is clear: there is a long history of conflict between the Kurds and the officially recognized countries that ISIS is threatening. The geographical area that ISIS is attacking overlaps Kurdistan almost entirely, so the Kurds have an opportunity to seize the region for themselves, taking land from Iraq and Syria. If the Iraqi and Syrian regions of Kurdistan declare independence, they will likely attempt to expand into Turkish territory.

Expansion of ISIS territory, shown in grey. Source: Wikipedia.

Despite the conflict-filled past with these countries, the Kurds have played an important role in the conflict with ISIS. Since the beginning of the conflict, multiple Kurdish factions have supplied ground troops for the fight. The primary fighters are the peshmerga (“those who face death”), who are a militia controlled by both the Democratic Party of Kurdistan and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The peshmerga have been joined by the PKK and the YPG in a multinational Kurdish alliance. This alliance is a clear threat to the control that Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have over Kurdish territory, and exemplifies a unification of Kurdistan. Although the United States is officially against the establishment of a Kurdish state, our government has been providing the Kurds with weapons throughout the conflict with ISIS, bypassing the official governments of the countries which officially control Kurdistan.

Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Kurdistan all share a common enemy right now, and are thus members of a tenuous alliance despite the conflict in the past. When the fighting stops, this alliance breaks down. For example, after the Kurds took Kobane back from ISIS on January 27, PKK troops were prevented from entering the city by Turkish forces with tear gas. This incident suggests that the alliance will not last any longer than it needs to last. Inviting a Kurdish representative to the conference in London would have given legitimacy to an independent Kurdistan, angering Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. For now, ISIS is enough of a problem without a conflict with Kurdistan, so it is best to tread carefully until the conflict is over.




  1. austinsoper says:

    This is no different then the plight of the Palestinians. The Kurds don’t have a country because their big bad brother the United States hasn’t declared them one. I find it interesting that the United Nations believes so fundamentally in these arbitrary state boundaries, when clearly, the officially “recognized” states of Iraq and Syria have absolutely no control over a significant portion of the land within theirs. It is all political. If the United States were to “recognize” Kurdistan as a country, (when for all intents and purposes it already is) it would endanger their fragile relations with the Iraqi and Syrian governments, which the U.S. Does recognize. Essentially, the U.S. is walking on eggshells around the very delicate feelings of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and in the case of Palestine, Israel.

    • nsumi3 says:

      I agree that there are parallels here between the two conflicts. Though, I think maybe that the UN has to walk on eggshells not just to avoid offending these key countries, but also because doing so would jeopardize their legitimacy in the region.

      It also seems as if, at this point and in Iraq at least, it is only a matter of time before the Kurds obtain full autonomy. The battle with ISIS, according to this NYT article, physically cut off the Kurdish region in Iraq from the existing government. And as we’ve seen from the recent Russian annexation of Crimea and the rebels fighting in Ukraine, once a group becomes entrenched in its own land with its own autonomy, it’s likely to stay that way.

    • amiteichenbaum says:

      I wouldn’t agree that we can draw parallels between this case and the Palestinians, as there are not similar interests involved. Countries do not function altruistically. We may enjoy the idea that we fight for human rights and the right to a nation, but truly it is about benefits and money. A state of Palestine would not benefit the US. The US does not recognize Palestine not because they need to maintain their relationship with Israel, which is already pretty rocky under the Obama administration, but because there is really no reason to do so. The situation with the Kurds I believe is very tied up in politics, as clearly they benefit the states but the US’s hands are tied regarding the existing countries in the region.

  2. owest3 says:

    It is very typical of the United States to not acknowledge Kurdistan as a country but also take advantage of them in the conflict with ISIS. I can see how it would make the others regions like Iraq, Syria, and Turkey angry to invite the Kurds to the meeting, but is risking relations with the Kurds worth it? They are obviously a huge ally in the conflict with ISIS, so why would we want to create tension with them by not including them in a meeting that also included 21 other countries? The United States does not need to be the one deciding if these groups can be recognized as countries because we do not control the region.

    • zhuyutong202 says:

      I disagree with your assessment because while kurdistan are a huge asset in our fight against ISIS we need the help of Iraq and Turkey, they have much better capability than the kurds because they already have an established state with a standing military. We risk more by losing their participation in our alliance. The kurds will fight ISIS regardless because their very livelihood are threatened. Maybe this strategy is not morally right but its most strategically sound. Our decision may anger the kurdistan but right now they need our air support to aid in their fight. ISIS pose a much more threat to them then they are to us because ISIS is right on their doorstep.

  3. elenajoy92 says:

    Who is to say that this exclusion will not ignite the Kurds to fight more actively for independence and worldwide recognition? It may give them a reason if not an excuse to fight against ISIS and execute personal plans not concerning the countries in which they reside. Any thoughts on this?

  4. trevormcelhenny says:

    Providing them with weapons, but not inviting them to the party…gotta love it!

    Ultimately, it’s not up to the US to “decide” if Kurdistan is a recognized country. As owest3 stated, we don’t control that region. However, supplying the Kurds with weapons kind of hints strongly that we DO at least support them in that endeavor.

  5. kimpgt says:

    Great article!
    I think that the Kurds should have independence and be recognized as an official state and invited to the London meeting. It’s ironic how the US supplies the Kurds with weapons, most likely to stop ISIS rather than defend themselves-Kurds-, but does not wish for them to become independent. Military strategies can show where alliances truly stand and identify personal motives.

  6. apabst3 says:

    It seems to me that politics are getting in the way of defeating ISIS. Obviously history will always play into decision making but if the Kurds, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq could put their differences aside I think the fight against ISIS would become a lot easier. To make this situation worse it also doesn’t help that the US can’t fully support the Kurds in fear of damaging their relationship with Turkey and Syria. This does not seem to be the time to worry about diplomatic relations the world is serious about defeating ISIS. I feel as if ISIS can be defeated discussing the diplomatic issues between the Kurds, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq will be a lot easier. I really think these countries could put the past behind them for a short period of time the fight against ISIS would become a bit easier.

  7. jkempa3 says:

    A classic case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. The concept that by allying with the enemies of your enemy has been a centuries old tried and true method for defeating an enemy. In this case the alliance seems to be helping to accomplish the ends. However, if not carefully monitored by the Kurdish and the other countries involved in the treaty the situation could quickly morph into a violent conflict over borders. This would destabilize the region even further and possibly give rise to more radical faction to emerge or create voids that could become filled by existing radical groups that both the Kurdish and other countries in the treaty are trying to stop.

  8. lalaninatl says:

    There seems to be similar situations throughout the world wherever there is disputed territory. With constant power changes, it is foolish to invest in the country’s future. However, helping them establish a government might of use. It does cost money, so outside countries need to have their own incentive to help other countries out.

  9. nrassam3 says:

    I am not sure wither you are aware of the facts that lead to the massacre of the Kurd in Halabjaa. Kurdish Peshmerga were supporting the Iranians during the Iraqi-Iranian war between 1980-1988. This obviously does not justify the brutal slaughtering of peaceful people. Another point to bring out for discussion is during the inception of ISIS there were some rumors that the Kurd intelligence bribed Iraqi military officials to abandon their bases in Mosul so ISIS would take the weapons. With a weakened Kirkuk(majority Arabs) peshmerga would be the only force left to protect the city(take control for an uncertain duration), since Kirkuk owns one of the biggest oil reserves in Iraq.

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