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.
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.
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.