How ISIL advanced Kurdish nationalism

How ISIL advanced Kurdish nationalism

The Sykes-Picot borders of 1916 have begun to dissolve in an unprecedented manner, due in large part to the emergence of a terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Even though thousands of Kurds have fallen victim to ISIL brutality, they are celebrating the virtual demise of the Sykes-Picot agreement as a long overdue opportunity for them to assert their right of self-determination. In the process of carving out their own enclaves, the Kurds now enjoy the backing of Western powers who disregarded their distinct existence when Iraq and Syria were founded a century ago.  

Kurdish gains since the rise of ISIL can easily be listed in two categories: international and domestic. On an international scale, Kurds currently enjoy an unprecedented degree of military and political support from the outside world, primarily the West. In the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the peshmerga’s instrumental role in combating ISIL has emboldened Masoud Barzani’s government both at home and abroad while the central Baghdad government has grown weaker. In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is widely regarded as the anti-ISIL coalition’s most successful partner on the ground. 

The second and perhaps more important gain is domestic. In Iraq, the Kurds have seized almost all of the territory they have historically claimed as theirs. This includes the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is considered a disputed territory in the Iraqi constitution. Kirkuk’s oil reserves, estimated at 38 billion barrels – nearly one-fourth of Iraq’s total reserves – are now almost totally controlled by the Kurds, who have begun shipping it abroad via their own newly built pipeline. 

While Kirkuk would definitely strengthen the economic basis for a future Kurdish state, its multi-ethnic makeup of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen poses a particular challenge to that dream. Even without Kirkuk, however, the oil and gas reserves in the KRG can be enough to provide the foundation for a prosperous nation-state, depending of course on what the price of oil is. Some commentators say the Kurds can use Kirkuk as a bargaining chip with Baghdad in their negotiation for independence. 

Even if the rise of ISIL has advanced Kurdish nationalism in Iraq, it has not helped the process of democratization, however. Since the beginning of ISIL aggression, Iraqi Kurdistan has not held elections. The last term of its president, Masoud Barzani, came to an end in August 2015, yet he continues to serve as president in spite of objections from many people, including the major opposition parties. Lack of democracy could create instability in Iraqi Kurdistan and hinder Kurdish hopes for independence. 

Syrian Kurds do not share the same degree of aspirations for independence as their brethren in Iraq. The reasons are multiple. Firstly, Syrian Kurds espouse the more Marxist and anti-state ideology propounded by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). What they offer instead is something they have begun to implement in northern Syria, namely autonomous cantons for every city and town with their own ministers and governors, and full control over their internal affairs. To put it simply, Öcalan’s vision is for more of a bottom-up form of governance than that typically seen in sovereign nation-states. Such a demand can still perhaps be accommodated in a loose federation or confederation for a united Syria. 

Second, even if Syrian Kurds want complete independence, they realize it might be too early to declare their true intentions. Doing so could make them lose the little outside support they currently enjoy from the United States, which is not yet ready to declare the end of Syria. Given the close ties between the PYD and the PKK, such a move might push Turkey to react to the entity on its southern border with greater hostility.

The number one priority for Syrian Kurds is currently defending their enclave against ISIL. Once this threat is gone and the future of Syria is decided, they might become more assertive in their demands. 

It can be concluded that ISIL has provided an unprecedented opportunity for the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. The disappearance of the Iraqi-Syrian border and the increased level of military and political clout that the Kurds enjoy today indicate that they are now closer to independence than they have ever been. 

*Namo Abdulla is the Washington Bureau Chief for the Rudaw News Network. This is an abridged version of the original article published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Winter 2016 issue.