Monday, November 9, 2015


Ard al-Akrad!

Ever since the Islamic State group began to lay claim to large stretches of territory in Syria and Iraq, conventional wisdom has dictated that the Kurds, even while relentlessly opposing the jihadist group, stand to benefit from the disintegration of state authority in the two countries.

During the summer of 2014, when Iraqi troops abandoned their posts in the northern city of Kirkuk, it was Kurdish peshmerga forces that stepped in to defend the oil-rich enclave from the advances of ISIS. "Six Iraqi divisions melted like the snow," said Masoud Barzani, president of the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in an interview later that year with The New Yorker. "I saw it in an opportunistic way."

Indeed, be it in Iraq, where the Kurds have served as the tip of the Iraqi spear against ISIS, or in Syria, where Kurdish rebel forces have become an invaluable American ally, it would appear that each ISIS defeat has created an opportunity for Kurds across the region.

"The Kurds, despite their large numbers (about 30 million worldwide), as well as their shared language, culture and identity, have never had a nation. But they're getting closer to one with every battle," wrote Time's Karl Vick earlier this year.

So, have the Kurds -- the largest ethnic group in the world still without a state -- altered the so-called facts on the ground? Has the Kurdish moment finally arrived?

Not so fast, writes Denise Natali of the Institute for National Strategic Studies. While the Kurdish government of northern Iraq appears to have laid the foundation for statehood, the region "remains a landlocked, quasi-state entity lacking external sovereignty." Natali goes on:

"This condition means that the degree and nature of Kurdish autonomy, including any potential for independence, is not determined by unilateral decisions made by Kurdish elites but rather by the demands, deals, and incentive structures brokered by powerful regional states and non-state actors."

Moreover, while Iraqi Kurdistan is rich in oil, it lacks the infrastructure to deliver crude to world markets, placing unilateral energy deals reached with neighboring Turkey, for example, on a shaky legal foundation:

"Because the Kurdistan Region is not a sovereign entity and continues to rely on Iraqi pipeline infrastructure, its exports are not fully independent. Baghdad retains international legal rights over oil flows and revenues from the [Iraq-Turkey Pipeline] based on the 2010 pipeline Tariff Agreement negotiated with Turkey -- and has already filed litigation against Ankara at the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris. It has also threatened to penalize [oil] and shipping companies that purchase Kurdish crude apart from [Baghdad], reinforcing the legal risks and opaque nature of KRG oil exports and sales. Moreover, Baghdad has cut the KRG budget (except for monthly food allocations), which represents 95 percent of the KRG's operating expenses."

Erbil's ongoing dispute with Baghdad over oil revenue sharing -- in addition to a growing refugee crisis -- has put a crunch on the flailing Kurdish economy, which had already been plagued by corruption and cronyism. A brewing succession crisis has only made matters worse within the KRG. Recent calls by rival political factions for Barzani to step down -- his presidential term ended in August -- have resulted in protests and violence.

The prospects for Kurdish statehood appear no better in neighboring Syria. While Kurdish YPG forces have taken on a key role in the United States' war against ISIS, there is virtually no chance that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- emboldened by his party's decisive victory in last weekend's parliamentary elections -- will allow any gains made by Syria's Kurds to evolve into a sovereign state. Turkish affairs expert Aaron Stein explains:

"Turkey's strategy is independent of the U.S. reliance on the YPG for operations east of Euphrates. This new AKP government is likely to continue with this program to provide rebels with weapons, particularly now that Russia has intervened on behalf of the Assad regime. The new Turkish government is also likely to continue to put pressure on the United States to adopt its preferred policy in Syria: the formation of a 110-kilometer-wide buffer zone extending up to 33 kilometers south into Aleppo province.

"This zone would provide a safe haven for refugees and a key area for the anti-Assad rebels to back-base. This proposed zone would also be free of the YPG, which Ankara accuses of indirectly bolstering the Assad regime by working at cross-purposes to the insurgency. Turkey has made one thing very clear: It will not tolerate a YPG presence west of the Euphrates, and will therefore not accept a Kurdish-led offensive on the ISIS-held city of Jarablus, or any YPG-led effort to unite its territory with the Kurdish-controlled enclave in Efrin in northwestern Syria."

The Kurds, in conclusion, may once again end up the victims of great power posturing, much as they did at the conclusion of World War I. Kurdish ambitions will continue to be tempered and curtailed so long as Ankara and Baghdad continue to play important roles in the plans of larger regional actors.