The latest crisis in Iraq has become a grave situation. This spillover from Syria, in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has already become a regional conflict even bigger than the refugee crisis that has spilled over into all of the neighbors of Syria.
What’s less obvious is that ultimately this could become something much more profound if everyone involved manages to do the right thing for once. The odds of that happening are slim, but important steps forward have been taken by the largest group of stateless people in the world, the Kurds. How they play their hand could determine how many wrongs dating back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago are finally righted.
Over 35 million people are Kurdish, scattered across the nations of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. They currently have control over an autonomous region of Iraq that was created after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Their corner of Syria is nominally independent as well in the civil war. They aren’t heavily repressed in Iran, or any more than the many minorities that make up that diverse nation, but simply mentioning “Kurdistan” in Turkey can get you thrown into jail.
Despite having their own army, the Peshmerga (“front of death”) since the 1890s, their own quest for independence was crushed by the aspirations of the British and French after WWI. An excellent article by Juan Cole on the partition of the region for the purposes of Europeans seeking to exploit it can be found here. The problem for the Kurds is that their landlocked mountainous homeland contains oil which no one has been willing to let go of.
That’s where things get interesting today. It’s still about oil, but the Kurds have proved remarkably capable and reliable as partners.
The most recent problem is that ISIS fighters fresh from Syria have made a move into Iraq, and were met with a totally ineffective regular Iraqi army. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a Shi’ite who has exploited his ethnic base to consolidate power at the expense of minorities and national unity. The nation cannot handle the threat.
That’s where the Peshmerga comes in. A capable fighting force of 200,000, they stepped forward to retake the city of Kirkuk in the oil producing region after the Iraqi army failed to hold it. And they may ask for more.
The Kurds have been essentially an independent nation for a very long time. They have printed their own money, the Kuro, issued their own passports, and generally minded their own business very capably. They have their own news outlet, based in Spain. They were the ones that turned Saddam over to the US in 2004 and were also instrumental in the capture of Osama bin Laden’s driver, providing information that led to the al Qaeda leader’s death. They have reliably protected the oil flowing south into the rest of Iraq while even cutting their own deals to send some north into Turkey. Kurds typically protect other minorities in their part of the world, understanding that they need all the allies they can possibly muster.
In short, the Kurds are the good guys who keep order, don’t persecute, and generally get things done.
There is little doubt that the world is going to need Iran’s help sorting out the problems in Iraq. That conversation has started already, but it’s complicated by other needs to settle the isolation with Iran. No one wants them to have nuclear weapons, but they do have oil and gas that Europe is hungry for now that Russia has become unreliable at best.
That ties it all back into other unresolved aftermath of WWI in Ukraine, but that is a different story altogether.
What matters most in this story is that as we call on Iran to help us keep this situation contained, the most reliable and stable force on the ground right now is Kurdistan. The only reason the rest of the world isn’t desperate to contain the spillover from Syria is that the Peshmerga has beaten back ISIS and Kurdistan is a great force for stability in the region.
There is no larger group of stateless people in the world than the Kurds. More to the point they have done more to earn the right to be a nation than anyone in the world, operating effectively and without malice to defend their own and provide order.
Could something good come from this yet? Integrating Iran back into the world as something other than a haven for terrorism and disruption would be a wonderful thing. But a free and independent Kurdistan is an even better outcome. The only hurdle remains Turkey and what they’ll do to stop this.
There’s a lot more to come on the twisted, rugged road to Kurdistan statehood. But it’s a path they, and they alone, know how to navigate.