Professor Marvin Mikesell of the University of Chicago described Kurdistan as “a cultural-geographic reality that happens coincidentally to be a political-geographic impossibility.” His words are particularly accurate when considering the “greater” Kurdistan, the lands inhabited by a Kurdish-majority population across south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, north-eastern Syria and north-western Iran. Despite the cultural common features across the region, the political separation of the Kurdish people has made political unity difficult, if not impossible until now[1].
However, recent developments in this region seem to bring closer to reality the idea of a Kurdish state entity. The Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Syria are making the best out of a number of bad situations. As the conflicts in Iraq and Syria don’t look likely to end soon, Kurdish influence in the region can only continue to grow.
Recent developments
One hundred years after May 17, 1916, when France and the United Kingdom signed the Sykes-Picot agreement, the first in a series of treaties that would eventually create the modern states of the Middle East following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, analysts predict that the region’s borders may be redrawn once more. In Iraq and Syria, proto-states outside the government’s control have already emerged, and in Iraq the Kurds have already announced that they will hold a referendum on independence before the end of 2016.
a) In Turkey, the 2015 elections saw the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a coalition made up of Kurds and liberals, managed to get past the 10 percent threshold for entering parliament. They won around 80 seats in the 550-strong Turkish Parliament and began to intensify its lobby on the international scene, with meetings, at the beginning of 2016, both in Russia and in Germany. The entry of Turkey’s Kurds into the national political circles is considered to have a significant impact for the cause of Kurds in Turkey and in the region over the next decade.
The recently announced resignation of Turkish Prime minister Ahmed Davutoğlu[2] added a new element of turmoil in the context of Turkey’s war in the southeast against Kurdish militants and the consequences of the war in Syria, with cross-border shelling and the arrival of millions of refugees.
In April, Davutoğlu told Turkish newspapers that the government was considering opening negotiations with the PKK, as long as its fighters disarmed, but shortly after, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rebuked the notion, saying the total defeat of the PKK was the only option forward. That resulted in Davutoğlu pulling a complete reversal on April 5 and repeating Erdoğan’s position that peace talks were not under consideration.
The favorable developments for the Kurdish cause made many Kurds evoke that 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which split the former Ottoman Empire up between the French and the British, and formed the modern foundations of Syria and Iraq. The Kurds who lived in those areas did not get their own country and to this day they are the largest ethnic minority in the world without their own country. Considering the changes currently underway in Syria and Iraq, some have suggested that maybe the Sykes-Picot’s 100th “birthday” will be its last.
b) On 3 February 2016, it was reported in Iraq that Massoud Barzani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s President, declared that a referendum on Kurdistan’s independence would be held sometime before the 2016 American presidential election in early November. On 23 March, Barzani stated, in an interview with Al-Monitor media website, that the referendum will take place before October 2016.
Such a referendum was planned to be held in 2014 during a dispute between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the government of Iraq. On 1 July 2014, Massoud Barzani announced his intention to call a referendum on independence on the grounds that the country had been “effectively partitioned” already. However, after Iraqi Prime minister Nouri Maliki was replaced, Kurdish leaders have agreed to postpone the referendum while they focus on the fight against Daesh[3].
The emergence of Kurdish sovereignty was reinforced in October 2014 when 156 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters crossed from Turkey into the northern Syrian town of Kobane to fight off a Daesh offensive. The symbolic victory in Kobane later led to increased U.S. military engagement in Syria. The Peshmerga have proved to be the main ally and ground force for the U.S.-led international coalition fighting the Daesh jihadists.
In the Al-Monitor interview, Barzani also mentioned that discussions will be held with neighboring countries, including Turkey, Iran and Iraq about the Kurdistan Region’s referendum. He also stressed that the U.S.’ role is important for the Kurdistan Region. “U.S. security guarantees are vital for the viability of the Kurds, and we will be grateful if they don’t oppose our independence,” he stated.
c) On 18 March 2016, the Kurdish political groups in Syria declared an “autonomous federation” of Kurdish districts in the north of the country (Rojava). The meeting for the declaration of federation was organized by Syria’s Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekitiya Democrat – PYD) and elected a committee of 31 members to oversee the implementation of federalism within six months. The newly-declared federal region would cover approximately 10 per cent of Syria’s territory, including more than three-quarters of the country’s borders with Turkey. PYD leader Salih Muslim declared that the new region would be based “on demography”: in other words, an ethnic enclave.
The PYD, which is considered an offshoot of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), established the People’s Assembly of West Kurdistan as early as December 2011. It set up military units, the People’s Protection Units (Yekeniyen Parastina Gel – YPG), with an estimated force of 50,000 fighters. Since 2012, these forces took control of most of the areas in the far north-east of Syria which the regime had previously evacuated. Soon afterwards, PYD-led authorities declared self-rule in three districts they called “cantons”: Ayn Al Arab/Kobane (north east of Aleppo); Afrin (north-west of Aleppo); and Jazira (far north-east of the country).
The PYD forces also took advantage of the U.S. support for them in the fight against Daesh and expanded, taking over districts in which there were no historical Kurdish claims, or even “demographic” presence for the Kurds. Yet, this territorial expansion would allow for geographical contiguity of areas under PYD control, thus making the declaration of the “autonomous cantons” more feasible.
Idris Nassan, the foreign affairs minister of the Kobane district, said that Syrian Kurds do not struggle for a Kurdish state that will divide Syria, but to make a new kind of administration which guarantees equality and freedom for all Syrian people. Nassan pointed out that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which exercises wide influence over Kurdish areas in Syria, adopted Abdullah Öcalan’s idea of “geographical federalism”.
The UK ambassador to Ankara stated that Britain “will not accept the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria” and favored a “united Syria.” His declarations are in consonance with those of the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. She declared, in February, that the 28 country-bloc has opposed the formation of a separate Kurdish state in the Middle East. “The European Union does not support any separatist agenda for the Kurds – being it in Turkey, being it in Iraq, being it in Syria,” Mogherini said at the European Parliament in Brussels.
d) On the other hand, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, in January 2016, has spoken out in favor of an independent Kurdish state. She also urged increased cooperation between Israel and the Kurdish people. “We must openly call for the establishment of a Kurdish state that separates Iran from Turkey, one which will be friendly towards Israel,” Shaked said at the Institute for National Security Studies’ annual conference in Tel Aviv. Shaked also proposed the new state be founded between Turkey, Israel and Iraq. She stressed that Israel should “promote steps that would correct the injustice that [made Kurds] the biggest nation without a state.” She also emphasized that “the Kurds are an ancient people with thousands of years of history, and a democratic nation” – one that has “never attacked any other nation.”
e) The only region of what would eventually be a greater Kurdistan that, for the moment, is missing out in the news is that based in Iran with between 6 and 8 million Kurds.
However, the exiled Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) is looking to stage a comeback in its home country. The KDPI has been around since 1945 and its founder Qazi Muhammed became president, in 1946, of a short-lived Kurdish state, the so-called Mahabad Republic.
KDPI was part of the opposition movement that toppled the Shah in 1979, but was soon at odds with Iran’s new rulers. The government in Tehran treats dissent harshly in Rojhelat, as the Kurds call the Kurdish region in north-west Iran.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has granted the KDPI refuge, but the KRG is also under pressure from Iran to clamp down on cross-border activities. Iran has close ties with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which dominates the eastern part of the KRG that includes the border areas and Koya, and Tehran’s help in fighting Daesh has given it extra leverage in Iraq.
Optimistic Kurds believe that if things continue to develop in the way they are, the region’s Kurdish will become increasingly powerful over the next decade.
Iraqi Kurdistan: self-determination but yet no statehood
Though only six million out of the 32 million Kurds live inside the current territorial borders of Iraq, they are considered to have achieved the greatest autonomy in the Iraqi Kurdistan, ruled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
The increasingly centralized Kurdish national agenda under Massoud Barzani’s leadership capitalized on Iraq’s weakness in order to expand its territorial reach. The KRG benefited from the instability in Iraq, the Sunni Arab fragmentation and growing sectarianism in the country. Reacting to the security vacuum left in northern Iraq’s disputed territories since 2003 and Baghdad’s failure to constitutionally resolve the jurisdiction and authority over certain disputed areas, like Kirkuk, the KRG Peshmerga fighters gradually asserted de facto control over parts of the territories and their hydrocarbons resources.
Currently, Iraqi Kurdistan is demonstrating an ability to export around 650 thousand barrels per day of oil, generating enough revenue to narrowly cover the bloated government sector payroll in the Kurdish region. De facto control on-the-ground and de facto economic independence from Baghdad are now established.
The KRG controls key oil fields, assets, and the only functioning pipelines in Kirkuk that are essential to exporting oil through the northern energy corridor to Turkey. Although the KRG is still working with Iraq’s North Oil Company and acting mainly as a ‘facilitator’ of Kirkuk oil under the current oil agreement with Baghdad, its ability to secure the disputed territories and northern pipeline infrastructure is critical, particularly since Daesh remains embedded in Mosul. Moreover, if a future connection to Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea is seen as feasible, the KRG might be able to control a very important energy flow route.
The KRG has also extended its political leverage outside its official borders. By 2014, Kurdish parties had regained majority representation on both the Mosul and Kirkuk councils. The KRG’s ability to do what the Iraqi government could not (provide jobs, security and even electricity) has influenced non-Kurdish communities in the territories, some of whom prefer to be part of the Kurdistan Region (or to have their own autonomous regions) rather than the dysfunctional Iraqi state.
However, the next steps toward full self-determination will be more difficult. The Kurdistan Region hopes to hold referendums in disputed areas claimed by both the Kurds and Baghdad, giving locals the choice to formally accede to the KRG. Yet this step may sharpen ethnic divides within areas and could pit the KRG’s entrenched political parties against each other. If the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk joined the KRG through a narrow majority of voters, the result could be increased instability. Likewise, if Kirkuk joined the KRG, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), dominant in Kirkuk, might gain an edge in the Kurdish parliament over its main rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
There may also be complications around any independence referendum that the Kurds eventually launch to decide whether the KRG remains a region of Iraq, transforms into a federal entity on par with the Iraqi federal state, or breaks away as a fully independent aspiring nation, able to borrow, buy weapons, issue passports, and control airspace like any other country. Many non-KDP elements want an ongoing but looser administrative relationship with Iraq, and many Kurdish-controlled areas still rely predominately on government salaries provided by Baghdad.
The Peshmerga factor
Most local and international observers of the developments of the anti-Daesh campaign agree that the important contribution of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces against the jihadists turned to be a key element in the process of asserting the Kurdish self-determination.
This was recently acknowledged by Hama Haji Mahmoud, Secretary-General of the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party, a respected Peshmerga veteran also known as Kaka Hama, who commands Peshmerga forces south of Kirkuk. He said in a recent interview that one of the main Kurdish achievements was the diplomatic support from the international community after Peshmerga proved to be the most capable and reliable forces on the ground in stopping jihadists. He counted Kurds as ‘winners’ in terms of military, international relations, and diplomacy, but he stressed the need for legal achievements and political agreements.
The Kurdish armed fighters in northern Iraq known as the Peshmerga or Peshmerge(“those who face death”)have been in existence since the advent of the Kurdish independence movement in the early 1920s, following the collapse of the Ottoman and Qajar empires that had jointly ruled over the area. Peshmerga forces include women in their ranks, and Kurds say that all Kurds willing to fight for their rights are Peshmerga. The roots of the modern-day Peshmerga can be found in the early attempts of the Ottoman Empire to create an organized Turkish-Kurdish military force, to defend the Cossack Region from a possible Russian threat, and to reduce the potential of Kurdish-Armenian cooperation. This force, called the Hamidiya Cavalry may also have been instituted to create a feeling of “Pan-Islam”, especially in light of a perceived possible British-Russian-Armenian Christian alliance.
Through much of the 1990s, the Peshmerga came into conflict with the Iraqi forces, using guerilla warfare tactics against them. Many of the Peshmerga were led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP – led by the Barzani clan), while others were under the command of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK – led by Jalal Talabani and later by Kosrat Rasul Ali). Following the First Gulf War, a civil war between the KDP and the PUK held up the military development of the Peshmerga as the attention was no longer on outside threats, but after the 1998 “Washington Agreement” secured by the U.S. between the KDP and the PUK, the Kurdish groups had to accept the U.S. policy to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime.
During operation Iraqi Freedom (2003), the deployment of CIA agents to Kurdistanfollowed by the U.S. Special Forceswas the beginning ofa close cooperation with Peshmerga forces. With the occupation of Baghdad by U.S. forces on 9 April 2003 and the combined Peshmerga-U.S. assault from 21 March to 12 April 2003 the Kurdish Peshmerga, assisted by the U.S. military, were finally able to defeat the Iraqi military and open a new chapter in Kurdish history.
After the war, the Peshmerga assumed responsibility for the security of the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq. Since 2003, training between the Peshmerga and the U.S. has evolved into a mutual relationship. In 2004, the Peshmerga also received undercover training from former Israeli special forces soldiers, who had to train two Peshmerga groups, one to act as a security force for the Hawler International Airport (near Erbil) and the other, of more than 100 Peshmerga, for “special assignments”.
In September 2014, for the battle of Kobane (Syria), the United
States gave the green light for the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to move into Syria to defend the city against Daesh, thus acknowledging their legitimacy as an
army that could carry out operations in another state.
The Iraqi Kurdish leadership has argued in Washington that the Peshmerga, with more than 350,000 troops, is the only reliable fighting force in Iraq, since most of the Iraqi army collapsed. The Kurdish diplomats also remind their U.S. counterparts that no American soldiers were killed in the Kurdistan region following the 2003 war.
Washington has begun to appreciate the role of the Peshmerga. In a Senate hearing on Iraq and Syria, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst stated her support for the Peshmerga, who are willing to fight in close combat. Senator John McCain has been leading an “arm the Peshmerga” campaign.
Analysts agree that the ideal of the Peshmerga as “guardians” of Kurdish nationalism will continue far beyond the generation of Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani. As older Peshmerga step away from the battlefield and assume political roles, new Peshmerga fill the ranks. Even Iraqi Kurdish children are considered future Peshmerga and their involvement in the cause is looked at approvingly by their parents.
Diplomacy and lobby
a) Diplomacy is perceived by both the political elite and the general population of Iraqi Kurdistan to be an essential tool for progress. It serves as a uniting force. The diplomatic approach became essential for Iraq’s Kurds because their autonomy, and ultimately their statehood, would only emerge if they received the green light from neighboring states and international major actors.
The Kurds’ diplomatic efforts are extensive. The KRG has spent millions of dollars on diplomacy, training its diplomats on protocol and etiquette as well as diplomatic communications, including negotiations and compromise.
In 2009, when the United States required consensus among political actors in Iraq to push through an election law, the Iraqi Kurd leaders, who were threatening to boycott the law because they were unhappy with the parliamentary seat allocation, eventually agreed to give up some of their seats in an effort to please the American leadership. The compromise was accepted because it facilitated a stronger relationship with the U.S. and building trust with Washington for future commitments.
Similarly, the Iraqi Kurdish elite compromised on elements of Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution that calls for a referendum to decide whether the Iraqi province of Kirkuk should be annexed to the KRG. Although the deadline for the referendum was 2007, the Kurdish leadership, under pressure from Turkey and the United States, ultimately agreed to delay the vote to maintain relations with Ankara and Washington. The KRG’s relations with Ankara and Washington have greatly improved following these decisions.
There are signs that, in the field of diplomacy, the region has broken out of its historic isolation. By mid-2015, 31 diplomatic missions had been established in Kurdistan, including a Chinese consulate general, which opened in Erbil on December 31, 2014. The KRG has representative offices in fourteen countries.
b) In order to ensure international support and security and further develop an independent Kurdish economy that could leverage Baghdad, Kurdish officials strategically awarded production-sharing contracts (PSCs) and other energy agreements to leading U.S. companies, such as Exxon-Mobil and Hunt Oil in Ninewah and Kirkuk – territories that are not legally part of the Kurdistan Region.
Another policy has been to attract key U.S. officials who were already working on Iraq with financial incentives. Zalmay Khalilzad, shortly after his tenure as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, became an adviser to the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. He then set up a company to advise multinational corporations investing in the Kurdistan region. Jay Garner, former director of the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq, also became financially involved in the region after leaving his job as the Pentagon’s top figure in Iraq. Ali Khedery, who previously served in Baghdad with the U.S. Department of State as an adviser to five U.S. ambassadors and three generals, left the State Department and joined ExxonMobil, where he was part of the team that moved ExxonMobil to the Kurdistan region.
For Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the KRG’s foreign relations, having influential Americans investing in the region is part of public diplomacy, insofar as former ambassadors or generals may still carry weight in Washington and can thus speak on behalf of the KRG.
Currently, the Kurdish main lobbying operation in the U.S. seeks to make the Obama administration to send weapons to their Peshmerga forces directly, rather than through the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad. While the Kurds have specific requests for medium to heavy arms, including vehicles, munitions, and the guns to deliver them, what they want most of all is the ability to deal directly with the Pentagon and the U.S.-led coalition for the supplies.
According to official figures, the KRG has spent $291,000 on three firms and has signed a contract with a fourth that could be paid as much as $200,000 through the end of the same year. The money comes on top of the goodwill (bribes, gifts and more money) the group has built by maintaining close ties to many lawmakers, including those who attend events at the KRG’s quasi-embassy located in a historic building, purchased for $3.1 million in 2007.
The KRG’s lobbyists includes former congressional staffers, members, government officials and political strategists. Its U.S. liaison office is organized as a non-profit corporation and had a $1.6 million budget in 2013. It’s also registered as a foreign agent of the KRG, and lobbies government officials and members of Congress. Additionally, Kurdistan’s government has four firms under contract: lobby shops BGR Government Affairs and Greenberg Traurig; public relations powerhouse Qorvis Communications; and Dentons, an international law firm. Dentons’ contract with the Kurdish regional government is for $20,000 a month. Greenberg Traurig disclosed $65,000 worth of payments over six months in its most recent disclosure with the Justice Department, while BGR Government Affairs got $150,000.
According to Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG representative in Washington DC, the lobbying done by KRG led to a growing recognition among U.S. leaders that Iraq cannot return to a centralized form of government and to a better understanding of Kurdish aspirations for self-determination.
Sultanism and the Barzani clan: close to a monarchy without monarchs
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by current KRG President Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by former president of Iraq Jalal Talabani dominate the Iraqi Kurdistan system along with their two ruling families, the Barzanis and Talabanis. The KRG’s security sector, intelligence services, and leading military units are divided between the KDP and the PUK.
The two ruling families, the Barzanis and Talabanis, have established what is called by local observers a sultanistic system, a particular form of rule that is based on cronyism, clientelism, nepotism, personalism, and dynasticism.
The sultanism that dominates today’s Kurdistan is based on four pillars: crony capitalism that is the result of blurred boundaries between the ruling party and the state, and between the public treasury and private wealth; personalism and dynasticism, even though the regime is not a monarchy; a kind of hypocrisy in which the laws are manipulated in the interests of ruling parties; and a narrow social base that means the ruling elite can exert its will independent of society.
The economic boom between 2003 and 2013, based on oil revenues and an influx of international investment, provided the KDP and the PUK with the cash to cement patronage politics and nepotistic networks. The Barzani and Talabani families hold the most powerful positions in government and in their respective parties. The two major parties and their leaders monopolize the economy, the security services, the police, and the Peshmerga and they control and co-opt considerable parts of media.
Since its establishment in 1946, the KDP has been led by the Barzani dynasty. KDP officials are straightforward and candid about the fact that the party and the Barzani family cannot be separated. Massoud Barzani (born 16 August 1946) is President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region since 2005, as well as leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) since 1979. He succeeded his father, the Kurdish nationalist leader Mustafa Barzani (Mulla Mustafa), as the leader of the KDP in 1979.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s president since 2005, Massoud Barzani was originally supposed to serve for eight years, as stipulated by the draft constitution. But a 2013 deal between the KDP and the PUK extended his term for an additional two years. This deal was pushed through the regional parliament despite fierce resistance from the opposition and civil society. In August 19 2015, this two-year extension has ended, but Barzani still clings to the presidency.
Four main parties – Gorran (the Movement for Change), the PUK, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, and the Kurdistan Islamic Group – are calling on Barzani to step down. In contrast, Barzani’s KDP and some of its smaller allies want Barzani to get an additional two-year extension. Only Barzani, they argue, can lead Iraqi Kurdistan in the fight against Daesh and thus win the Kurds an independent state, the ultimate goal for all Kurds, regardless of political opinion.
In a recent interview, his nephew (and current prime minister), Nechirvan Barzani, said that the president himself acknowledges that his term has expired, and that his staying in power is therefore illegal. But he wants to remain in power until 2017, when the new election is scheduled, to lead the fight against Daesh.
Though Massoud Barzani is the undisputed leader of the KDP, factionalism exists in the party. There is a power struggle between his eldest son and security council adviser, Masrour Barzani, and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani (Massoud’s nephew) about who should succeed the elder Barzani at the helm of the party.
Like many Middle Eastern potentates, Massoud Barzani, at 70 years, is carefully considering his succession. While many in the West assume that Nechirvan Barzani, on paper the second­ most powerful Kurdish figure, would be next in line, Massoud has apparently decided to cast his lot with son Masrour. There have been subtle personnel changes and alterations in portfolios in recent years as Masrour has consolidated power.
Nechirvan Idris Barzani, nephew and son-in-law of Massoud Barzani, is vice president of the KDP and the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since 1999 (apart from 2009 – 2011, when Barham Salih was the incumbent). Nechirvan hasn’t hesitated to use his position to promote his business interests; he is currently seen as the wealthiest businessman in the region with widespread interests including, but not limited to, oil and gas, real-estate, vehicles and hotels. Nechirvan Barzani is better known as a businessman than as a professional politician, especially by the Turks. He is currently the ‘Number Two’ of the Barzani tribe.
Massoud’s son, Masrour Massoud Barzani, a member of the KDP leadership council, is chancellor of the Kurdistan Security Council and Chief of the KDP’s intelligence agency Parastin. Masrour is seen as the third man of the Barzani tribe and the KDP. His brother, Mansour Massoud Barzani, is commander of KDP’s Gullan brigade, and Mansour’s son, Nasir Mansour Barzani, is president of the Peshmerga Football Club.
The result of the power struggle matters. While Nechirvan Barzani may be corrupt, he is skilled, works with both supporters and opposition, and is generally popular. Masrour is not so nuanced. Most of the crises which soiled the Barzani name over the past decade (the imprisonment of political critics, the attacks on critics and the murder of journalists) seem to be attributable to Masrour. Whereas Nechirvan uses power with nuance and still seeks to deliver, Masrour can simply be cruel. Western diplomats and intelligence circles privately seem to understand the dynamics of the Masrour/­Nechirvan split and the trends within Masrour’s behavior.
Notwithstanding the rivalries, members of the Barzani family allegedly control a large number of commercial enterprises in Iraqi Kurdistan, with a gross value of several billion dollars, although no evidence of such ownership by Massoud Barzani himself exists.
Still far from statehood
The Iraqi Kurds are still figuring out how their region should be governed, disagreeing on the division of powers between their presidency, cabinet, and parliament. Though no state is ever fully ready for independence, Iraqi Kurdistan still has to resolve some of the most fundamental issues as a society. International recognition of an independent Kurdistan will be likelier if the Kurds are united and working in accord with Baghdad on the key issues that the outside world cares about, chiefly the anti-Daesh campaign.
Several factors prevent Kurdish secession and limit the KRG’s political leverage. The KRG is not a sovereign entity, it lacks sufficient internal Iraqi support and a self-sustaining economy, is bound by regional geopolitics, and continues to undergo its own internal power struggles.
a) The Kurdistan Region is not a sovereign entity. It may have greater autonomy and influence political and economic processes in Iraq, but it cannot override Iraq’s sovereignty, no matter how weakened the Iraqi state may be. After more than a decade of energy sector development, the KRG still remains financially vulnerable and dependent on Baghdad for nearly 95 percent of its revenues, which are derived from Iraqi oil sales, largely concentrated in southern Iraq. Baghdad also stopped paying the Kurdistan Region’s budget – a move that has helped cripple the local economy, alongside the KRG’s fiscal mismanagement and corruption. By late 2014, after a decade of developing its oil sector, the KRG still had no reserves in its government banks or a sovereign wealth fund to sustain the region’s future.
b) Kurdish political leverage is further obstructed by lack of support inside Iraq. Although Kurdish officials have influential U.S., British, and international patrons, they have failed to gain necessary backing for their demands in the Iraqi parliament or the provinces. The general consensus is that the Kurds are seeking too much from Iraq without contributing their fair share to the national budget.
c) Attempts to build a cohesive and stable region have been further limited by internal power struggles. Despite the KRG’s reunification in 2006 it is still divided over leadership, governance, hydrocarbons policy, and relations with Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran.Key ministries, particularly the security, Peshmerga, and finance ministries, remain under separate KDP and PUK party control. These internal divisions have increased with the weakening and fragmentation of PUK power, emergence of Gorran as a political opposition and now part of the government, reactions against Barzani family power and extension of Massoud’s presidency, the KRG budget crisis, and the anti-Daesh campaign.
The KRG’s political fragmentation has also affected its ability to fight Daesh and secure its expanded territories. Kurdish Peshmerga forces still do not operate under a unified command structure. Party Peshmerga are allied with different regional and Iraqi actors that weaken their capabilities as a national force.
Whether Kurdistan becomes a de facto or de jure nation, it will have to face the challenge that all oil-dependent states face: the need to diversify its economy, create jobs and live within its means as a hedge against fluctuating oil prices. This battle for economic maturity, discipline, and transparency will be a generational struggle at least as difficult as the anti-Daesh campaign. But only by simultaneously conquering political, economic and military challenges can a strong and independent Iraqi Kurdistan take the next step in its national development.
The Syrian Kurds: in the hands of the global powers
In the ongoing war in Syria, in October 2015, the Syrian Kurds announced the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are made up largely of Kurdish forces but have attracted some Arab allies. With backing from the US-led coalition against Daesh, and more recently the Russians, the SDF has managed to shift the balance in the north and slowly carve out an area of control. The Kurds have yet to link the two Kurdish enclaves of Kobane and Afrin in northern Aleppo into one extended Kurdish territory.
By early 2016, the future for the Syrian Kurds seemed very promising: they had chased Daesh out of the various Kurdish-majority lands, enjoyed the protection of the U.S. and implemented a radical political project in Rojava. However, the Syrian Kurds realized that their successes did not usher in legitimacy and authority on the international stage. Conscious of this limitation, the PYD’s top leadership resolved to increase the usefulness and, by extension, attractiveness of the YPG to Russia and the USA – the two dominant actors in the Syrian War.
This is especially true after the declaration of a Kurdish Federation under the democratic self-rule system on March 17. This declared federation has yet to obtain international recognition amid intensive Kurdish efforts.
The Syrian Kurds also managed to tighten their grip on the oil wells and oil production in the territories they control. In early 2014, oil distribution became governed by laws, in light of the declaration of self-rule in the Kurdish provinces in Rojava. Any party seeking to monopolize this substance or sell it on the black market was liable for arrest.
Syrian federation in the making?
According to Kurdish sources, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies are inclined to accept a semi-autonomous Kurdish federal region in Syria. Washington is still officially against the idea of a federalist state. However, in the face of a policy shift from Moscow and Damascus, analysts say the U.S. might also be willing to consider this, adding to speculation that a regional solution to the conflict is gaining ground. While the idea is not new, sources say it is gaining ground due to Russia’s willingness to curtail Turkish influence in northern Syria.
Tensions between Turkey and Russia have been strained for some time, with Ankara and Moscow supporting opposing sides in the Syrian war. After the incident in November 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian jet, Russian state media and officials have been openly supportive of Kurds in Syria and Turkey, while also criticizing the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and enacting economic sanctions and travel restrictions.
In February 2016, the Kurdish Syrian Council opened a semi-diplomatic mission in Moscow, in a bid to cement Russian support of Kurdish autonomy in post-war Syria. Though the Moscow-based office is not formally recognized as a diplomatic mission, but rather as an NGO, the decision to allow any such mission to open was seen by many as further inflaming Turkey tensions, as well as offering tacit support of the Kurds.
Washington’s stance on the issue could also be weakening. While officially the U.S. insists it is against a Kurdish semi-autonomous region, according to Kurdish officials Washington supports in secret some kind of a federalist deal, with Syria divided into three federal regions: Alawite, Kurdish and Sunni. Since the Washington is concerned about looking like it was “backing the partition of Syria”, the U.S. officials increasingly stress that “federalism is not partition,” and some authority has to be retained in Damascus.
The UN has also toyed with the idea, and its special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, discussed federalism with the Syrian opposition during the Geneva talks in February. The Syrian opposition refused the proposals, stressing that Syria needed to remain a centralized state, but the topic remains on the talks’ agenda.
In spite of the talk of federalism, serious opposition remains. The Turkish and Saudi-backed Syrian opposition is against any divisions, being pushed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, anti-Kurdish countries. Turkey will not let the Syrian opposition accept federalism because of its fears of the Kurdish state that will appear in the north, as well as of the possibility for PKK to have a base of operations for planning and executing attacks.
U.S. and Russia: diverging positions
Despite their victories, the Syrian Kurds still do not possess international legitimacy and authority de jure. The establishment of an independent Kurdish state within or outside a future Syrian federation/confederation critically depends on the support of the two prominent actors in the Syrian War: the USA and Russia.
Additional military victories and skilful diplomacy could secure independence or at least autonomy for the Syrian Kurds on the negotiation table, if the Kurds can turn the rivalry of Moscow and Washington for the spheres of influence in the Middle East to their own advantage and fulfill their long-term goals.
While co-operating with the YPG against Daesh, the U.S. did not undertake any diplomatic initiatives which would upgrade the status of the PYD lest Turkey should be offended.
At the opposite, Russia started openly courting the PYD, insisting, in January 2016, that PYD be invited to the Geneva peace talks (this could not be done since Turkey threatened to boycott the peace conference). A few days later, the PYD opened a consulate in Moscow with all due ceremonialism. Moscow started co-operating with the PYD not only in diplomatic but also in military terms.
The regime of Bashar al-Assad remains squarely opposed to Kurdish self-rule and the declaration of the Federation of Northern Syria, uniting the three Kurdish-majority regions. The government and members of the Syrian opposition denounced the declaration as “illegal.” Washington said it does not recognize the new federal entity either. Many analysts believe that so long as defeating Daesh remains the Obama administration’s primary goal, it is unlikely to reverse its policy of avoiding military confrontations with the regime, not even in defense of its Kurdish allies.
The United States continues to ignore the Kurds’ calls for diplomatic recognition. Unlike Russia, Washington refuses to back the Syrian Kurds’ demands to take part in the Geneva peace talks. Just as critically, Washington refuses to support the YPG’s long-running ambition to punch a corridor through the Manbij pocket, a 60-mile strip of territory Daesh still holds on the Turkish border.
The corridor would connect Kurdish-controlled areas east of the Euphrates River with the mainly Kurdish Afrin enclave to the river’s west. Turkey has threatened to intervene militarily to stop the Syrian Kurds from doing so on the grounds that the YPG is no different from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
In this context, the announced resignation of Turkish Prime minister Ahmed Davutoğlu is seen as a loss for the United States of an interlocutor who harbored a more moderate approach to the Kurds. With Davutoğlu out of the picture, Ankara may show even more resistance to U.S. collaboration with Kurdish fighters in Syria.
For nearly two years, the United States has sought to focus Turkey’s attention on Daesh, but under Erdoğan, Ankara has remained far more worried about its generational battle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Since Syrian Kurdish YPG is also linked to the PKK, Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters a national security threat. Erdoğan’s distrust of Kurdish militants only grew after a March bombing in Ankara that killed 37 people and was initially blamed on the PKK[4].
Davutoğlu’s resignation may also diminish the chances of Turkey and the U.S. reaching a solution over the situation of the Manbij pocket, a major border crossing that foreign fighters have used to pass into Syria from Turkey. While Turkey wants to prevent Kurdish fighters from controlling Manbij, the United States sees the Manbij pocket as a “stepping stone” to retake Raqqa, the Daesh “capital” in Syria.
The capture of Raqqa would significantly increase the international legitimacy and authority of the PYD and, by extension, weaken the Western opposition to the prospect of an independent Kurdish state in Syria.
Challenges for the Syrian Kurds
If the Syrian Kurds are to have their way, then they will have to overcome two fundamental challenges. The first is the densely populated Arab regions within the Kurds’ own sought-after homeland. Given the considerable costs of an ethnic cleansing of Arabs from northern Syria, it seems unlikely that the PYD will be able to achieve it. A second obstacle to the PYD ambitions is the opposition of the majority of Syrians, both regime and opposition, to any attempts at division of the country.
Thus, the PYD could find itself setting off a prolonged Arab-Kurdish war. Support from both the United States and Russia might be good enough reason for the Kurds to continue to pursue their ambitions. Yet the Kurds must not forget that their nationalist movement had been in the past supported by global powers which abandoned it when it was expedient to do so.
For the moment, the PYD implements a pragmatist strategy. The YPG forces co-operated with the Russian air force west of the Euphrates River since Washington did not want to upset Ankara and strain further the US-Turkish relations; at the same time, the YPG resumed its co-operation with the U.S. air force east of the Euphrates River where Turkey has not stated any objections.
The pragmatism of the Syrian Kurds brought them closer to their ultimate objective in this “bellum omnium contra omnes” (the war of all against all): the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.
An even more difficult challenge is posed by the internal divisions among the Syrian Kurdish factions. While the Iraqi Kurdish president Massoud Barzani called on the Syrian Kurds to unite and agree on federalism within Syria, the various Kurdish parties are still not able to unite. The Barzani-backed Kurdish National Council (KNC) prefers to work with the Syrian opposition bloc in Geneva, while the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most powerful Kurdish party in Syria, is currently excluded from the Geneva talks due to Turkish pressure. Moreover, the KNC accuses the PYD of working with the Syrian government, while the PYD accuses the KNC of working with Turkey, which opposes Kurdish autonomy in Syria.
The Syrian Kurds’ moves are adding intensity to the debate over two proposals to redraw the Middle East, each with major implications for Syria and its neighbors. One is the longstanding aspiration of Kurds across the region to a state of their own or, failing that, greater autonomy in the countries where they are concentrated: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, all of which view such prospects with horror. The other is the idea of settling the Syrian civil war by carving up the country, whether into rump states or, more likely, into some kind of federal system.
A compromise might emerge if the regional powers come to terms about plans in which every region could administer itself in a unified Syria. Moscow and Tehran might hold the final say on such a solution, and even Turkey may be brought to accept it. Bashar al-Assad promised to support Ankara against the PKK, although at present this remained a distant prospect due to Russia’s sway over Syria and its unwillingness to mend bridges with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Also, it is expected from the U.S. to act like a superpower and make the Turks understand that the Syrian Kurds have their Rojava region, and to make the Kurds understand that their Rojava can’t include all the Kurdish-majority areas throughout northern Syria.
A new geopolitical problem in the Middle East
No earlier than 2014, the imminent Kurdish statehood was almost unanimously predicted, based on the assumption that Kurds feel attached to their own distinct territory, language, Peshmerga forces, resources and political institutions. A variety of factors fuelled these predictions including the dysfunctional Iraqi state, the Syrian crisis, the shifts in Turkish policy toward the Iraqi Kurds and a Kurdish economy powered by hydrocarbons development.
However, instead of secession, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has reaffirmed its commitment to a federal Iraq, agreeing, once again, to sell Kurdish crude via the Iraqi State, Oil Marketing Company (SOMO) even in part, and coordinating with the U.S.-led coalition to counter Daesh.
The swings in the Kurdistan Region’s behavior underline its condition as a quasi-state, a political entity with no external sovereignty but large internal sovereignty. Like other quasi-states of its kind, it thrives off a weak central government, nationalist sentiment, external patronage, and internationalrecognition.
The particularities of its geopolitical context also shape Kurdishquasi-statehood, as it is both a landlocked territory and a region within a fragmented Iraqi state. This political geography means that the KRG’s policies not only affect and are affected by Baghdad, but also involve the threat perceptions, economic aims, and security priorities of Ankara, Tehran, and Damascus. It also means that leveraging Kurdish interests in a weak, federal Iraq is part of multi-level, interrupted processes that include state and sub-state actors with shared or competing interests.
Turkey and Iran: interested in KRG, but not as a state
Instead of becoming more autonomous, the KRG has become more dependent on regional states, particularly Turkey and Iran. This trend reflects the Kurdistan Region’s landlocked condition, near total reliance on hydrocarbons’ revenues, growing rentierism, security interests, and internal power struggles.
Both Turkey and Iran, which have great influence over the political and economic affairs of the KRG, have strategic interests in preserving the political status quo in Kurdistan.
Turkey and its Justice and Development Party (AKP) are partners of the KDP. Turkish companies are the biggest investors in the region, and Kurdish oil exports depend on Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has portrayed Massoud Barzani as the leader of all Kurds, not only in Iraq but also in Turkey, Iran, and Syria; the KDP as the model Kurdish party; and the KRG as the economic model to be pursued by all Kurds.
While approximately 85 percent of the KRG’s “trade activities” are imports from Turkey, KRG exports represent only about five percent of these activities. In the effort to circumvent Baghdad, the KRG has become a client state of Turkey, fully reliant on Ankara’s pipeline transit route, payment mechanisms, oil storage facilities, and over $2 billion in loans. However, the Erbil-Ankara relationship has not replaced the state-to-state ties between Ankara and Baghdad. Instead of bypassing Baghdad for the KRG, Turkey has maximized its energy, commercial, and political interests throughout Iraq while ascertaining its commitment to Iraqi state sovereignty.
As Turkey ascertains its energy interests in Iraq and makes gains inside the Kurdistan Region, it has also secured a foothold in the disputed areas of Mosul and Kirkuk. Turkish penetration reflects Erdoğan’s ongoing effort to forge a sphere of influence in Iraq and the greater Middle East based on a shared Sunni identity that can weaken ethnic cleavages, encourage economic cooperation and stability, and counter Shi’a influence.
The PKK’s radical nationalist tendencies remained a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity, as well as Massoud Barzani’s aim to become the leader of all Kurds and the Kurdish nationalist movement across borders.
Iran has also enhanced its footprint in the Kurdistan Region, being a strategic partner to the PUK and especially its Talabani faction. The partnership is so important that Iran reportedly helped to prevent a historic defeat of the PUK in the Iraqi election of April 2014.
Since 2003, the ties between Iraqi Kurds and Tehran have become part of official economic, security, and political relations shaped by the KRG’s legal autonomous status, particularly in Suleymaniya province. Just as Ankara has turned to Barzani and his KDP to gain local access and assure its strategic interests in Iraq, Tehran has done so through key PUK officials in the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad.
Iran’s influence in the Kurdistan Region has increased since the Daesh threat. In contrast to Ankara, which resisted military engagement against ISIS, Tehran immediately deployed its Quds forces to the disputed territories in Diyala and Kirkuk provinces, as well as other parts of Iraq, to fight Daesh alongside the ISF, Iraqi Shi’a militia (popular mobilization forces), PUK Peshmerga and PKK. The problem, however, is that while Kurds appreciate Iranian military assistance, they are increasingly concerned about Iranian-backed Shi’a militias operating outside government structures and their potential to assert greater authority if left unchecked. Although Kurdish Peshmerga insist on safeguarding Kirkuk and other territories they consider part of the Kurdistan Region, Shi’a militias are remaining to protect Iranian strategic interests and what they regard as Iraqi lands.
The proliferation of militias that can be easily penetrated by regional states is leading to the “Lebanonization of Iraq” with potential to fuel proxy conflicts. It not only represents the hyper-fragmentation of the country and deep distrust between communities, but the increasingly complex arena in which sensitive issues like Kurdish territorial, energy, and financial demands can be leveraged or negotiated.
In the sectarian regional conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the KDP and the PUK are part of two opposing axes: the KDP is part of the Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey axis, while the PUK is part of the Iran axis. Both parties have cooperated intensively with these regional (and international) powers on political, economic, and intelligence issues, and they use these external strategic partnerships to strengthen internal sultanism.
The U.S. and Russia: using or being used by the Kurds?
Although the United States has been closely cooperating with the Syrian Kurds, increasingly relying on them as a ground force in the battle against Daesh, the fact that the U.S. has tacitly allowed Turkey to bar any Kurdish presence at the Syria peace talks in Geneva may jeopardize the alliance.
While the Kurds have become close enough to the United States to host Special Operations troops, to receive U.S. weapons through a Pentagon-vetted program for an Arab-Kurdish rebel force and to share Daesh targets with American intelligence, they consider that the Obama administration abandoned them in the run-up to the high-profile talks.
Feeling neglected and excluded, the Syrian Kurds became increasingly receptive to Russia, which used the process of deciding who would attend the negotiations to endear itself to the Syrian Kurds, asking that the talks should include PYD, the most powerful Kurdish political organization.
Weaker ties with the Syrian Kurds would complicate future U.S. plans to involve Kurdish fighters in retaking major towns like the northern Syrian city of Raqqa from Daesh and leave the U.S. with one less viable partner against the extremist group. Analysts and Western officials believe Moscow is exacerbating the split to splinter the opposition to Assad and weaken U.S. influence in Syria.
For Moscow to present itself – and, by extension, Assad – as the advocate for the Kurds is smart politics. The move is even more successful because the U.S. is constrained by its ties to Turkey and the rest of the Syrian opposition, seeing them as ultimately likely to be bigger players in Syria’s future.
The Syrian Kurds know their cause is simply leverage to the Russians and they are unlikely to choose Moscow as their prime patron over Washington. But they are doing some manipulation of their own. The Kurds’ top priority is to connect the third of their autonomous regions (cantons) in northern Syria. Their U.S.-supported stand in Kobani helped them connect the two in north-eastern Syria, but Afrin, in the northwest, remains apart – separated by a long stretch of Daesh-controlled territory on the Syrian-Turkish border (the Manbij pocket) and a slim corridor that Sunni Arab rebel groups hold.
If it succeeds, that offensive will leave Turkey with its biggest Kurd-related nightmare: a long, contiguous YPG and PYD-controlled border. However, since the U.S. is struggling to keep Turkey pacified so that it will continue to allow the using of its Incirlik airbase for anti-Daesh missions and continue mediating with Sunni Arab anti-Assad groups, the Kurds know American support for the offensive is unlikely. Feigning closeness to the Russians could be a way to force a change in American thinking about PYD’s potential campaign to the Afrin canton.
Israel: the only regional power interested in a Kurdish state
The Israeli politicians (from Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to former President Shimon Peres to Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman) have been so far the only group that publicly advocated the establishment of a Kurdish state. The most recent of them is Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who called in January 2016 for the formation of an independent Kurdistan and urged enhanced policy cooperation between Israel and the Kurds.
The substantive roots of the relationship go back to the 1930s, when a Jewish journalist stationed in the Kurdish part of Iraq and writing for the Palestine Bulletin began making contacts with local activists. That journalist, Reuven Shiloah, became the first director of Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency.
Israelis have long been interested in the Kurds as junior partners in Ben-Gurion’s hallowed peripheral strategy, which considered any competitor or adversary of the Arabs an objective ally of the Jewish state, whether sub-state groups like the Kurds or nations such as Turkey, Iran (in earlier times and perhaps again in the future), and Ethiopia.
The ties between Israel and the Kurds are complex and asymmetrical, between a state and several non-state actors. Israel has to deal separately with four Kurdish players in four countries that host Kurdish communities and political organizations: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Complicating the picture is the fact that each of the four groups has a different political agenda, a different approach toward Israel, and different geostrategic calculations within its respective state (or what’s left of two of them) and in the region as a whole. Moreover, Israel and the Kurds do not have common borders or common enemies that can bring them together.
Historically, the Israeli government’s interlocutors have been the Kurds of Iraq, with whom it began secret relations in the mid-1960s that have continued intermittently ever since.
Following the outbreak of the Kurdish rebellion against the Iraqi Ba’ath party’s Arabisation policies, Molla Mustafa Barzani, the father of the current Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, held talks with Israeli officials. These meetings were facilitated by Savak, the Shah of Iran’s intelligence service, whose agents had been trained by Israel, the US and the UK.
In time, Israel began providing military training to the Kurds, and helped establish Kurdish intelligence cells that supplied information which proved very useful for strategic planners in Jerusalem. Secret relations were revived after the 1991 Gulf War and boosted after the 2003 Iraq War, reaching a peak as a result of the region’s upheavals, when both sides acknowledged their growing mutual need.
The KRG considers that Israel can be its best lobby in the West for the project of a Kurdish state. During his June 2014 meeting with President Barack Obama, then Israeli President Peres raised the idea of Kurdish independence. Strong support from Jewish and Israeli opinion leaders are also of great importance.
The Kurds also seek to acquire weapons and training, which Israel has reportedly been providing the KRG since even before its military encounters with Daesh. On the level of economic strategy, Israel granted critical support to the KRG by buying Kurdish oil in 2015, when no other country was willing to do so because of Baghdad’s threat to sue.
Israel’s interest in the Kurds stems from two sources. The first is the persistent geopolitical consideration, and the longstanding affinity between two small nations that failed to achieve regional legitimacy for a very long time. The “Arab Spring” and the rise of Daesh recently added other important considerations.
First, the changes that have taken place in Iraq and Syria have proven that the Kurds are a formidable barrier against dangerous anti-Israeli forces emanating from both Sunni and Shi‘a Islamist radicals. The Kurds’ prowess has complicated U.S. policy, as U.S. support for Syrian Kurds is contrary Turkey’s interest. For Israel, better relations with the Kurds serves as leverage in its relations with Turkey.
The second consideration is the intelligence dossier. In the past, Israel has used Iraqi Kurdistan as a base from which to obtain intelligence on Iraq. After the Islamic Republic came to power in Iran in 1979, Iraqi Kurdistan also served as a base for Israeli intelligence collection on the Islamic regime.
While the upheavals in the region have increased the mutual interests between Israel and the Kurds, they have not lessened the Kurds’ desire to keep relations behind the scenes as much as possible. Being surrounded by Arab and Muslim countries makes the KRG very cautious about publicizing anything that has to do with Israel. The KRG is especially wary of Iran, which is opposed to the establishment of a Kurdish state, and would not antagonize Tehran by being seen as allied with Israel.
In addition to its political reasons not to identify itself with Israel, the KRG has also economic ones. The KRG’s economic partners are Arab and Muslim countries whose support dwarfs anything Israel can offer. However, in spite of the bad blood between Ankara and Jerusalem, there is a possibility of triangular relations with Turkey and Israel. As surprising as it might seem, the KRG is interested in the normalization of relations between the two, among other reasons to secure the shipment of Kurdish oil to Israel via Turkey.
By expressing genuine sympathy for Jews, the KRG is also able to get support from American Jews who have been lobbying for the Kurds in the corridors of power for a long time; to appear as a protector of minorities; and to disguise its real political and strategic ties with Israel.
Israeli relations with the Kurdish political organizations of the other states were either negative or nonexistent until recently.
Relations with the Turkish PKK were tense because it had strong relations with Israel’s enemies (the Syrian regime and the Palestinian Liberation Organization-PLO) during the 1980s and 1990s, while Israel had strong ties with Turkey. This state of affairs began to change somewhat following the deterioration of relations between Jerusalem and Ankara as a result of the Mavi Marmara affair in 2010 and the concurrent peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government. Accordingly, Israel and the PKK put out feelers about a possible rapprochement; however, nothing concrete has materialized.
As for the Kurds of Syria, their role as a main bulwark against Daesh following the upheavals in that country was not lost on Israel. The two parties have recently started to put out feelers to explore the possibility of establishing ties. The Kurds have been interested in acquiring weapons, while Israel has sent humanitarian aid to and reportedly gathered intelligence from the Kurds.
Relations with the Iranian Kurdish organizations should not have posed any dilemma for Israel, since Iran has vowed to eliminate it and has been leading a proxy war against it on several fronts. The difficulty, however, lies in the fragmentation of the Iranian Kurdish parties. Also these parties, which have their bases in the KRG, do not have direct ties with Kurds in Iran, where only clandestine action is possible.
External factors against a Kurdish state entity
While both the U.S. and the Kurds want to see Daesh eliminated, many Kurds see this elimination as a springboard to independence, but Washington sees it as a necessary outcome for the maintenance of one Iraq.
It appears the Obama administration expects the Kurds to shoulder the military heavy lifting of the conflict while ultimately remaining loyal to a post-conflict Iraqi state. If the long-sought country of Kurdistan becomes real, the U.S. promotion of Iraq as a viable state would ultimately be seen as a misguided failure.
The main element precluding the Kurdish statehood is seen as being the current opposition of the U.S. Administration, although Washington created the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq during its 1991 military operation.
In November 2015, the Iraqi Kurds freed the oil city of Kirkuk from the occupation of Daesh, President Massoud Barzani, asked the U.S. for authorization to declare the independence of the region, which was refused. The recent request of the Syrian Kurds was also refused.
For the United States, the political costs of accepting an independent Kurdish state are higher than the rewards: it would destroy their relations with Turkey, who is threatening to dismantle the military base of Incirlik if the parties of the Syrian Kurdish left are not included in the list of terrorist groups. In the case of Iraq, a rough breakup with Baghdad would aggravate the current crisis in the area, and the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq could lose what it has achieved. Anyway, the U.S. wouldn’t be able to guarantee the safety of a new satellite state in a highly hostile environment.
Iraq, as any other state, will refuse to lose its territory. The fact that it is the fourth largest oil reserve in the world and that it has Iran as an ally, will protect Baghdad from the temptation of the West, Saudi Arabia and Israel to dismember it.
Iran would also not accept a Kurdish state, even if it doesn’t include Iranian Kurds. It will try to strengthen its political alliance with Baghdad, now that Syria is lost. A state for Kurdistan would only be supported by Israel, and wouldn’t have the solidarity of a people that is persecuted and dispersed throughout the world.
With new violence between Turkish Kurds and the army in Turkey, increased cooperation between the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey against the PKK and Turkish airstrikes against Kurdish troops in Syria, it also becomes more and more obvious that Turkey will not tolerate the emergence of a Kurdish state. It is also unlikely that the USA or any other NATO member will support such an initiative, since the strategic relationship with Turkey, a NATO member will be more important.
The only wild card is Russia, which has increased its cooperation with the Kurds in Syria. Russia does not recognize the YPG or the PKK as terrorist organizations and since the cooling down of Russian-Turkish relations, there has been a revival of Russian-Kurdish relations. However, Russia’s interests in the Middle East, and particularly in Syria, are rather limited. It is mainly about forcing itself on the scene, getting Western governments to speak and cooperate with Russia (after the sanctions as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea) and pushing Russia’s status as a major player in global affairs. It is therefore unlikely that Russia will push its whole weight behind the demand for a Kurdish state, especially since this might upset other Russian allies in the region – President Assad and also the Iranian leadership.
Internal factors against statehood
The road to sovereignty for the Kurds has also internal obstacles. Not least among them is the absence of a united Kurdish national movement. There are two main forces in Kurdish politics today. One of them derives from the Iraqi Kurdish experience, the other from that of Turkey. In recent years, each of these factions has made considerable progress toward forming rival “pan-Kurdish” movements.
The first of these is Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party in Iraq. While the KDP is based in northern Iraq, it maintains smaller offshoots and sister parties in both Syria and Iran. The second is the PKK, still officially headed by its jailed founder Abdullah Öcalan[5]. This movement and its various front organizations are the dominant force among both the Kurds of Turkey and the Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria. The PKK also has sister organizations among the Kurds of Iran and northern Iraq.
The KDP and the PKK have different visions of the Kurdish future. The KDP is a traditional, conservative organization; it is pro-Western, pro-business, and pro-American in outlook, rooted in the clan and tribal structures of Iraqi Kurdish life. The PKK, by contrast, is a leftist organization, with its roots in the radical ferment of Turkey in the 1970s.
Neither the KDP nor the PKK is openly committed to the achievement of Kurdish statehood, albeit for very different reasons. Iraqi Kurdish officials will privately concede that an independent Kurdish state is their goal, but stress the difficulties of achieving it and the need for a pragmatic, cautious strategy. Some PKK members speak in similar terms, but others stress the views of their leader Öcalan, who is opposed to the idea of nation-state and advocates a system of “democratic autonomy” or “radical democracy” for the entire Middle East.
These two very different movements are set to dominate the next and possibly decisive chapter in the modern political history of the Kurds. Neither is going to replace or defeat the other; so the future of the Kurds is likely to depend on whether they can find a way to cooperate.
If Kurdish unity and a strategy for statehood cannot be achieved, the most likely result is two Kurdish quasi-states, existing on adjoining territories but unable to maintain good relations with each other or achieve complete sovereignty. Such quasi-states have become a familiar feature of the Middle East and the post-Cold War world in general. They combine de facto sovereignty with an absence of international recognition. Hamas has been running such an entity in the Gaza Strip since 2007. The Hezbollah state-within-a-state in southern Lebanon is arguably another example, with a quasi-state that appears to have largely devoured the legitimate state.
The problem with such entities is that their uncertain status precludes the development of their economies or their civil and political institutions. As a result, they also tend to become centers of paramilitary and criminal activity, such as Gaza and Lebanon, as well as Kosovo, Bosnian Serbia, and Transnistria.
Most analysts do not predict the creation of a Kurdish state for the immediate future, but they agree that the Kurds’ quest for a state of their own plays a significant role in the process of developing a new system in the lands between the Mediterranean and Iran.
If achieved, a new Kurdish “historic state”, non-Arabic, similar to the Israeli model, would constitute the core for a whole new regional system in the Middle East and would trigger the process of re-defining the geopolitical order in the area. That would be even more necessary if a Kurdish state will be followed, sooner or later, by, for example, a Baluchi state further East that will mean new problems for Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the whole Central Asia.
For the moment, the Kurds remain a stateless nation in a region in which the Western idea of the nation state has resulted in many conflicts in the recent past. Kurdish demands for self-determination will not go away. New forms of territorial autonomy and trans-border cooperation will need to be thought off in order to ensure the participation and self-determination of the Kurdish people into the countries where they live.
Often denounced as artificial lines in the sand drawn by ignorant European diplomats, the borders in the region are no more artificial than those established by conflict. New borders will not restore stability because the present ones are not the cause of the region’s turmoil. The states themselves must change if there is to be any sort of peaceful order that can accommodate the demands of the region’s diverse populations.
The problem is that a truly inclusive, democratic system would require eliminating the region’s armed militias, sectarian leaders, and corrupt elites, in fact all those who currently hold power. The deep political reform that could possibly allow Iraq and Syria to become stable countries has not begun in either country, and progress in the fight against Daesh may only make the Iraqi and Syrian governments more repressive and provide additional incentives for those who see new borders as the only solution. The region is stumbling toward the end of Sykes-Picot, but it is no closer to the end of turmoil.
[1] A historical overview of the Kurdish problem is presented in the annex.
[2] Mr. Davutoğlu said he would step aside after a special congress of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to choose a new leader, scheduled to be held on May 22.
[3] The jihadist group calling itself the Islamic State or ISIS.
[4] The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a breakaway faction of the banned Kurdish organization, eventually claimed responsibility for the attack.
[5] Until recently, it was for all practical purposes led by Murat Karayilan, its commander in the Qandil mountains area, and is now headed by movement veteran Cemil Bayak.

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