History is often full of strange ironies. Decades from now, the rise and fall of ISIS will probably be remembered in the same breath as the rise and fall of Kurdish hopes of statehood. That Kurdish aspirations of independence in Syria and Iraq should have suffered the same fate as ISIS is, of course, an irony of tragic proportions for the Kurds.
Let’s be clear: From the perspective of Kurdish nationalism there is certainly nothing to regret about the demise of ISIS. But what happened after the territorial defeat of the so-called caliphate – first in Iraq with the fall of Mosul and later in Syria with the fall of Raqqa – did not produce the strategic results the Kurds expected.
During their heroic struggle against an ascendant ISIS between 2014 and 2017, Western support for the Kurds was total. But once ISIS was gone, that support turned into cold betrayal, as the US and Europe stood by and watched Ankara go after the Kurds in Syria this year while Baghdad did the same in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017.
Perhaps the Kurds should have known better; after all, their history is littered with such betrayals. But it is also clear they had no better alternative.
The rise of ISIS presented an existential threat as well as a strategic opportunity for Kurds. Peace with ISIS was simply not an option. In many ways, Kurds were defending their own lands more than Western interests.
Between 2014 and 2016 things went rather well for them. As late as 2017, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds appeared to be on the cusp of making history as statehood genuinely seemed to be within reach.
In Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government was determined to crown its critical territorial gains with a declaration of independence. Shortly after the ISIS hordes shocked the world in 2014 by conquering Mosul, the second-largest city of Iraq, the KRG Peshmerga seized the oil-rich province of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
The city is disputed territory, claimed by both Kurds and Arabs. But the ineptitude of the Iraqi army gave Baghdad no choice but to accept Kurdish sovereignty over Kirkuk. The only other alternative was ISIS. With Kirkuk now within the KRG, the Kurds felt history was finally on their side. They also felt they should consolidate their gains before the Iraqi army had a chance to reassert itself.
The need to act fast became all the more apparent when Iraqi forces, supported by pro-Iranian Shiite militias, took Mosul back from ISIS in early 2017. This was the context for the KRG’s fateful decision to hold a referendum for independence from Iraq in September of that year.
Around the same time, across the border, Syrian Kurds were also riding high. Empowered by their cooperation with the American superpower against ISIS, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) felt confident that Washington would reward their defeat of the caliphate with strategic support for Kurdish regional autonomy.
What a difference a couple of years make. Today, with ISIS largely defeated, there is nothing left of what the academic and Syndication Bureau columnist Henri Barkey called the “renaissance” the Kurds enjoyed back in mid-2017. After giving the green light to Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria, Washington and the US military are on their way out and Syrian Kurds are left fighting alone – for survival rather than for statehood.
In Iraq, the KRG has ended up paying a heavy price for the hubris of 2017. In the aftermath of the bold yet ultimately disastrous decision to hold an independence referendum, the Kurds lost 40% of the territories they previously held, including Kirkuk. After years of struggle against ISIS, the losses have turned out to be greater than the gains for the Kurds of Syria and Iraq.
Yet all is not lost for the Kurdish cause. On the contrary, the long-term process of Kurdish nation-building is well under way. The greater majority of Kurds no longer feel part of Turkey, Iran, Iraq or Syria. Although still divided geographically among these four countries, they increasingly see themselves as part of a larger Kurdish nation and are in communication with each other thanks to rapidly growing Kurdish media.
As a result, time and numbers favor the 30 million Kurds who, in the last two decades, have gained an unprecedented level of ethnic consciousness as the world’s largest nation without a state. There is also a vibrant Kurdish diaspora in Europe that is politically active, socially integrated and intellectually invested in the pursuit of a pan-Kurdish identity.
To be sure, an independent and united Greater Kurdistan is not likely to emerge any time soon. But as the rise of ISIS clearly demonstrated, Iraq and Syria were weak states, and they remain so. The KRG has come closer than ever before to realizing its dream of independence and is not likely to give up now.
In Syria, the YPG will also continue to pursue autonomy. Even in Turkey, home to half of the Kurds in the Middle East, Kurdish politics is thriving despite all kinds of political pressure and injustice. Turkey’s Kurds are not only winning elections in their regions but also becoming the kingmakers in Turkish politics as the country’s third-largest political party.
And finally, let’s not forget that thanks to their heroism against ISIS, the Kurds have gained unprecedented global legitimacy and popularity.
Western governments may still betray the Kurds in the name of realpolitik and geo-strategic interests, but Western public opinion, both in Europe and the United States, is certainly rooting for the Kurdish cause. In democratic countries, winning hearts and minds is the best kind of investment for the future. There will be more false dawns, but for most Kurds the coming of statehood is just a matter of time.