At no time in the last 100 years have we come closer to see the disintegration of the modern Middle East. The civil wars that have torn apart Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are a product of violent sectarianism, exported by the Iranian 1979 Revolution and the Wahhabist teachings of the Saudi’s to the Islamic community. The sectarian conflicts today are questioning the divisions of the region artificially imposed by the 1919 Treaty of Sevrés, where the European powers divided the region out of the corpse of the Ottoman Empire. Many of these relic states cannot claim to represent a singular national group, but instead represent multiple people’s, united only by their Islamic faith. The most notable group affected by this arrangement are the Kurds, divided between four different countries, but possess remarkable unity in the face of persecution by their host states. A 2014 article in Foreign Policy by Christian Caryl claimed the Kurdish people are on the verge of becoming the newest nation-state, overthrowing the entire Sevrés regime and redrawing the map of the region. It was hefty claim to an almost 80 year question in Middle Eastern politics.
A year later, the idea of a Kurdish state still seems uncertain, as the peace process is complicated by the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. However, any peace in Syria and Iraq will hinge on the crucial question of Kurdish aspirations, alongside others, that have been unleashed by Arab Spring and ISIS. The Kurdish Question’s implications go beyond granting statehood to the region’s most troubled stateless people. It goes to the heart of Sevrés’ imposed political order that does not represent the diverse ethno-religious Middle East. Washington has long avoided this question of Kurdish statehood, because it would alienate Turkey and Saudi Arabia, endangering the relative stability of the region. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, ISIS’ destruction of both the Iraqi and Syrian states, and the breakdown of the balance of power in the region, Washington must finally confront one of the inherent contradictions of its Middle Eastern policy.
Kurds in Myoptic States
Negotiators in Vienna are striving to create a political arrangement that preserves the declining and fragmenting Iraqi and Syrian states. Iraq has fragmented into three states during the conflict, with the Shiite government ruling in Baghdad, ISIS ruling an essentially Sunni state, while the Kurds rule in the north. The Al-Abadi government will accept nothing less than the removal of ISIS and the restoration of state control, though the Vienna negotiations say nothing about the future of the Iraqi state post-ISIS. In Syria, Washington and its allies still hold that Assad must leave power as the first negotiations get under way, and that Syria will remain a secular, democratic regime. The West is looking beyond Assad’s removal, about elections to a new parliament and power sharing among coalitions of former rebels, pro-government groups, and minorities like the Kurds and Alawites. It is unlikely, given the experience of Iraq, that the same arrangement would work in Syria, as removing Assad immediately would introduce chaotic leadership in the state without a clearly recognized alternative.
The Kurds are the strongest group in the conflict, having established themselves securely in both countries, with leadership navigating their way towards a more independent position following the war’s outcome. Before 2003 and 2011, the local autonomy of Kurdish groups in the principal states of residence, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, was very restrictive, especially in Syria and Turkey. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Kurds were allowed to set up a regional government, which operated much like a state in the US does to Baghdad. As Syria and Iraq became failed states, the Kurds continued to establish the institutions of new states, including a small military, legislatures, and representation in foreign countries. In Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga seized Kirkuk, the recognized heartland of the Kurds, with its oil fields capable of fueling the local economy, according to Caryl. And the seizure of Sinjar in November 2015 demonstrated the Peshmerga and the YPG units are the only local forces capable of directly challenging and defeating ISIS forces. While Baghdad continues to claim rule of
Similarly, the Kurdish groups now in control of eastern sections of Syria, known as Rojava, emulated their friends across the border by setting up state institutions in territories they control. While some countries have experienced duel states, where a recognized state and unrecognized rebel organizations each set up their own institutions of governance, Syria has multiple. In the city of Qameshli, Kurdish forces, known as People’s Protection Units or YPG, established security checkpoints in around the city, while government police stations, military bases, and arsenals continue to operate under the Assad regime’s control. A symbiotic relationship exists between the two groups, not only in Qameshli, but in other cities across Rojava, continuing to degrade and fracture the once totalitarian and single-ethnocentrist state. This example
The negotiators envision creating a federal state out of Syria, probably along lines similar to that of the Biden Proposal of 2006. Then Senator of Delaware Joseph Biden serving as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden proposed in the Washington Post to create a federal Iraq with autonomous regions for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, leaving the government in Baghdad to represent the country, and creating a shared stakeholder arrangement to sell oil, and provide for common defense. Implementing the model in Syria would divide the country between the same groups, though coupled with a commitment to destroy the Islamic State. More than Iraq, a Syrian federal state would model the country’s historical roots, where the country was a collection of minority groups under successive empires, largely ruled a multiethnic province. A peace establishing a multiethnic federal republic under the 2006 Biden Proposal might be a roadmap to peace in Vienna.
My State, Your State!
Implementing federalism in both Syria and Iraq will likely be unattainable, given the bloodshed over the last five years (in Iraq, longer) have deepened the sectarian divide. But dividing the states into smaller “statelets” would be a tricky affair that risks creating a Kurdish state de facto, which already exists in Iraq. Looking beyond the Kurds, divisions of both countries will create smaller states who will likely lack military, economic, and political capabilities to act independent of the larger regional powers that will attempt to drag them into their political orbits. Iran’s Shia Crescent relies on a united Iraq, and Tehran is unlikely to allow the new states shift into the Saudi orbit easily. Furthermore, a Kurdish state would not necessarily be loyal to either Tehran or Riyadh, and become a regional spoiler based on the strong national connections among groups across borders.
Peace in Syria will specifically need to account for the strengthened ambitions of the Kurds, who have not only been the most persistent and dedicated fighters against ISIS, but have expanded the Kurdish regional government and the PKK’s sphere of influence into Rojava. The YPG and Kurdish self-defense forces have been on the ground fighting without break against ISIS, and have received the bulk of US support among rebel groups since the crisis began. The US investment in the Kurds has allowed them to fight longer, harder, and greater tenacity against the heavily armed Islamic State as compared to the other Arab groups. The goal of statehood, important to many Kurdish leaders, is anathema to major regional powers, particularly Turkey, which keeps the Kurds from the peace talks in Vienna, However, should US policy change to address the disparity between US promises of democracy in Syria and growing aspirations of Kurdish leaders for statehood? Will autonomy in a federal system fall short, leaving the seeds of the next round of sectarian violence on the horizon?
Our Living Contradiction
American foreign policy is caught in a past that was defined by colonial powers, symbolized by Sevrés and Sykes-Picot, and preserved by the Cold War contest that helped unleash the sectarian violence of radical Islam. The destruction of the Syrian and Iraqi states, the Iranian nuclear deal, and re-entry of Turkey into Middle Eastern politics is redrawing the lines of the region, and creating new opportunities for leadership. The Kurdish Question, while part of the Syrian peace process, is an emerging issue in the international agenda, as Turkey renews its persecution of PKK and the Iraqi Peshmerga pushes closer towards ISIS held Mosul. Soon, we will not be able to avoid answering it, and we need to have an adult conversation about whether or not our values of democracy include the opportunity for statehood for the Kurds. We may miss the boat at a critical juncture to talk about the Kurds at Vienna, and that will be a critical mistake if it falls short of a federal Syria, all things equal in Iraq. But what happens when ISIS disappears, and our allies come asking for rewards to their blood sweat and tears? That is when our resolve as a country will be decided, and we better have an answer to our Kurdish friends.