Since the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014, the dangers of political Islam has once again re-entered political discourse in the mainstream media. However, this is not the only group that has reached mainstream prominence over these past few months.
In the 6 months that has seen the rapid spread of Islamic State influence in Iraq, the Kurdish Army has risen to international prominence for its role in opposing the violent growth of this terrorist organization. And although they both share diametrically opposed views on the purpose and functions of good governance, they do share a common desire for statehood and international recognition as an independent state.
The Republic of Kurdistan: A New State in Waiting
As a population, the Kurds have withstood oppression and flagrant violence at the hands of Saddam Hussein throughout his rule. In the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein led a violent campaign in Northern Iraq that killed between 50,000 to 100,000 people, most of whom were ethnic Kurds (but also included Shabaks, Yazidis, Assyrians, Turkomans and Mandeans). One of the reasons for these attacks was to stifle and eliminate the growing Peshmerga influence in that region.
It was clear that Saddam Hussein’s regime recognized the growing influence that Peshmerga fighters (who were loyal to an independent Kurdish state) had on the geopolitical stage. In order to limit that influence, Saddam sought to break the group using force, which would leverage his ability to rule the Northern Iraqi region without armed opposition.
Yet, years have passed, and Saddam’s regime has fallen tremendously. With that collapse came the near-total collapse of the Iraqi state as we know it, along with any influence that a central Iraqi government had on its regional governments. In the wake of this collapse, the idea of an independent Kurdish state has suddenly become a viable option, and the latest fight with ISIS has given this republic-in-waiting an opportunity to prove its utility in providing stability to the region.
The Kurdish Army’s ability to limit the ISIS spread and do the job that the Iraqi Army should have been doing is already strong evidence in favour of their utility in this fight. However, there is still the question of whether the Kurdish Army’s efforts have been convincing enough to warrant more than words of praise.
Is US Support of an independent Kurdistan on the cards? Perhaps…
The Peshmerga have already established strong relations to the United States on numerous occasions. For example, it was Peshmerga fighters who helped the United States identify the location of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 by capturing and interrogating Bin Laden’s personal messenger.
However, what remains to be seen is a potential Kurdistan’s utility in a new Middle East, and whether it would allow the United States to gain a strategic partner in that region. If the United States sees a potential for such utility, they would likely support an independent Kurdish government in order to be able to regain control over that region, and continue with its plans to shape the Middle East and West Asia to a supportive set of regimes.
There is still the question of whether the United States would be willing to abandon its plans for a stabilized, friendly Iraqi regime in favour of a stronger, more independent Kurdish state. If the United States decides not to support the struggling Iraqi state, it would render the nearly decade-long war in Iraq a failure, and would likely result in a lot of backlash in the media.
However, on a more practical level, it may not be the “fix-all” solution for the current problem of ISIS. The existence of an independent Kurdish state would only serve to limit the growth of ISIS, and not necessarily fix the issue that ISIS is in existence. Thus, if the United States supports the Kurdish state, it would not remove the threat of ISIS, but could limit its growth into Syria for now.
Interactions with other Middle Eastern regimes
An independent Kurdish state in the Middle East would introduce an interesting new dynamic in Middle Eastern politics. Long thought to be a distinct minority whose identity transcends mere religious association, it could create a state whose population would be too diverse to pin down to one majority (despite the fact that most Kurds identify themselves as Sunni Muslims).
Although, the more interesting dynamic would be in seeing how an independent Kurdish state would interact with Sunni and Shia regimes in the region. It might be considered as one of the few states in the region that represent a minority population, and might also be considered as an experiment to see how an independent minority state can operate in the complex Middle East region.
One thing is certain: if the Kurdistan will rise, someone will fall. Whether that means ISIS or the struggling Iraqi state is to be determined by the Iraqi guns held by the Peshmerga fighters.