Western countries have increasingly pinned high hopes on the Peshmerga, Iraq’s Kurdish militia, to fight against the Islamic State (IS) and prevent it from taking control of more territory. In order to counter their lack of equipment, they have decided to ship Kurds modern weaponry. This decision could have great implications on the military balance of the Middle East, especially for their neighbouring country Turkey, which has been in an armed conflict for thirty years with various Kurdish insurgent groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Concerns about independence aspirations
The main issue at stake concerns independence aspirations of the 40 million Kurds scattered across Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran who compose one of the world’s largest stateless nations. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan was built within Iraq, benefitting from a regional government, armed forces and an attractive economy primarily based on oil. It constitutes the greatest level of autonomy granted to Kurds so far. Nevertheless, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) remains bound to and restrained by the Iraqi national government. The latter’s recent weakening in the wake of the Islamic States’ expansion in the country has increased the credibility of the Kurdish Peshmerga military corps. Commentators have repeatedly suggested that this event paved the way for a Kurdish independence, which has notably been fought for in Turkey for three decades by Turkish Kurds under the PKK banner. Concerns were raised about the use of newly-acquired weapons to fight for independence against the Iraqi government once their battle against IS is finished. Syrian, Turkish and Iranian armed Kurdish groups –and notably Turkish PKK members – have flown to the Erbil and Sinjar front lines to help their Iraqi counterparts.
KRG President Masoud Barzani further called for an independence referendum on July 3rd, declaring “the time has come to determine [the Kurds’] fate and we should not wait for other people to determine it for us.” This is why KRG’s independence could inflame separatist aspirations of Turkish and Iranian Kurdish minorities, which Ankara and Tehran are unlikely to support.
“No unease” in Ankara
A Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman declared there was no “unease” about the weapons’ deliveries to Kurds despite the conflict between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that started in 1984. Bilgay Duman from the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) declared that “relations between Turkey and the Kurdish administration are good, neither side sees the other as a threat,” especially because the military superiority of Turkey could not be called into question, he said. Since the 2003 US intervention in Iraq, the Turkish government has increased its political ties with the Kurdish government responsible for the autonomous region in Iraq, through bilateral trade and policy coordination. Large investments have been led by Turkish companies in Erbil, notably in the oil sector and on the consumer’s market. Globally, exports towards the Kurdish government have reached 12 billion USD in 2013. As far as security is concerned, the Syrian conflict was central in bringing the two parts together. Iraqi Kurdistan indeed forms an important security buffer for Turkey, providing a shield against the increasing influx of refugees created by the conflicts as well as Iraq-based IS fighters. Iraqi Kurdistan directly shares its northern frontier with Turkey and it is important for them to keep an extremist-free frontier with Iraq. Peace talks between the Turkish state and the PKK started in 2012 and the organisation’s leader Abdullah Öcalan had announced the end of armed struggle on their behalf. Turkey’s positive response to the Kurdish advance against IS underlines Ankara’s tolerance for a greater Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, as long as they remain “under Turkey’s economic orbit” says Gonul Tol from the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.
Nonetheless, the greatest obstacle to a united Kurdish independence is the great division within Iraqi, Turkish and Syrian Kurdish ranks. The two Iraqi Kurd factions – the Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Jalal Talabani-led Patriotic Union of Kurdistan – have been fighting for power since the 1990s while the Turkish PKK opposed an autonomous Kurdistan within Iraq. Eventually, Iraq expert Ferhad Seyder told the German newspaper Deutsche Welle that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is a social democratic party and that “Kurdish nationalism is secular and pro-Western,” two arguments that should reassure Ankara.
Background : The United States and other Western countries have been providing direct military assistance to Kurdish forces to repel Islamic State (IS) fighters in Northern Iraq for twelve days days now. On August 7th, US President Barack Obama authorised targeted airstrikes against Islamist troops, equipments and installations alongside British and French humanitarian aid towards refugees. A few days later, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared that Iraqi Kurds should be equipped to fight IS. The strategy enabled several cities not to be occupied by the extremist Sunni militants as well as training marginalised minorities such as Yezidis in Syria. They further led to the recapture of the Mosul Dam by the Iraqi army, helped by Kurdish militias and US airstrikes. It is an important victory over IS as this dam is essential to provide water and electricity to almost 700,000 Iraqi homes.
Author : Laura Gounon