Kurds Make Strides Amidst Regional Turmoil

Kurdish troops in the Pesh Merga militia

Kurdish troops in the Pesh Merga militia

Most people have a hard time finding positives out of Middle East turmoil. Violence, instability, and humanitarian crises have tended to characterize recent events. Yet throughout the regional malaise, one group seems to have made substantive strides- the Kurds. Spread out within Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, the Kurds have front row seats to the Middle East’s main action. Yet despite the danger, over the past year the Kurdish movement has improved its strategic position. The Kurds have made advances on both the diplomatic and military fronts.

The Kurds recently enhanced their cooperation with the Iraqi government. Officially, the Kurdistan Regional Government holds limited autonomy within northern Iraq. Unsurprisingly, the specifics of what rights the Regional Government can exercise often proves a source of tension. (Imagine if, say, Idaho had a vaguely defined level of independence within the U.S. Add oil, roving terrorist groups, and centuries of ethnic hostility, and you can understand the practical complications of limited Kurdish autonomy). Yet the rise of ISIS has improved ties between the Kurds and the Baghdad government. The Kurds currently collaborate with the Iraqi military against ISIS. Further, in December the two sides reached a critical agreement to share oil revenue. Under the pact, 500,000 barrels of Kurdish oil will hit the market. Kurdish and Iraqi officials also resolved disagreements over revenue sharing. Even with decreased oil prices, the deal likely will facilitate economic growth within the Kurdish region. The rapprochement with Baghdad should prove a substantive boon for the Kurds.

While still frosty, the Kurds have begun thawing diplomatic relations with Turkey as well. Turkey’s Kurds, led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), have engaged in peace negotiations with the Turkish government. Turkey and the Kurds have even cooperated militarily against ISIS. For example, Turkey helped Kurdish troops enter the Battle of Kobani this past fall. More recently, the Kurds assisted the Turkish evacuation of a historical landmark within Syria. In fairness, Turkey and the Kurds still maintain mutual mistrust. The PKK negotiations have often spewed vitriol, and Turkey bombed Kurdish fighters in October. Yet overall, the Kurds have slowly begun to improve ties with Turkey.

Events in Iraq and Syria have also enhanced the Kurds’ military position. After the rise of ISIS, the Kurds managed to gain the strategic town of Kirkuk. Kirkuk has important oil reserves and holds symbolic value for the Kurds. The victory over ISIS at Kobani also represented a major Kurdish triumph. Going forward, Kurdish troops will continue to play a major role against ISIS. In fact, the Kurdish Pesh Merga militia projects as a key piece of the impending offensive in Mosul. In the face of chaos, Kurdish military groups have made gains over the past year.

Despite their recent successes, it seems difficult to assess the Kurds’ long-term plans. Critically, the Kurds stand divided between their Iraqi and Turkish branches. Both of these groups have fractured into sub-factions, making it difficult for the Kurds to speak with a coherent voice. Further, an independent Kurdistan still seems far off. Recognizing a Kurdish state could catalyze the demise of Iraq. Other regional players, including the Turks, likely would oppose the new country. As another complication, even if it gained independence Kurdistan’s oil-dependent economy would lack a port for exports. However for now, the Kurds can continue to take advantage of regional instability to steadily improve their position.

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