This article is a contribution from James Le Grice, of our network partner Insight Public Affairs, based in London. Find more about them at http://insightpublicaffairs.com/


Five hundred years ago this August, the Ottoman Empire won a resounding military victory over Safavid Persia in a field near Chaldiran in northwest Iran. Turkish rule was extended into eastern Anatolia and the Persian Empire was gradually boxed into an area roughly corresponding to the borders of modern day Iran. The Turks could credit their victory to a deal they made with Kurdish chieftains in the region, who agreed to shift their allegiances to Istanbul. In return, the Kurds were granted autonomy provided they maintained militias to guard the Ottoman Empire’s eastern frontier from Persian incursion.

And thus the status of the Kurds remained for the next few centuries, until the dawn of the modern Middle East. The post World War One redrawing of the map saw Kurdistan divided between four countries and the independence of the Kurdish people repressed under the banners of Arab and Turkish nationalism. However, the last few years have witnessed something of a Kurdish renaissance, and now Kurdish entities are at a crossroads which may see them regain their historic position as quasi-independent buffer states.

Three conflicts have brought the Kurds to this point.

The first was the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. While the Kurdish region of Iraq had the protection of a no-fly zone since the end of the first Gulf War, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein gave the locals a final assurance against genocide. In the constitution drawn up after the invasion, Kurdish autonomy was reconfirmed and the role of president was granted to a Kurd.

Iraqi Kurdistan remained mostly immune to the violence that engulfed the rest of Iraq post 2003, and its regional government has been relatively stable and relatively democratic compared to the fractious federal administration in Baghdad. All of which has made Iraqi Kurdistan attractive for foreign direct investment. This has led to the exploration of previously untapped oil fields, the recent blossoming of a Kurdish petroleum industry and revitalized local aspirations for the establishment of a sovereign Kurdish state.

The civil war in Syria has likewise resulted in the growth of an invigorated and autonomous Kurdish region. While the first year of the Syrian conflict saw much infighting between Kurdish factions, an agreement was reached in July 2012 between the rival Party of Unity and Democracy (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council of Syria (KNC) to unite under a new Kurdish Supreme Committee and together expel Bashar al-Assad’s forces from Syrian Kurdistan. In the two years since then, Kurdish militias have won major victories against both Assad and the various Islamist factions fighting in Syria, and have exerted control over their region.

The Syrian war has not only raised the status of Kurds in Syria, but also those in Turkey. Turkey’s war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an internationally recognized terrorist group, over the status of Turkish Kurdistan has been one of the most vicious conflicts in the Middle East, though it has rarely received significant global attention.  Over 30,000 people have been killed in the past three decades of the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, which has been fraught with roadside bombings, drive-by shootings, hostage taking (including of westerners), and aerial bombardment by the Turkish Air Force in response.

However, in Bashar al-Assad, the PKK, which is aligned with the Syrian Kurdish PYD, and the government of now-president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which supports the Syrian opposition, found a common enemy and a mutual incentive for rapprochement. Erdogan’s government began clandestine peace talks with the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 2012 which led to promises of greater freedoms for Turkey’s Kurds and the retreat of PKK fighters from Turkey. The most immediate result of these negotiations has been the ceasefire that has remained in place since March 2013.

The peace process is tenuous, and despite the year long ceasefire Turkish Kurdistan remains a tense land of military checkpoints and armored vehicles on patrol. However, a lasting peace appears more viable now than at any other point in the history of the Turkish Republic.

Whereas the 2003 Iraq invasion and the Syrian Civil War raised the profile of Kurdish entities, the conflict against the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) in Iraq has propelled them to a position of international power and influence. Immediately prior to the Islamic State’s takeover of northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was in deadlock with Nouri al-Maliki’s government over the export of Kurdish oil. The KRG had independently reached an agreement with Turkey to pump oil through a pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. In May, the first shipment was loaded onto an oil tanker which set sail only to halt in international waters without a destination to deliver to.

Baghdad had declared the export illegal and threatened litigation against any country that purchased it. The United States sided with Maliki, and no one was willing to be forthcoming about importing the oil.

However, once the Islamic State seized Mosul and Tikrit, and the Iraqi Army crumbled in its advance, the international profile of the KRG was transformed from contraband oil dealer to freedom fighter almost overnight. The Kurdish Peshmerga became the frontline defense against the Islamic State, and its fighters seized the opportunity to take over the disputed city of Kirkuk. KRG President Massoud Barzani announced a referendum on Kurdish independence, which received vocal support from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

The US put pressure on Maliki to resign and began supporting the Kurds with military advisers, then air strikes, and has announced its intention to supply weapons to the Peshmerga. Similar announcements of military assistance to the Peshmerga followed from France, the UK, Italy and even Germany, which has opposed supplying arms to conflict zones since the end of World War Two.

Thus the status of the Kurdish forces in the eyes of western powers is beginning to resemble the status the Ottoman Empire afforded them five hundred years ago at the time of the Battle of Chaldiran. The West is under no illusion about the threat posed by the Islamic State, and policymakers in Westminster and Washington alike know that air strikes alone will be insufficient to defeat it. However, there is no political appetite to commit “boots on the ground.”

Unlike the Free Syrian Army, whom the US and Britain were reluctant to arm for fear of weapons falling into jihadi possession, the Kurdish Peshmerga is seen as a safe pair of hands. And unlike the Iraqi Army, loyal to a political leadership with close ties to Iran, arming the Peshmerga will not risk helping one of the West’s most prominent enemies extend its power.

These factors give Kurdish leaders, both in Iraq and elsewhere, significant bargaining power to achieve greater independence – but a return to “buffer state” status may not be in the best interests of the Kurds.

Iraqi Kurdistan, with its growing oil industry, is arguably the most prosperous Kurdish region, and this prosperity came largely as a result of sustained peace. If the Peshmerga are left to be the forward vanguard against the Islamic State, this peace will be lost and not likely regained for a very long time. As the experience of Algeria in the 1990s, Israel’s struggles against Hamas in Gaza, and the American and British interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated, a war with Islamic extremist groups is not one where victory comes swiftly.

Even with such a swift victory, there is not yet any guarantee that the alliances formed, both between rival Kurdish factions and between Kurds and Arabs, will hold once the war is over. Points of division that existed before the present conflicts in Syria and Iraq remain beneath the surface, which underscores the importance of backing up military assistance to the Kurds with significant and sustained political intervention.

The Kurds are at a crossroads, and it will take a combination of international diplomacy and military aid to help them take the right turn.