Kurdish Peshmerga troops participate in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants in a village on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh near the border province of Dohuk, August 9, 2014© REUTERS/ Ari Jalal
The Kurds’ dream for statehood has been growing by the day ever since the US commenced airstrikes against ISIL terrorists in Northern Iraq. In what should not come as a surprising development, the CIA is now reportedly arming the Peshmerga to aid in a proxy conflict against ISIL. As noble of a goal as it may initially seem, such an escalation of American military support for Kurdistan has dual purposes that are aimed at reverberating throughout the region. These include the de-facto or de-jure fragmentation of Iraq, the destabilization of the Kurdish-populated portions of Syria, and the creation of a long-term lever of influence against Erdogan’s Turkey. Just as ISIL attempted to change the borders of the Mideast and revise the regional order, so too is the Kurdish wrecking ball, but this time, international (Western) backing appears to be on its side.
Iraq in Tatters
The US’ strengthening of Kurdistan through air strikes against ISIL and the covert arming of the Peshmerga forebodes negatively for the future of a unified Iraq. Having already begun a counter-offensive against ISIL, Kurdish forces may retain and absorb any further territorial gains into their governing entity, just as they did earlier with Kirkuk. What’s more, they could even take more than what is ‘necessary’ or ‘legitimate’ in order to use it as a future concession for keeping their core gains. This territory could also be used as a buffer between Sunni and Shia Iraq within either a very loosely and only nominally unified state or as an international border between Kurdistan and these two entities (which will likely split from one another if Kurdistan itself secedes). In effect, the more that Kurdistan is strengthened, the weaker a unified Iraq becomes, until the entire entity is left in tatters and eventually falls apart.
Kurdistan Pushes Into Syria
The conceptualization of an independent Kurdistan is not meant to be limited to Iraq; instead, it is envisioned as destabilizing Syria prior to absorbing territory from it. The Peshmerga will become battle-hardened through their crucible of conflict with ISIL, thereby making them capable of securing their independence from any future reintegration attempts by the united Iraqi army. Not only can they act ‘defensively’ against Iraq, but they can also likely engage themselves offensively against Syria.
With their weapons and experience, the scenario could plausibly arise where they chase ISIL back into Syria and continue their counter-offensive with continued covert US support. The effect would be to expand Erbil’s control over the self-proclaimed autonomous Kurdish portions of Syria that are beyond Damascus’ influence. Erbil could also use a humanitarian pretext to justify the Peshmerga’s intervention, and the West would be applauding it every step of the way. If Syria tries to restore its territorial integrity, this would place it into armed conflict with ‘Kurdistan’, which by then may have been given security guarantees from Turkey, the US, and/or NATO. This would lead to a conundrum where Syria would either have to begrudgingly accept the loss of its territory or enter into a risky interstate war that could threaten its existence.
Playing the Kurdish Card
Forecasting even further, a strong Kurdistan, christened by war and supported by the US, could be used to keep Erdogan in check and deter him from rejecting Washington’s geopolitical dictates. Although he has been a loyal American subject in enabling the covert war on Syria, this has amounted to no tangible gains for him and his country. On the contrary, it has led to vocal domestic discontent and destabilization of the border region. Erdogan wants to consolidate his rule over Turkey, especially in light of his recent presidential victory, so it is not in his personal political interests to see these things happening, let alone repeating into the future. This means that he may not be as adamant about blindly following Washington’s commands in the future as he was in the past. Thus, the Kurdish card can always be played to stoke instability in the eastern and southeastern parts of Turkey, thereby putting Erdogan on the defensive and sabotaging not only his power consolidation plans, but any hope that Turkey could potentially step outside of the grand geopolitical framework that the US has created for it.
The Reconstruction of the Mideast
The Kurdish wrecking ball is being used strategically by the US to bring about a reconstruction of the Mideast. Most significantly, retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters’ 2006 “Blood Borders” article in Armed Forces Journal provided an in-depth view of “how a better Middle East would look”. This may or may not have been what former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was talking about when she spoke of “the birth pangs of a New Middle East”. Still, in September 2013, the NYT came out with an article titled “How 5 Countries Could Become 14”, which largely followed Peters’ formula and purported to show what a fragmented Mideast could look like in the future.
Whereas the motivations for such a regional division may have been different during the Cold War, nowadays it is largely motivated by the US’ interest in divide-and-rule strategies and to cripple what it sees as being Iranian influence over a unified Syria and Iraq. Also, it is not to say that Peters or the NYT’s entire scenario could play out, or that it is totally in the US’ interests for this to happen (it may currently be detrimental in Saudi Arabia, for example), but it does appear increasingly likely that the emergence of an independent Kurdistan and Iraqi Sunni and Shiite states could soon become a reality.
Just as ISIL is a non-state actor ravaging across the region and trying to transform its borders without any authority, an independent Kurdistan can become a ‘legitimized state actor’ with international (Western, Israeli, NATO, and Gulf monarchies) recognition in doing so. The most ironic outcome of this entire episode is that the cartographic consequences of ISIL’s campaign in the region are being solidified by Kurdistan and legitimized by the US, making one seriously ponder whether the US had enabled ISIL to get to this point all along in order to create the humanitarian and political pretexts necessary to channel this geopolitical vision into a reality.
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The British experience can be instructive for Russia. London retains its British Commonwealth if it wants to use this as a foundation for integration in the future. That’s a valuable lesson for Russian experts who are calling for an end to “ineffective” associations like the CIS, the Russian World and others.