The June 2014 onslaught in Iraq by the jihadist organization the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has created a crisis of unprecedented proportions there, with far-reaching implications that stretch from Arbil, the capital of the quasi-independent Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, to the country’s capital, Baghdad, and all the way across the region and beyond, to Washington.
At the moment, the advance of ISIS forces into Kurdish-held areas has created a major humanitarian crisis, threatens the existence of religious and ethnic minorities living there, and has now begun to draw the US military back into an area which US President Barack Obama thought he had left for good.
For the KRG and the cause of Kurdish nationalism, the effects have been immediate and profound, and the situation is extremely fluid. The quick collapse of the Iraqi army, whose rebuilding and retraining after the 2003 US invasion to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime cost billions of American dollars, opened up new opportunities for the KRG and the cause of Kurdish nationalism. Filling the vacuum left by the disintegrating Iraqi army, the Kurds took control of the oil-rich region of Kirkuk and other areas, all of which are in dispute with the weak central government in Baghdad.
This feat provided great advantages, fulfilling the Kurds’ long-standing aspirations for controlling Kirkuk, which they call “our Jerusalem,” and also placing huge amounts of oil at their disposal which, if they manage to export it, will secure their economic and political independence.
However, it also exacerbated relations with Baghdad.
Being totally opposed to any independent economic or political moves by the Kurds, Baghdad is doing its utmost to economically strangle the KRG. For the past six months, it stopped the flow of all oilsale funds due to the KRG and has taken various actions to prevent the KRG from selling oil independently.
Another, more dangerous outcome of the new territorial gains is that Kurdistan has become the main bulwark against the ISIS onslaught.
After conquering Mosul (Iraq’s second largest city with population estimated at two million) and Tikrit (the ancestral home of Saddam Hussein with population estimated at 260,000), ISIS suddenly turned its weapons against the Kurds, placing their new territorial gains in jeopardy.
The advance of ISIS forces also marked a continuation of their attacks against the Kurds of Syria, which have been ongoing during the past two years as the Syrian state violently disintegrated into various fiefdoms. ISIS’s advances essentially erased the border between Syria and Iraq, as it now controls a large swath of territory in both countries, where it proclaimed the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. But the ISIS-Kurd confrontation also strengthened pan-Kurdish nationalism. Greater Kurdistan, an area of 190,000 sq.
km., encompasses part of the territories of four states – Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
Notwithstanding the very real differences and rivalries between the different regions of greater Kurdistan, there is now a heightened degree of cooperation between them, as they attempt to stem the ISIS danger.
The danger is especially acute to the defenseless Christian and Yazidi minorities, whose only safe haven became the KRG. Those who were victims of the ISIS have experienced the most inhuman atrocities including rape, forced Islamization and brutal mass killings.
The KRG, which in the past decade has proved to be an island of stability and prosperity in a sea of Iraqi and regional turmoil, is now facing multiple challenges: fighting ISIS with inferior military equipment on many fronts at once; struggling with Baghdad over various political, economic and strategic issues; coping with an economic embargo; and accommodating hundreds of thousands of Christian, Yazidi, Kurdish and even Muslim Arab refugees.
In these circumstances, the world seems to have only two options: either support the KRG – a stable, pro –Western, tolerant and secular entity – or let loose ISIS, with all its extremist policies, which might endanger not just the Kurds but all of the states in the region. After long hesitation, the Obama administration has decided to support the Kurds. President Obama himself came out publicly stating the following: “To stop the advance on Arbil I have directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIS terrorist convoys should they move toward the city.” So far, American military forces have bombed at least two targets in northern Iraq to try and check the advance of Islamist insurgents who have trapped tens of thousands of religious minorities in Kurdish areas.
Will this belated aid stop the ISIS advances? Will the Kurds be able to regain their foothold, turning this war into their war of independence? It remains to be seen.
The author is Senior Research Associate at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University. She is the author of the The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State, and editor of forthcoming Kurdish Awakening: Nation Building in a Fragmented Homeland.