Great-Power Competition Is Coming to Africa
The United States Needs to Think Regionally to Win
On October 16, the world woke to footage of the Iraqi army barreling toward Kirkuk, several hundred miles north of Baghdad. Their mission was to reclaim the city, but not from jihadists; rather, they planned to win it back from the Kurds. Three years ago, as the Islamic State (ISIS) tore into Iraq, the country’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) fought back against the fundamentalists and captured Kirkuk for itself. At the time, Baghdad reluctantly acquiesced. But by October 2017, Iraq’s central government was becoming anxious. Buoyed by Kirkuk’s oil revenues, the KRG had held a historic independence referendum in September. Washington quickly urged Baghdad not to move forward with any offensive against the Kurds. But the Iraqi army pressed toward Kirkuk anyway, relying on Iran-backed Shiite militias while also courting Turkish support.
In this saga of power dynamics and kaleidoscopically shifting rivalries, the United States is a key player. But its incomplete understanding of the regional dynamics harms both its own and its allies’ interests. Indeed, Washington’s understanding of the Kurds, in particular, is limited in that it is defined by a focus on the war against ISIS, as well as a reluctance to give up on Arab Iraq and its massive oil reserves. The United States has consistently failed to comprehend the fact that Kurdish independence is a direct threat to the territorial and political integrity of all the KRG’s neighbors, be they friend or foe of America, and that any U.S. policy toward the Kurds must therefore contemplate the wide-ranging implications of Kurdish autonomy rather than simply viewing the group as an instrument in the fight against ISIS.
Since the rise of ISIS, the Kurds who have helped to repel the jihadist scourge have become an American darling of sorts. Periodicals esteem Kurdish sovereignty, running articles such as “A Dream of Secular Utopia in ISIS’ Backyard.” Magazines fetishize Kurdish women—even children—for taking up arms against Islamic fundamentalism. Even ordinary Americans are willing to fight and die alongside Kurdish militias. Kurdish zeal and efficacy in the fight against ISIS, coupled with their underdog status as a stateless ethnicity, has led to Western perceptions that they deserve support.
The tipping point may be many Kurds’ wish for an independent state. Although the KRG emerged from its plebiscite with a clear mandate, the Western narrative masks deep rifts that still plague intra-Kurdish politics. Even as Iraqi forces prepared to pour into Kirkuk, northern Iraq’s premier Kurdish political parties remained divided, with one faction even opting to coordinate with the Iraqi central government. For decades, regional players with Kurdish populations—such as Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria—have exploited these divisions to pit Kurdish groups against each other, using them as proxies in their interstate conflicts. American policymakers and media elites, meanwhile, have downplayed or ignored these complex dynamics, preferring to highlight the Kurds as indispensable allies against ISIS, a simplification from which no effective diplomatic policy can be formed.
Indeed, it has created a central and confusing ambivalence: while Washington showers the Kurds with praise for fighting common enemies, it strongly opposes Kurdish independence. The KRG, emboldened by the recent referendum, will no doubt seek to hold Washington to its own talking points. Already, Western pundits are doing that for them, chastising the United States for shirking its “debt” to its bold Kurdish allies.
Washington must therefore shed the simplistic Kurds vs. ISIS paradigm and begin an honest conversation about the complex promises and pitfalls of Kurdish independence and the U.S. relationship with the Kurds.
America’s reimagining of the Kurds must begin with the term “Kurdistan.” Most well-read Americans take this to mean Iraq’s Kurdish-dominated north, administrated by the KRG. But to many Kurds, it refers to a much greater concept that includes predominantly Kurdish regions of Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Furthermore, it behooves any reader to remember that the Kurdish people have largely governed themselves in those lands for hundreds of years, until their comparatively recent subjugation by newly formed nation states in the twentieth century. Kurdish history therefore views these borders as modern, unnatural, and—hopefully—temporary. To the Kurds, northern Syria is in fact Rojava, that is, the West; northern Iraq is Basur, the South; southern Turkey is Bakur, the North; and western Iran is Rojhelat, the East.
However, even as the Kurds bridle at imposed modern borders, these same borders have divided them in important ways. Separate Kurdish “national” experiences and political leaderships have emerged across each border. Although each of these leaders has challenged the states encompassing their homeland, they have consistently done so in isolation or competition—and only rarely through collaboration—with one another. This rivalry continues, conspicuously, today.
Mullah Mustafa Barzani was the first and most prominent Kurdish leader of the post-WWII era. A series of revolts earned him exile from Iraq until the 1958 coup d’état in Baghdad. He then returned to continue his quest for Kurdish secession under the auspices of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), founded in Iran in 1946. When the Iraqi army overwhelmed Barzani and forced him to admit defeat in 1975, many feared that the Kurdish national movement was dead.
But Barzani’s setback only birthed a schismatic new cadre of Kurdish leaders. Jalal Talabani—who became Iraq’s first post-war president and died in late 2017—split from the KDP and formed his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1975. In Turkey, meanwhile, the young revolutionary Abdullah Ocalan established the far-left, Kurdish-nationalist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1976. Three years later, Barzani passed away, and his son, Massoud Barzani, succeeded him as leader of the KDP.
The United States has consistently failed to comprehend the fact that Kurdish independence is a direct threat to the territorial and political integrity of all the KRG’s neighbors.
By 1980, these three men and their organizations—Barzani and the KDP, Talabani and the PUK, and Ocalan and the PKK—were vying for leadership of the Kurdish people. As the newcomer, Ocalan sought good relations with the other two, soliciting cooperation to set up bases in Syria through Talabani and, later, in Iraq through Barzani. A Kurdish entente proved impossible, however. To gain Barzani’s favor, Ocalan terminated his alliance with Talabani in 1982. When the pact between the PKK and the KDP also collapsed in 1986—in part because of the PKK’s attacks on the KDP’s allies in Iraq—Barzani changed tacks, merging forces with Talabani (his erstwhile antagonist) against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Ocalan, at this point, reverted back to the PUK; this produced a PKK-PUK accord in 1988, which lasted only a year.
The 1990s brought Iraqi Kurdistan autonomy but no unity or settling of baroque internecine conflict. Parliamentary elections in 1992 paralyzed Kurdish politics, provoking a civil war in May 1994. As the fighting intensified in the fall of 1996, Iraqi Kurdistan further fractured: Barzani’s KDP governed from Erbil, a city near the Turkish border, and Talibani’s PUK from Sulaymaniyah, near Iran. Conflict continued for another two years, as the parties agreed on little—besides the need to continue to sideline the PKK.
In the early 2000s, the U.S. invasion of Iraq united Iraqi Kurds in a quest to preserve their autonomy, and the rivalry in greater Kurdistan eclipsed the quiescent Kurdish rivalry within Iraq. The PKK begot the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) in Iran, the latter to fight the clerical regime there. With the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2012, the PYD attained its own autonomous zone in northern Syria, making the PKK/PYD axis critical to Iraq’s Kurdish leadership. Then, in 2013, the PUK reportedly solicited PKK support to offset the growing influence of Barzani’s KDP in Syria. Meanwhile, the PYD, in expelling ISIS from northern Syria, earned Western support and expanded the territory under its control. And in Iraqi Kurdistan, the PKK liberated the town of Sinjar and declared its own autonomy there.
This quick and dense timeline makes one thing clear: “Kurdistan” cannot be treated as a simple and localized geographic designation.
In this quagmire of alliances, meanwhile, the Kurds have repeatedly relied on foreign patrons to make incremental gains in their quest for statehood and, in some cases, against other Kurdish intra-national groups. Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have had no qualms repressing their own Kurdish populations while simultaneously exploiting the grievances of Kurds beyond their borders. Nor have Kurdish leaders been unified enough to resist such patronage-cum-meddling.
The only independent Kurdish modern state, the short-lived “Kurdish Republic of Mahabad” in Iran in 1941, was made possible—for example—by Soviet support. Then, as the epicenter of Kurdish nationalism moved to Iraq with Barzani, the Kurds there became targets of inter-state proxyism. In 1961, both Iran and Israel began to aid Barzani against their shared Ba’athist enemy in Baghdad, even managing to enlist Washington’s support in the early 1970s. The strategy worked: in the 1975 Algiers Accord, Tehran obtained territorial concessions from Baghdad in return for agreeing not to further meddle with Iraq’s other ethnic minorities. Baghdad promised the same. The shah subsequently terminated Iranian support for the Kurdish insurgency, forcing America to do the same. A KDP official later dubbed this the “most cruel betrayal” in Kurdish history.
Weaponization of the Kurdish people, however, was just picking up steam. With Barzani humbled, Ocalan and Talabani in 1979 moved to Damascus, where Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad granted them certain freedoms. Assad cautiously supported the PKK, which trained in Syrian-occupied Lebanon, because he saw it as a bargaining chip against Turkey. That support, too, paid off: in 1987, Turkey’s government in Ankara agreed to a quid pro quo that limited its disputed dam projects on the Euphrates River (shared with Syria).
Still, Iran was by far the Kurds’ most active regional patron. Following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran’s Kurds revolted. Tehran took advantage of its regime change, however, to re-establish ties with Barzani in Iraq. This new partnership required Barzani to fight his own party affiliates in Iran, which he did, prompting the PUK to counter by coming to the aid of the suddenly beset (and, some might say, double-crossed) Iranian Kurds. Thus was the stage set for a total collision of Kurdish military-political entities: three years into the Iran-Iraq war, in 1983, the KDP aided Tehran’s fight against Baghdad while the PUK aligned with Saddam. The deck was again reshuffled, however, in 1985; this time, the PUK allied with Tehran, and by 1987, both Kurdish groups were fighting Iran’s war against Iraq.
Washington has been all too willing to act unaware of the Kurds’ tormented history.
Things didn’t get any less complicated from there. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, Tehran was cautious not to provoke Ankara, but it was nonetheless eager to squeeze intelligence out of the PKK, especially on U.S. military installations in NATO-allied Turkey. In exchange, Iran reportedly furnished the PKK with medical and military supplies. Ocalan and the PKK forged similar ties with Iraq after 1988—following, of all things, Saddam’s genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds. Apparently willing to sleep with the enemy, the PKK agreed to provide Saddam with information on Turkish and KDP movements in northern Iraq in return for Baghdad’s turning a blind eye to its own bases.
Outsiders meddled even when Kurds physically clashed with each other. In the Iraqi Kurdish civil war of the 1990s, as the KDP and PUK battled one another, Iran first backed the former but then defaulted to the latter. Talabani and the PUK took refuge in Iran as Tehran dispatched Shiite militiamen from the Badr Corps to bolster PUK strongholds in Iraq. In 1996, Iran escalated, deploying troops in PUK territory, to Barzani’s alarm. To offset this Iranian support for the PUK, Barzani solicited aid for himself and the KDP from Baghdad.
Iran, meanwhile, also deepened its ties with the PKK, to which Turkey responded by throwing its weight behind Barzani. Ankara’s plan was to co-opt the KDP into crushing the PKK in Iraq, thus balancing out Iran’s influence. Barzani indeed allowed Turkish interventions against the PKK in his territory, with significant collateral losses and complications. In at least one of its 1997 campaigns, Turkey bombed PUK positions alongside PKK ones. And in 1999, Turkish raids accidentally killed Iranians in what Ankara argued was Iraq but Tehran insisted was Iran, causing a diplomatic spat.
Ocalan was jailed, with American assistance, in 1999—an attempt to stifle the PKK. Syria then signed a deal with Turkey, agreeing to stop supporting the PKK. Over the next decade, Ankara boosted economic ties with the KRG, becoming its top trading partner. In 2011, the situation seemed finally to be settling down, with Tehran agreeing to a tenuous ceasefire with its own Kurds and Turkey launching peace talks with the PKK in 2012.
But the Syrian civil war and rise of ISIS again shook up the region’s power politics, transforming the Kurds into proxies once more. In September 2012, Turkish authorities aired footage of alleged Iranian spies interviewing PKK fighters about Turkish military positions near the Iranian border. That December, Turkey’s interior minister accused Iran of affording the PKK “logistical support.” Around the same time, rumors surfaced that Iraq’s then pro-Iranian prime minister was hosting the PKK and its Syrian branch in Baghdad for talks. In April 2013, Iran’s notorious Quds-Force Chief Qasem Soleimani reportedly met with a top PKK commander in Iraq, allegedly offering the group “heavy weapons” if they agreed to maintain an active presence in Turkey. Late last year, Soleimani reportedly urged the group to fight in Mosul. And in December, Iran-backed Shiite militias sent reinforcements to PYD-controlled Syria, much to Turkey’s fury. To check these advances, Turkey threw in its lot with Barzani’s Syrian branch, and in 2014, when ISIS besieged the PYD-controlled Syrian town of Kobani, Ankara blocked access to the landlocked town and, instead of helping Syrian Kurds defend themselves, allowed only Iraqi Kurds to come to their rescue.
And so we finally arrive at the present day. Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have been fighting ISIS, while the PKK remains at war with Turkey. As long as these theaters are aflame, Kurdish firepower will be directed away from Syria and its patron, Iran (whose own Kurdish minority nevertheless remains restive). Tehran and Ankara are both aware of this, knowing that any Turkish peace with the PKK could prompt the group’s affiliates to rekindle their insurgency against Iran.
Since January, the Kurdish “Game of Thrones” has picked up speed in a sometimes blinding back and forth of alliances dissolving, reforming, and dissolving again. In March, a KDP official complained to Turkish media that “elements” in Iranian-backed Shiite militias were openly supporting the PKK. That same month, PJAK clashed with Iranian border guards by the Turkish border, violating its 2011 ceasefire with Tehran. Iran quickly blamed Turkey for this infraction. Soon thereafter, Turkish media reported a secret meeting in Syria, where Soleimani—chief of Iran’s Quds Force—allegedly offered full support for the PYD’s moves along the Turkish border. On August 7, an Iranian headline shot back: “Turkey, after killing Kurds, grabbing land in Syria.” The next week, Iran reportedly shelled militants inside the KRG, only to signtrade deals with the KRG several days later. On August 16, a top Iranian general made an unprecedented visit to Turkey, pledging to deepen military ties. Iranian Kurds soon steppedup attacks against Tehran. The next week, reports touted Turkish-Iranian coordination in Syria. On August 21, Ankara suggested a possible “joint operation” with Iran against the PKK.
A month later, Ankara, Baghdad, and Tehran held a trilateral meeting to discuss and condemn Barzani’s historic referendum, perhaps finding the rare impetus for true collaboration amidst strengthening calls for true Kurdish autonomy. Within weeks, Iran mobilized Shiite militias to support Baghdad’s punitive offensive against Kirkuk and even managed to enlist the PUK’s coordination for it—a move KDP officials described as a “historic betrayal.” Baghdad also awkwardly cited the PKK’s presence in Kirkuk as casus belli for conflict, securing Ankara’s support for the operation.
Readers could be forgiven for losing their way in this thicket of personalities, entities, and shifting alliances. It is this very complexity that makes the situation so fraught for the United States. Not helping matters is the fact that, for all the regimes ruling parts of “greater Kurdistan,” the Iraqi Kurds’ independence referendum is a menace to their territorial integrity and national identity. Their fear will drive regional policy for years. Iran, Iraq, and Turkey are already acting to offset the fallout: they have each threatened to economically stymie the landlocked KRG and conducted military drills on the KRG’s borders.
Washington, in contrast, has been all too willing to act unaware of the Kurds’ tormented history. The U.S. government may claim that it is solely focused on combating ISIS, not other regional issues, but regional powers see no firewall between Washington’s tactical relationship with Kurdish groups and these groups’ strategic designs for a greater Kurdistan. Iran has already framed the KRG’s quest for independence as a Western imperial project, likening a potential Kurdish state to a colonial outpost—a “new Israel.” Meanwhile, Turkey’s anxieties are inseparable from ongoing U.S. military aid to Syrian Kurds.
By claiming a limited focus on ISIS, Washington does itself no favors. It takes blame with no gain: simultaneously undermining its ties with both regional states and Kurdish actors. It is seeking to bypass Iraq to directly arm the KRG but telling the KRG to remain subordinate to Baghdad. It is arming the PYD in Syria while supporting Turkey’s war against the PKK in Iraq. These contradictions might appear to give the United States flexibility, but the policy mix is ultimately self-defeating. U.S. support has emboldened Kurdish actors just enough to sharpen the already acute fears of Ankara, Baghdad, and Tehran but not enough to check these states’ destabilizing—and perhaps catastrophic—reactions. America’s narrow lens, in other words, offers no roadmap to either the Kurds or their adversaries. It only strengthens the chances of future conflict. The strategy is not even effective on its own terms: regional actors will continue to pit one Kurdish group against another, taking aim at those they consider most beholden to the United States, thus limiting the efficacy of any transactional U.S. relationship with Kurds.
What the U.S. needs is a strategic, long-term relationship with the Kurds that contemplates the vast complexity of their place in the region. This is not to say that formulating such a strategy is simple. It will require a larger American political, economic, and military commitment to the Middle East, for one thing. Such support may not sit well with most Americans, who are tired of nation-building and costly foreign adventures.
Should the United States decide to back an independent KRG, for example, that would mean ensuring that Kurdistan does not become a failed state. For a fighting chance as a republic, the Kurds themselves need to take democracy and institution-building seriously; this is where America can help. Disabusing the KRG of dynastic politics, however, will be an uphill battle.
More challenging still will be the constellation of regional issues that American aid will continue to enflame, no matter what policy the United States chooses. Assuaging the fears of a post-ISIS Iraq and finding ways to prevent it from further drifting into the Iranian orbit, will be the first and most obvious challenge. Another will be reassuring Turkey, a flailing NATO ally, that Kurdish independence could be confined to Iraq. And for many ordinary Iranians, whom the United States proclaims to stand alongside in the face of their despotic regime, overt U.S. support for the KRG will be seen as a precursor to an American embrace of Iranian Kurds’ secessionist aspirations and thus a vindication of many of the Iranian government’s anti-American talking points.
Ultimately, a redefined American relationship with any Kurdish polity will mean a redefined U.S. relationship with Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey: in other words, with the entire region. In each theater, policymakers will have to assess the costs and risks they are willing to bear and determine what, if any, U.S. interests are at stake. But before these challenges can even be framed in the public discourse, policymakers and pundits must start an honest conversation about the Kurds that transcends the ISIS vs. Kurds narrative. They must acknowledge the complex history of the Kurdish movement and consider both the plight of the Kurdish people and the level of U.S. commitment to the Middle East’s existing state system. That’s a tall order but the only one befitting the world’s sole superpower.