This Is What ISIS' Rise Means for the “Kurdish Question”

Believe it or not, not all the implications are bad...

The rise of the group that calls itself the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is changing the political landscape of the entire Middle East, fueling old tensions while also creating new ones. More recently, much ink has been spilled on the sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. However, while many analysts debated the actual or potential military effectiveness of the Kurdish paramilitary groups against ISIS, the implications of the organization’s rise to prominence for the fate of the Kurdish populations in the Middle East remains a relatively underexplored area.

The so-called “Kurdish question”—the fact that while they can easily fulfill the criteria for nationhood, Kurds have long been denied self-determination, “trapped” and divided inside the borders of four sovereign states—has been one of the most persistent yet relatively ignored puzzles of the Middle East during the century that followed the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. It has been persistent, in the sense that the Kurdish populations spread out in modern Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran have resisted assimilation to the broader putative “nations” that controlled the central governments in their respective territories.

The fate of the Kurds, in so many ways, has also been ignored by the international community for a number of reasons. First, the Kurdish question is partially a result of the post-WWI “slicing and dicing” of the Ottoman lands by the Western powers, who were at the time more concerned with either maximizing their geopolitical influence in the region or keeping a lid on the underlying tensions, usually by appeasing the dominant factions. In such a landscape, to put it bluntly, Kurds “mattered less” than other social or political groups for the so-called international community.

Second, while it is tempting to think of the “Kurds” as a homogenous and unitary political actor that has moved across time as “one,” only to be divided by colonialism and then the four states that control Kurdish-majority lands within their respective territories, the Kurdish populations have long been politically fragmented. The division did not only cut across the existing state boundaries; the Kurds within the respective states—especially in the absence of a state-like political entity that could act as a glue or catalyst—also found it difficult to overcome their collective action problems, partially due to the inherent feudal [or tribal] political structure that marked much of the Kurdish-populated terrains, as well as differences in dialect and customs.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the states that ruled over the Kurds did their best to arrest the development of a Kurdish nationalist movement within their territories. Turkey’s response to the Kurdish question is an exemplar. The Turkish state utilized numerous measures from outright repression to the co-optation of tribal/feudal elites to systematic assimilation (For example, during the military-dominated 1980s, some state officials even claimed that Kurds were in fact “mountain Turks” who were a little confused in the language department). Note that Turkey’s attempts to contain the Kurdish nationalist movement, which eventually triggered a slow-burning civil war that claimed more than 30,000 lives in the last three decades, still paled in comparison to those initiated by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Put simply, not only were the Kurds trapped and divided inside four sovereign states, they were trapped and divided inside states that did not shy away from repressive measures to keep them down.

In such a landscape, the broader Kurdish question took the backseat in the global agenda. True, there was the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq that acted almost like a quasi-independent state after the fall of the Baathist regime, but the KRG kept a rather low profile in the last decade, neither aggressively pushing for a Kurdish state carved out of Iraq, nor directly empowering Kurdish separatist or irredentist movements elsewhere. Turkey’s clash with the insurgent group PKK (which is formally recognized as a terrorist organization by numerous states, including the United States), in turn, remained a problem for Turkey to solve. And let’s be honest about Syria: Very few among the so-called global audiences actually knew of (or, more precisely, cared about) the Syrian Kurds until recently. Iranian Kurds have been even less “visible”; geographically dispersed when compared with their kin in the other three countries and living under the iron fist of a revolutionary state, they rarely, if ever, made the news (even after the ISIS debacle).

All this changed with the rise of the ISIS. As the global audiences were quite literally shocked and awed by the organization’s much-publicized brutal acts and strategic dexterity, not to mention the speed of its initial territorial expansion, the Kurds also began to make headlines, first as the victims of the barbaric hordes of the self-proclaimed Caliphate, then as its most capable and willing adversaries. There is almost unanimous agreement over the value of the Kurds in the struggle against ISIS. They are more capable and reliable than the Iraqi army and less inflammatory, from a sectarian perspective, than the Shiite militia that is backed by Iran. The only minor problem, so the argument goes, is that Kurds may be more of a defensive than an offensive force. If only the West can find a way to motivate the Kurds a little more, the conventional wisdom suggests, ISIS can be liquidated much more effectively as a fighting force.