Second, YPG’s struggle with ISIS in Syria provided the Kurdish nationalist movement with a multitude of national myths and heroes, especially in the context of the successful defense of Kobane (which relied on heavy air support from the United States). Kobane now inspires countless Kurds and will most certainly play a crucial role in bringing them together by providing an array of symbols of sacrifice and heroism.
Third, that ISIS has established itself as international public enemy number one, when combined with the ineffectiveness or unreliability of alternative auxiliaries such as Iraqi army and Shiite militia, allowed especially YPG and Peshmerga to benefit from direct Western support, defined in terms of equipment and air support. This support will likely have long-term consequences for the said groups. The more military capable these groups become, the more of a backlash they are bound to trigger from either Turkey or Iran, or from the Sunni Arab militias (regardless of their affiliation with ISIS) that may feel threatened by their increasing capabilities.
The fourth opportunity that ISIS provides to the Kurdish groups involves legitimacy and popular support. The Kurdish groups have already taken advantage of the global media’s attention on the ISIS crisis and disdain for the jihadist group by launching a strategic communications campaign that presents the Kurds as an unexceptionally capable (ethnic) group that is fighting the barbaric hordes in the name of humanity and civilization, not necessarily for a nationalistic cause (note that these objectives need not be mutually exclusive). Second, the sense of legitimacy YPG drives from its fight with ISIS is also used to “whitewash” PKK’s reputation as a terrorist organization. Such attempts, as a recent BBC special that looked into the lives of female PKK recruits being trained to fight ISIS displayed, seem to be working. After a century of being ignored, the Kurds have captured not only the international spotlight, but also near-unanimous ideational support in the eyes of the Western audiences.
For the Kurdish groups, ISIS presents both an existential threat and a unique, if costly, opportunity to push forward their agenda for political autonomy or even the creation of a greater Kurdistan. The prospects of such an outcome, in turn, are bound to create further tensions in the region, not only among states like Turkey and Iran, but also among Sunni Arabs in Syria and Iraq who may be concerned with an expansionist Kurdish nationalist agenda.
That ISIS is reshaping the Middle East is not merely hyperbole. But the change it has been causing is not unilateral; more than anything, the organization is creating new threats and opportunities for regional actors, motivating them, either out of fear or interest, to play a more active role in the remaking of the Middle East. It most certainly has helped trigger a new chapter in the Kurdish question. What comes next will depend to a large extent on how the KRG and YPG/PKK will play their hands and how other regional actors will react. Only one thing’s for sure: The story that is unfolding at the moment over the Kurdish question defies linear or simple narratives.
Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and specializes in territorial and religious conflicts, the relationship between state-formation and production of military power, and empires. At the Naval War College, Kadercan lectures on the Islamic State as well as the legacies of the Ottoman Empire on present-day politics of the Middle East. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.