Emerging Powers and Forgotten Allies in Iraq

The Islamic State isn’t the only group adding to their territory while Baghdad sits in deadlock.


With land claims in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the Kurdish ethnic group should be taken seriously in regional politics. Because of their large spread throughout the Middle East, the Kurds are able to project power across national borders.

(1992 CIA map via University of Texas)

For minority groups in Iraq, the chaos of war has time and time again proven to be an ideal smokescreen for those laying territorial claims.

During the 1990 Gulf War, the Kurds in northern Iraq developed their own area of responsibility, “Iraqi Kurdistan,” as Saddam Hussein found himself pushed out of Kuwait. More recently, the Kurdish people in Syria have formed a provisional government to provide security as the civil war nears four years. Caught between Assad and the rebels, their ethnic group has been forced to fend for itself.

Kurds in Iraq. (Photo via Reuters)

With a new constitution and elections being planned, it appears more and more likely that the Syrian Kurds will attempt a claim similar to their ethnic cousins in Iraq. In the past, the regional powers have been staunchly opposed to an independent Kurdistan; several Kurdish political organizations are labelled as terrorist groups in Turkey, and Saddam Hussein initiated a genocide against the Kurds with his chemical weapons in the 1980s. With regional powers distracted by current events, the Kurds may have a chance to consolidate their power. The Syrian Civil War, the Iraqi political deadlock, and the overarching threat of the Islamic State have disabled Damascus and Baghdad enough to where they may not be able to crush an independent Kurdistan.

The Kurds are often forgotten in the constant search for U.S. allies in the Middle East. American troops stood by the Kurds for their steadfast alliance with the United States against the Islamist insurgency in the 2003 Iraq War. According to former Reconnaissance Marine Peter Nealen, the Kurdish forces assisted the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD) in preparing for conventional U.S. Military forces throughout Iraq. During the invasion, the Kurds and U.S. Army Special Forces were able to tie up the enemy in the north while coalition forces approached from the south. The Kurdish provinces held, and the United States was free to devote troops elsewhere. The Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Dohuk, and as-Sulaymania saw lower coalition casualties than neighboring Nineveh and Kirkuk.

(Refocused map via Longwood University)

Now, the Islamic State shows no signs of stopping short of Baghdad. Beyond a month-long struggle for a single oil refinery (where control is already being disputed), the Iraqi army has had few successes against the Islamist militants. Several security professionals, like former intelligence analyst Nada Bakos and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, are beginning to broach the subject: If the Kurds can run oil facilities in Iraq and Syria while putting up a fight against the Islamic State, they may be the only real chance for ensuring security in Iraq.

As this map shows, ISIS controls the highway system linking Syria and Iraq. While the Kurdish provinces show a few ISIS “Attack Zones,” they have largely secured their highways.

The Kurds will not sit idle while Iraq is overrun. A 2010 article by Wladimir van Wilgenburg describes the Kurdish effort against Islamist groups in Iraq. Some of the main points:

  • The Kurds have founded a Counter Terrorism Group (CTG)
  • Lahur Talabani, the nephew of the Iraqi president, heads the CTG.
  • The group employs over 1,000 people, funded by the Ministry of Defense
  • The CTG operates with the permission of the local authorities in the whole of Iraq, not only in disputed regions.
“What we do in Kirkuk, Mosul, Diyala is like a buffer zone. We try to prevent the terrorists from entering these areas.”

Interview with Talabani, February 2010

As the U.S. government tries to get more accountability from the Iraqi Security Forces, the American intelligence community is already preparing for a long-term effort against the jihadists. Journalist Mitchell Prothero detailed the expansion of a CIA station on the outskirts of Erbil’s airport, noting:

“Kurdish forces are manning checkpoints and bunkers to protect the facility, which sits just a few hundred yards from the highway.”
Photo by Azad Lashkari

Because of the Kurds’ repeated use of constitutional democracy, their continuing battle against U.S. enemies (Jabhat al-Nusra, Bashar al-Assad, and the Islamic State), and their willingness to work with Baghdad even after declaring autonomy, should be considered the leading U.S. ally against the Islamic State. The United States should bolster Kurdish efforts by providing fighters with weapons and supplies to continue their war against the Islamic State. By supplying the Kurds with weapons and intelligence, the United States can wage war on the Islamic State without putting any more troops in Iraq.

However, the United States should be selective in supporting Kurdish independence. A blanket “OK” for independence would negatively affect relations with Turkey and Iran, both of which have large Kurdish minorities. However, threatening Baghdad with a truly sovereign Iraqi Kurdistan could bring about positive changes in the Iraqi government.

For a closer look at how the Kurds are fighting the Islamic State, read the story below.

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