The Physical Ecology, Communal Loyalties, and Geopolitics of Kurdistan
By. A. Joseph Lynch
There is an important distinction to be made between a nation and a state. Where “state” refers to the authoritative governing body over a specific people, land area with specific borders, and natural resources, a nation is the a deep union of people often characterized by a shared culture, religion, language, and ethnicity. In most cases, a nation has a state, or governing apparatus. But sometimes many nations are bound within one state, as is often the case with empires. The lands that once were governed by the empire of Austria-Hungary, for example, are today many distinct nation states. Other nations, however, have been kept from forming their own states due to stronger neighboring nation states who use their political and military strength to make sure a nation never gains an independent state. Such is the case with the Kurds.
I. The Physical Ecology of Kurdistan
Worldwide the Kurds number over 30 million living largely in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey (see map above). Kurdish hopes for a potential independent nation state are centered in what is known as Iraqi Kurdistan. This northern region of Iraq, already treated as an semi-autonomous region, is home to just over five million Kurds. The physical geography of Kurdistan is in many ways as different from the rest of Iraq as its Kurdish inhabitants. Kurdistan is situated along the Zagros Mountains (which also form much of the Iran-Iraq border), which, combined with the slightly higher latitude, makes it a much wetter and greener region than the areas to its south. Kurdistan’s mountain terrain is also home to many mineral resources: coal, copper, gold, iron, limestone, marble, and zinc. Kurdistan also has the world's largest deposit of rock sulfur. Like the rest of the region, however, Kurdistan has access to large deposits of energy reserves. In addition to the four billion barrels of proven oil reserves, it is estimated that Kurdistan has another 45 billion barrels of unproven oil reserves.
II. The Communal Loyalties of Kurdistan
The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group in the Middle East. They have a long heritage and history in the region, claiming as their own the great military commander: Saladin. Saladin defeated the medieval Crusader states and eventually ruled over lands stretching from upper Mesopotamia (modern day Kurdistan), through Syria, to Egypt, and along the Red Sea coast to Yemen. Like Saladin, the Kurds follow the largest branch of Islam called Sunni Islam. Despite belonging to the largest branch of Islam, the Kurds are a minority ethnic group distinct from the larger and stronger Arabs to the south. This has placed the Kurds outside of the pan Arabic movements that bind many of the Sunni Arab states. The Kurds also speak a form of Iranian, making them linguistically closer to their neighbors to the east. But here deeper religious divisions come to the fore: where the Kurds are Sunni, the Iranians are Shia. Looking to the north, the Kurds are both ethnically and linguistically different from the Turks, who see their minority Kurdish population as a threat. There are multiple military and governing structures that bind Kurds across the region. The Iraqi Kurds are governed semi-autonomously from Irbil under the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government), protected by the Peshmerga (a Kurdish military force numbering nearly a quarter million soldiers). They are led by the KDP’s (Kurdistan Democratic Party) Massoud Barzani. In Syria a Kurdish political party known as the PYD (Democratic Unity Party) is aligned with military forces called the People’s Protection Units (or YPG) to fight against ISIS. Complicating this is a banned Kurdish political party from Turkey known as the Kurdish Workers’ Party (or PKK) which has been at war with the Turkish government for four decades. They are left wing and one of the few fighting forces with a substantial female component(15-30%). The PKK, aligned with the PYD in Syria, and based in areas near Iraqi Kurdistan, have created a complicated geopolitical situation between Turks and Kurds.
III. The Geopolitics of Kurdistan
The physical ecology and communal loyalties as outlined above play a crucial role in Kurdistan’s geopolitics. International attention first came to the Kurds during Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on Kurdish lands. The important role the Kurdish Peshmerga played in toppling the Saddam regime and years later in expelling ISIS are strong arguments for Kurdish independence. The Kurds have increased in strength, fought off a relentless attack from ISIS, captured much of the Syria-Turkish border, and are now working to conquer the ISIS capital at Raqqa, Syria (ed: accomplished 2017). The Trump Administration is now prepared to arm the Kurds directly rather than through Baghdad. Kurdish gains have impressed many on the international stage, however, they have struck fear into their neighbors who do not wish to see an independent Kurdistan. A Kurdish state exerts international pressure on countries like Iran, Turkey, and Syria to allow Kurdish borders to expand from northern Iraq into their territories where large numbers of Kurds live. Despite this threat, Iranian-Kurdish relations are good. Both share a common linguistic heritage, minority status in the Muslim world, and a common enemy in ISIS. As noted in the communal loyalties section above, Kurdish-Turkish relations are at a low. Turkish involvement in Syria, for example, has focused almost exclusively on fighting the Kurds and making sure the Kurds do not capture the Syrian-Turkish border region. In April 2017, Turkish warplanes also struck Kurdish targets in Syria and Iraq. It remains to be seen what the future holds for the Kurds, but the eyes of the world will be on them in the months ahead should they successfully conquer the ISIS capital.