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Anti-ISIS but Weary of War End: The Complex Kurdish Calculation in Syria, Iraq

Kurds have arisen as formidable powerbrokers in Syria backed by both US and Russian airpower - but they're weary of war end when they might find themselves alone again and forced to give up gains made possible by Arab Syrians' infighting in the civil war 

  • Article focuses on Iraqi Kurdistan - but the argument applies equally, if not even more so, to Syrian Kurds as well

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Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the most fought-over places on earth and the use of chemical weapons in Halabja was only one of the more atrocious massacres inflicted on its people over the past century. Mass graves filled with the bodies of men, women and children murdered by Isis have been unearthed weekly since the Kurds recaptured the city of Sinjar from Isis last November. But the initial terror when Isis attacked in August 2014 is over and the Kurds, helped by US air strikes, have retaken most of the territory they lost at that time. Isis can still launch surprise attacks, but in general it is the Kurdish Peshmerga who are slowly advancing. 

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The high expectations among Kurds in the decade after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein shattered as their standard of living collapsed even more precipitously than the Greeks after 2008, and from a much lower level. But it is primarily an economic rather than a security disaster because, paradoxically, the Iraqi Kurds are politically and militarily stronger today than they have ever been in their history – though this may not last. 

This is the view of a renowned Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdish soldier) commander, Muhammad Haji Mahmud, a large landowner in the fertile valley between Sulaimaniyah and Halabja. He is also the general secretary of the Socialist Party, and reckons that he has been in 700 fights or battles over the past 40 years of warfare in Kurdistan and has been seriously wounded six times. After Isis captured Mosul and before they attacked the Kurds, he led 1,000 Peshmerga from his party to defend Kirkuk. His son Atta was killed in the fighting.  

In an interview with The Independent in his house, he says that, overall, the Kurds have gained more than they have lost in their struggle against the self-declared “Islamic State”. He lists the benefits: “We have become a regular army, rather than a guerrilla force; are supported by US and European air power; can buy weapons openly; and are praised internationally for fighting terrorism. The Syrian Kurds won the battle for Kobani and we sent 150 Peshmerga to help them. While, in Iraq, we became a safe haven for Arabs and Christians.” The KRG took advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014 to expand its size by 40 per cent through seizing areas, often with mixed Arab-Kurdish populations, control over which had long been disputed with Baghdad. 

The danger is that these big political and territorial gains depend on the Iraqi government being weak and Isis strong, so the Kurds are courted by all as the best defence against Isis. World leaders treat the KRG as if it was a world power rather than an isolated quasi-independent statelet. “My big fear is that, once Mosul is liberated and Isis defeated, the Kurds won’t have the same value internationally,” said Mr Mahmud. He believes that, with international support, the Kurds “may keep the disputed territories, but not otherwise”.

Bitter experience has made the Kurds suspicious that, once again, they will be used as convenient cannon fodder by outside powers and then discarded when no longer needed. There is also a popular suspicion among Kurds, again rooted in harsh experience, that their leaders can justify and prolong their authoritarian misrule by presenting themselves as the patriotic defenders of their people, diverting attention from their corruption and failure to create a self-sufficient state in Kurdistan. 

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