The full report can be accessed here. Read on for the Executive Summary.
• While the so-called Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’ was in ruins by the summer of 2017, Kurdish fortunes appeared to be on the ascent. Nevertheless, little over a year after the supposed ‘fall of the caliphate’, both Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish aspirations have been severely tested.
• Rather than delivering the desired popular mandate needed to negotiate independence, the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum of 25 September 2017 backfired. The military and political power that the Syrian Kurds had gained while fighting ISIS has been endangered, whether due to Turkish armed intervention or the possibility that they could lose the U.S.-led coalition’s backing.
• This report seeks to highlight some of the key developments for the Kurds of Iraq and Syria as ISIS has declined over the past year, as well as hypothesise what may lie ahead.
The Iraqi Kurds and the Kurdish Referendum
• The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, having garnered substantial political goodwill through their contributions to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)
and acquired possession of many of the territories disputed by Erbil and Baghdad, held an independence referendum on 25 September 2017.
• The fallout was swift. Blockaded and diplomatically besieged, the Iraqi Kurds lost control of many of the ‘disputed territories’, including the key city of Kirkuk, at the hands of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF).
• The aftermath of the vote exposed the deep divisions between the KRG’s two principle political parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – as well as the region’s economic fragility and the limits of international support.
The Syrian Kurds and the Battle for Northern Syria
• Despite the terrorist designation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the PKK’s Syrian offshoot party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as well as their affiliated armed forces – the People’s
Protection Units (YPG) and the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – have formed the tip of the spear of the anti-ISIS coalition over the past year, capturing Raqqa and much of the Deir ez-Zor governorate.
• Nevertheless, the most recent Turkish offensive in the Syrian north-western region of Afrin, otherwise known as Operation Olive Branch, revealed how vulnerable the Syrian Kurds are absent the
backing of the international community.
• Without continued military and political support from the U.S.-led coalition, the Syrian Kurds’ project in northern Syria would likely be far more susceptible to territorial reversals in the future, whether at the hands of pro-regime forces, Turkish-backed forces, or a resurgent ISIS.
Epilogue: The Kurds After the ‘Caliphate’
• For the time being it appears that the Iraqi Kurdish referendum has squandered away much of the political capital and territory, as well as the enhanced prospects for achieving further autonomy within Iraq in the future, that the Iraqi Kurds had gained during the fight against ISIS. Nevertheless, history may look more favourably on their independence gamble in the years and decades to come.
• The Syrian Kurds, with the cooperation of the anti-ISIS coalition, have pushed the ‘Islamic State’ to the brink. The Syrian Kurds’ proven fighting metal, their ability to function alongside the U.S.-led coalition, and the political control they exert over much of the northern and eastern parts of Syria are all noteworthy.
• Washington and their allies’ support of the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds has decisively shaped the fight against ISIS. Bolstering the Syrian Kurds in particular has given the U.S. a strategic foothold amidst the chaos of the Syrian Civil War, providing precious leverage to help shape how the Syrian catastrophe is unfolding. While Turkey, as a fellow NATO ally, demands Washington’s cooperation against their adversaries, the Syrian Kurds are too vital an ally to lose for the U.S.-led coalition.
• Western policymakers should recognise that withdrawing political and military support from our Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish partners now, despite the seeming decline of ISIS, would be a historic blunder.
This report was written by John Holland-McCowan.