Andrew Korybko |
The Kurdish “nation” is as diverse as the colors of a kaleidoscope and stands little chance at ever coming together into a unified political entity, but that hasn’t stopped some external powers from trying to bring this about in order to advance their own geostrategic goals.
There’s plenty of talk nowadays about the future of a transnational entity that is popularly referred to as “Kurdistan”, particularly as it relates to the upcoming independence referendum of the Kurdish Regional Government (“Southern Kurdistan”) next month in Northern Iraq. The subject of conversation isn’t just about the future of this autonomous and de-facto independent territory, but about what awaits the Kurdish-inhabited areas of Turkey, Syria, and Iran afterward. Kurdish “nationalists” advocate the formation of a transnational unified “Kurdistan”, while its opponents point out just how destabilizing of an event this would be for a Mideast already shaken by years of war and rivalry. What both sides do agree on, however, is that that next month’s independence vote in Iraq will have profound implications for the entire region, with the question coming down to what degree it’ll succeed in emboldening separatist Kurds in the other three aforementioned states, the reaction that their host governments will have to these developments, and the role of foreign forces amidst all of this.
The Contradictions Of “Kurdistan”
Before analyzing the situation any further, a few important words need to be said about “Kurdistan” and the very concept of a Kurdish “nation”. Barely anyone sensible denies that the transnational population which calls itself “Kurds” has acquired a subjective sense of “otherness” over the years by which they view themselves as different from the majority ethnic group in the states they reside in. Moreover, it just so happens that these individuals reside in a contiguous area at the confluence of the Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian states, but it’s here where the similarities between them end. The people who identify as “Kurds” have never had their own state at any point in history, and they’ve lived either as nomads or soldiers for most of their existence. They don’t even speak the same language, and there are fierce rivalries both between the two closest pairs of Kurds in Syria & Turkey and Iran & Iraq and within their respective subcategories. The best example of this centrifugal dynamics at play is the 1990s Kurdish “civil war” in Northern Iraq.
All of this makes it extremely difficult to even speak of a “Kurdistan”, so it’s much more accurate to instead refer to this quad-state pivot region as the “Kurdish Cultural Space” (KCS) except when discussing the specific geopolitical project of “Kurdistan”.
The diversity of the Kurdish population justifies comparing it to a “kaleidoscope” because it’s essentially a mishmash of separate identities which attempt to form some sort of semi-cohesive composite whole. Therein, however, lays another subject of debate because it’s questionable whether the broad “Kurdish” population even collectively satisfies the criteria for being referred to as a “nation” given their historical, cultural, linguistic, and other differences, let alone their lack of a sincere grassroots desire to politically unite together across state boundaries. The argument can be made that the transnational “Kurdistan” project is the unpopular mission of extreme militant organizations which have hijacked a slew of originally civil society causes in order to advance their radical ideological visions, and that these groups are now being used as the vanguards of foreign forces in order to geopolitically re-engineer the Mideast along the lines of Ralph Peters’ “Blood Borders”. Given their social diversity, however, these militant organizations need a shared ideological rallying cry to unite themselves and their followers at least for the time being, ergo the promotion of “Neo-Marxism” within their ranks.
From “Kurdistan” To The “Kurdish Cultural Space”
At this moment in time, not all Kurdish militant-separatist groups embrace this ideology, with the most salient example being the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Northern Iraq, so this represents yet another internal fault line within the transnational “Kurdistan” movement, one which importantly affects the key geopolitical driver of such developments and puts it at odds with the Turkish-based PKK and its PYD-YPG (the first is the political wing, the second is the military one) Syrian offshoot. The core of the Iranian Kurdish separatist movement, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), is leftist-inclined but not to the zealously dogmatic extent that the other two is that it won’t cooperate with the KDP. On the topic of the KDP, it should also be said that it’s facing a tough “internal” challenge from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran “opposition” parties, which further underlines the political diversity prevalent within the transnational Kurdish community. All of this makes it extremely difficult to even speak of a “Kurdistan”, so it’s much more accurate to instead refer to this quad-state pivot region as the “Kurdish Cultural Space” (KCS) except when discussing the specific geopolitical project of “Kurdistan”.
The “Second Geopolitical ‘Israel”
Proceeding from the earlier statement that the transnational “Kurdistan” movement within the KCS is being fostered and weaponized by external powers, it’s now relevant to describe exactly what was meant by that. The KCS strategically sits at the nexus of the Turkish, Arab, and Persian civilizations and represents their shared periphery, thereby making it the pivot region between them. Moreover, seeing as how the Mideast is already widely recognized as the most pivotal location in Afro-Eurasia because of its location between Europe, Russia, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa, it’s possible to speak of the KCS being the “pivot region’s pivot” and accordingly the most strategic piece of real estate in the Eastern Hemisphere. From the perspective of the US, it is absolutely indispensable to the preservation of its fading unipolar hegemony in the world to acquire control over the KCS in order to multi-manage the four states that it’s a part of, which in turn would give Washington unparalleled influence over this part of Afro-Eurasia and beyond.
The first argument against the formation of an anti-“Kurdistan” coalition is that there’s too much distrust between some of the states of this prospective entity and that they don’t want the armed forces of their neighbors involved in combat operations on their territory. This is certainly the case with Turkey and Iran, and it also – at least “officially” – applies to Turkey and Syria as well.
This helps explain why there are active efforts underway to coordinate simultaneous anti-state insurgencies in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. What the US wants to do is carve out a “second geopolitical ‘Israel’” in the sense of having a minority group militantly form a new “nation” from the existing territory of others and then use this “country” as the launching pad for furthering its geostrategic ambitions in the region. Just like with “Israel’s” “founding”, however, there’s a very high chance that the regional states will band together to oppose this shared threat, but it’s uncertain what their “tripwire” for collective action will be, or whether the three separate and historically feuding civilizations (Arabs, Persians, and Turks) can successfully unite in a coordinated enough manner to prevent his threat from materializing. It already seems to be a certainty that the Kurds of Northern Iraq will vote for independence by the end of next month, but nobody knows whether the formalization of their years-long de-facto independence is a pressing enough geopolitical development to form a coalition or not.
The Case Against The Anti-“Kurdistan” Coalition
From an external state-to-state standpoint, it makes sense for the four countries within the KCS to come together at this crucial time and preempt the creation of a geopolitical center of gravity which could eventually serve as the nucleus for transnational destabilization in the name of “Kurdistan”, but there are also many reasons to doubt that they’ll do so aside from the historic absence of coordinated military action between them. The first argument against the formation of an anti-“Kurdistan” coalition is that there’s too much distrust between some of the states of this prospective entity and that they don’t want the armed forces of their neighbors involved in combat operations on their territory. This is certainly the case with Turkey and Iran, and it also – at least “officially” – applies to Turkey and Syria as well.
As a third point, the four-member coalition would have to deploy their forces beyond the Kurdish-inhabited portions of their own territories, essentially opening them up to “guerrilla”/terrorist attacks “behind the lines” by sympathetic Kurds in their country.
Secondly, even if such a coalition was created, the question then becomes one of what exactly it would set out to do. The Iraqi Kurds have already made a strong normative case in international bodies that they’re pursuing “self-determination” through “democratic” means, and it would greatly damage the soft power of each of the four states in this fledgling polity’s periphery if they teamed up to, as the Kurds would frame it, “crush democracy”. There’s no way that the US would stand by and passively allow Iranian forces to destroy Washington’s new geopolitical pet project, and the US would find a way to “punish” Iran for this somehow or another, whether through the use of proxies or threatening a conventional military standoff using its in-country (Iraqi-based) forces to add some “credibility” to its “warnings”. The same can also be said for how the US could react to Turkey as well.
As a third point, the four-member coalition would have to deploy their forces beyond the Kurdish-inhabited portions of their own territories, essentially opening them up to “guerrilla”/terrorist attacks “behind the lines” by sympathetic Kurds in their country. Ironically, creating a multinational alliance against “Kurdistan” could inadvertently add fuel to the flames and unintentionally catalyze the coordinated transnational insurgencies that the US has been working to create all along. The counterpoint is that it’s better for these countries to wipe out the insurgents/terrorists now than to wait until they grow stronger and obtain a critical mass that makes them unbeatable or spikes the costs of defeating them, but then the next issue that comes up is to consider exactly what’s meant by “stopping Kurdistan”.
The concept of “Kurdistan” is an ideology just like militant Islamism, Globalism, Communism, Hindutva, and other ideas are, and it’s not something which can be militarily defeated. States can stamp out the militant advocates of this project, but it’s comparatively more difficult to stop the spread of the idea itself. All that an anti-“Kurdistan” coalition could do in any case is defeat the armed groups fighting to advance this goal, but they might accidentally make the passive and peaceful majority of Kurds in the KCS more supportive of this ideology than ever before as a result. This is one of the reasons why the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has thus far refrained from openly fighting against the YPG because Damascus is worried that the official commencement of hostilities between the two will allow Kurdish chauvinists an opportunity to “legitimize” their cause in the eyes of government-loyal Kurds and therefore make the internal partition of Syria a fait accompli no matter what.
Whereas Washington wants to use “Kurdistan” as a weapon for destabilizing the Mideast, Moscow sees it as a platform for deepening the integration between its members via Russian-driven initiatives such as energy infrastructure connectivity.
Northern Iraqi Interests:
All of these factors contribute to the pessimism surrounding the prospects for forming an anti-“Kurdistan” coalition between Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, and it doesn’t help any that Russia has developed a decisively negative attitude towards this as well. Even though “Kurdistan” is envisioned as a pro-American “second geopolitical ‘Israel’”, Russia appears to have accepted its inevitability for a variety of reasons related mostly to Moscow’s own inability and lack of political will to counter it, so the Kremlin is apparently going with the “lesser of two evils” by openly backing the Kurds’ coming independence referendum next month. Foreign Minister Lavrov’s announcement to the Kurdish Rudaw media outlet that Russia is in favor of this move and believes it to be a legitimate “expression of the ambitions of the Kurdish people” indicates that it will not support any anti-“Kurdistan” coalition made up of the surrounding countries.
While this might seem extraordinarily odd given how the anti-“Kurdistan” coalition would essentially be fighting a multipolar war against a rising unipolar threat, the fact is that Russia thinks that it can manage “Southern Kurdistan” (an independent Iraqi Kurdistan) all on its own and actually obtain some strategic benefit from it in spite of the polity’s pro-American allegiance. It’s enough to look at Rosneft’s $1 billion energy deal that it signed with Erbil over the summer to see that Russia’s energy diplomacy in the Mideast is premised largely on the presumption that Moscow will be able to use the strategic interconnected KCS as its fulcrum of regional influence, albeit for different purposes than the US envisions. Whereas Washington wants to use “Kurdistan” as a weapon for destabilizing the Mideast, Moscow sees it as a platform for deepening the integration between its members via Russian-driven initiatives such as energy infrastructure connectivity.
The Strategy For Syria:
It’s not the author’s intent to speak upon the wisdom of this strategy, but it’s enough to say that it’s a very risky gamble which could enormously backfire on Russia and the emerging multipolar world, especially seeing as how Moscow might also be backing “Kurdistan” – or deliberately being passively supportive of it – for unstated Machiavellian reasons. For starters, the Russian-written “draft constitution” for Syria strictly mandates the creation of a “decentralized” Kurdish entity of vague political powers, and while this has been presented as a “compromise” in order to keep Syria together after the War on Daesh comes to a close, it could also serve the purpose of keeping Turkey in check too by institutionalizing the formation of a simmering strategic security threat along its southern borderlands. The point here isn’t to harm Turkey as much as it is to give it an added impetus to remain along its multipolar trajectory out of concern that this Russian-backed entity could be used against it if Ankara patches up its problems with Washington.
The “Fifth Player Theory”:
Of course, the prevailing assumption here is that Russia will be able to influence “Rojava” in any tangible way, which looks to be all but impossible given the expanding constellation of American bases there and the YPG’s unwavering loyalty to the US, but it nevertheless provides the only coherent explanation for why Moscow went over the head of Damascus in contradicting President Assad’s repeated promises to liberate “every inch” of Syria and push back against the formation of an illegal “decentralized” Kurdish entity within its borders. Russia’s support of the Syrian Kurds pairs with its backing of their Iraqi brethren’s independence vote and leads to the conclusion that Moscow, just like Washington, might believe that it has a grand geostrategic interest in the introduction of a “fifth state-level power” to this quad-state region, albeit one with asymmetrical “legitimacy” in that it’s “formalized” on (former) Iraqi territory, de-facto existing in Syria through “decentralization” or “federalization”, and struggling to emerge to various degrees in Turkey and Iran.
The “Fifth Player Theory” could indeed be the driving force behind Russia’s seemingly contradictory actions regarding “Kurdistan” and the interests of its regional allies in the four governments of the KCS. Russia conceptualizes its 21st-century geostrategic role as being the ultimate balancing force in Eurasia, so if its decision makers already accepted the inevitability of the US succeeding to some degree in creating “Kurdistan”, then it might have decided that it’s better to “go along with the flow” instead of futilely attempt to stop it, all with an eye on gaining influence within these prospective political entities (whether “independent” such as in Northern Iraq or “decentralized”/”federalized” like in northern Syria) in order to more effectively “balance” the “New Middle East” as a means of promoting multipolar stability in the region. Having said that, the challenge is daunting, and history is already a witness to Moscow’s failure in doing the same thing vis-à-vis “Israel” when it was the first state to “recognize” its “independence” for what can be presumed to have been similar Machiavellian strategic reasons at the time.
The “Israeli” Precedent
Although Russia and “Israel” have since become very close with one another due to the former’s large and influential diaspora in the latter and their shared strategic convergences over Syria (particularly regarding the Russian-enforced “de-escalation/safe zone” near the occupied Golan Heights), the fact remains that it took decades before Moscow was able to reap anything that can even remotely be described as “beneficial” for that relationship, and the same sort of blowback could repeat itself regarding Russia’s desired relations with “Kurdistan”. It appears as though Russia optimistically believes that the Kurds will “balance” between them and the US in seeking to maximize their nascent geopolitical position, and that this will “moderate” American influence by diminishing the prospects that the new “state” will be used to destabilize the region when Russia is investing so much in trying to achieve the opposite, especially when looking at its $1 billion energy deal which aspires to lay the groundwork for more closely connecting the region.
Just as this anticipated state of affairs didn’t pan out with “Israel”, so too are the odds of it succeeding with “Kurdistan” similarly dim, and this is because reality very rarely corresponds to the International Relations theories that the Russians seem to be building their policies off of. It might “make sense” for “Israel” and “Kurdistan” to balance between the two Great Powers like the Russians wish would occur, but they’ll probably continue to side with the Americans in being proxies for Washington’s geostrategic aims because they believe that they can obtain more self-interested benefits instead. “Israel” knows very well just how precarious its security situation is, which is why it has ceaselessly worked to divide the Mideast as per what has been called the “Yinon Plan” ever since the 1980s. Along similar lines, “Kurdistan” might also look to the US to guarantee its security in exchange for promoting regional Kurdish-centric insurgencies per the “Blood Borders” plan, which is basically just a rebranding of the “Yinon Plan”.
Moscow’s regional partners have been victimized by the “Yinon Plan”, and the same thing can happen if “Kurdistan” becomes the core catalyst for implementing “Blood Borders”. This is of course conditional on the US being able to use a future independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq as its base of operations for geopolitically re-engineering the quad-state pivot space in the center of the Mideast, which would also require Washington finding a way to smooth over the Kurds’ many identify differences in order to spark simultaneous and coordinated insurgencies. As challenging of a task as this is for the reasons that were argued earlier in this analysis, it’s possible that it will happen sooner than later. The precedential comparison is that “Israel’s” “state” ideology of “Zionism” drives the “Yinon Plan”, which is exactly what any forthcoming Kurdish “state’s” ideology of “Kurdistan” will do as well. Both entities derive “legitimacy” from their ideologies, and “Israel” by its very nature can’t exist as anything other than a “Jewish State” just as a Kurdish polity can’t exist without accepting “Kurdistan”.
One And The Same:
Both cases are very polarizing, and it can be argued that the self-identification of “Israel” as a “Jewish State” in Palestine and “Kurdistan” as a “Kurdish” one in parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran implies militantly enforced artificial “homogeneity” and a subsequently never-ending cycle of violence, which pretty much makes them responsible for most of the destabilization in the present and future Mideast. For all structural intents and purposes, “Israel” and “Kurdistan” are one and the same, hence why the latter is referred to as the “second geopolitical ‘Israel’”. They’re the cause of the same sort of intra-state destabilizations as per the “Yinon Plan” and its complementary “Kurdistan” component, and each entity relies on their corresponding ideologies of Zionism and Kurdish supremacy to obtain “legitimacy” in the eyes of their “citizens”. “Israel” and “Kurdistan” have the same regional security interests too because they’re both militantly carved out of the territories of others through the support of the same external patron, the US, so they’re destined to behave identically for as long as they remain in existence.
The “Kurdish Kaleidoscope” began as a concept to describe the diversity of the Kurdish people and explain the immense difficulty in unifying them through the “Kurdistan” project, but the term can also equally be used to describe the diversity of international interests concerning this issue as well. The research has explained why the US is so eagerly weaponizing the seemingly impossible task of carving a “second geopolitical ‘Israel’” of “Kurdistan” out of the territories of four sovereign states, and it pointed to Washington’s desire to preserve and expand its fading unipolar hegemony as the primary reason.
The same risks are dangerously at play with “Kurdistan” as they were with “Israel”, namely that the new prospective entity won’t fall under Russia’s influence as anticipated but will instead decisively team up with the US as it seeks to promote its structural security amidst a plethora of regional threats to its existence.
Interestingly, however, while one would expect that multipolar Russia would by default be opposed to this development, Moscow has lately shown many clear signs that it approves of part of the “Kurdistan” project, particularly as it relates to Iraq and Syria, albeit for completely different reasons having to do with multipolar “balancing” and attempting to preserve – not disrupt – regional stability. Despite their contradictory motivations and differing levels of support to this geopolitical vision, both Russia and the US appear to agree on the necessity of introducing a “fifth player” of questionable “legitimacy” into this quad-state and tri-civilizational pivot space.
Read more: A Syrian “Ceasefire” for whom?
For as optimistic as Russian strategists apparently are that the partial or full creation of “Kurdistan” will ultimately work out to Moscow’s grand geopolitical benefit in helping it “balance” the emerging Multipolar World Order in the New Cold war, history provides a stark warning when it comes to the USSR’s failed plans in using “Israel” as its “balancing” pivot in the emerging Bipolar World Order of the Old Cold War. The same risks are dangerously at play with “Kurdistan” as they were with “Israel”, namely that the new prospective entity won’t fall under Russia’s influence as anticipated but will instead decisively team up with the US as it seeks to promote its structural security amidst a plethora of regional threats to its existence.
Although a brilliant game-changing “success story” could still materialize if everything goes “according to plan”, the very fact that Russia is even risking this high-stakes gamble in the first place makes one wonder whether the Kremlin’s decision makers have been staring for far too long into the “Kurdish Kaleidoscope” that they’re now only seeing the geopolitical patterns that they want to, regrettably no longer paying attention to anything which contradicts their idealized vision of the future re-engineered “New Middle East” and inadvertently repeating the same mistakes that they made in being the first to back “Israel’s” “independence” decades ago.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.
Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, journalist and a regular contributor to several online journals, as well as a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia.The views expressed in this article are author’s own. It does not reflect Global Village Space Editorial policy.