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Friday, April 10, 2015

After ISIS

Since the summer of 2014, news media around the world has been preoccupied with possibly the most vile and evil Islamic fundamentalist group in the world.

They've forced thousands under their oppressive rule in Syria and Iraq and are salivating over the chaos in Libya. They were responsible for Tunisia's horrific museum massacre. They have sold hundreds of women into sex slavery. They go by many names...ISIS. ISIL. Islamic State. الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام‎. Dae'sh. 

The group seemingly came out of nowhere and rampaged through most of Iraq and much of Syria before an international coalition responded with limited airstrikes to assist the forces fighting to keep ISIS out of their territory. While ISIS still controls a large amount of territory in Iraq and Syria, it does seem to have lost its momentum that once struck fear into the world.

A map of the current situation from Wikipedia. 
Green represents the Free Syrian Army. 
Pink represents Syrian government forces. 
Yellow represents Kurdish controlled areas. 
Gray represents ISIS. 
Maroon represents areas still under the control of Baghdad. 

Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga in Iraq, control large swaths of land in Northern Iraq and have some strongholds in Northern Syria as well. Tikrit, the birthplace of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, has recently been recaptured by Iraqi forces. While ISIS still controls large cities like Mosul and their de facto capital Ar-Raqqah in Syria, they seem to be losing this war. 

It's not much of a topic of discussion at the moment, but as the forces against ISIS keep it up, it will enter the forefront: What happens after ISIS is defeated?

Unfortunately, lasting peace might not be the answer to this question.

Syria is still engaged in a civil war that started in 2011. The Free Syrian Army controls enclaves in the northwest and south, but most of the country is under the control of either forces loyal to Assad or Islamic State. Thousands have died in this brutal conflict that the international community has only minimally tried to stop, and Islamic State's demise likely won't mean the end of violence.

It seems more likely that the brutal dictator Bashar Al-Assad may be tolerated in favor of the disjointed Free Syrian Army and Islamic State, but his country has suffered to an extent that it will likely take years, possibly decades, to rebuild. While Assad may not have popularity among the Syrian people, he wields the military might. That alone may assure his staying in power.

The chances Assad is deposed were considerably diminished with the rise of Islamic State. Though Assad would have to mount a major offensive. His army is exhausted and will only further suffer as it attempts to retake territory from Islamic State and the FSA. If he does emerge from this war clinging to power, he will have done so at enormous cost to his people and his country.


Iraqi forces, derided for their desertion early in the conflict, seem to have turned the tide with the aid of American airstrikes. Tikrit, the home of the late Saddam Hussein, is once again under the red, white, and black flag of Iraq rather than ISIS's black banner. 

Iraq will likely advance slowly but surely north towards the areas controlled by the Kurds, who have somewhat of a de facto independent state at the moment. This brings us to the most intriguing dyamic at the possible end of this conflict: Is this Kurdistan's now or never moment for independence? 

On the above map, Kurdish forces control the yellow areas of Syria and the large yellow-green area that is currently part of Northern Iraq. Kurds received international acclaim when they fended ISIS off from their border town of Kobane with a stubborn Turkey standing by. After the victory, pictures of victorious Kurdish forces hanging an enormous ribbon-like Syrian Kurdish flag hanging from a TV tower in Kobane surfaced on the file-sharing website Reddit (These are not my pictures, they were uploaded by courtesy of a reddit user called "
  The Kurdish areas of Syria are small and disjointed, but with a weakened ISIS and an exhausted force from Damascus, Kurdish forces may be able to establish a thin border through Syria to connect with Iraqi Kurdistan. 

This is all well and good, but the main question on the minds of those who await it this, at long last, the beginning of an Independent Republic of Kurdistan? 

It may not, at the end of the day. It's possible the Iraqi Kurds decide to preserve their autonomy and stay with Iraq, as they were alloted a large amount of autonomy under the still-relatively-new Iraqi government. The Syrian Kurds may be more likely itching for independence as they were not afforded the same privileges as their Iraqi counterparts gained after the deposing of Saddam Hussein. 

It's a long road ahead, obviously, and even a Kurdistan in Syria and Iraq would not encapsulate the large areas where ethnic Kurds are a majority or even a plurality as the idea of an independent Kurdistan often extends well into the present-day borders of Turkey and Iran, neither of which are likely to allow Kurdish populations independence. 

One could argue that a small Kurdish Republic would be better than no Kurdish Republic, though, and with an exhausted Syrian Army that still has the Free Syrian Army to fend off, and an Iraqi government that granted the Kurds considerable autonomy, it's possible that a declaration of independence could be on the horizon for the Kurds in Iraq and Syria.

Large powers such as the United States and European Union would likely choose to stay neutral for fear of the reprocussions of the United States attempting detente with Tehran and Turkey's position in NATO. For Kurdish sympathizers this comes as a disappointment but is probably the most realistic option considering the powers that be. Ankara will likely respond negatively to the news but serious military action will likely bring much worse consequences for the Erdogan Administration than a border shared with the Kurds. If Turkey was to act against Kurds outside of Turkey, they run the risk of Kurds in Turkey mounting a serious revolt which, in a worst-case scenario, would lead to Turkish isolation and the possibility of a large loss of territory. 

Iran also has a large Kurdish population, and it will likewise have to tread carefully if it is to keep the status quo. There's also an interesting dynamic to be explored here in regards to the United States. If Iran and the United States are able to strike a nuclear deal later this year, which Washington and Tehran (and the other members of P5+1) have hammered out the framework for, it will have to be careful not to undermine the work of its diplomats. Kurds and Iranians are unique in the Middle East as they are both relatively pro-American peoples. Many pundits have described Iranians as being the most pro-American people in the Middle East save for Israel, and Kurds have long seen America in a positive light as well. 

While open revolt against Tehran or Ankara is, by all accounts, extremely unlikely even if an independent Kurdistan comes about, Kurds in Turkey and Iran may take it upon themselves to act if Tehran and Ankara decide to act maliciously against their ethnic minority communities in response to an  independent state carved out of Iraq and Syria. Both governments will likely prefer to act cautiously towards their Kurdish populations. There's also the appeal of economic stability in Turkey and Iran as both countries are much richer and more stable than Iraq and Syria.

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