After the Gulf War in 1991, and the subsequent expulsion of Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, Iraqi Kurds – after suffering ruthless persecution that culminated in the genocidal Anfal Campaign – gained de facto autonomy in the north of Iraq. With the help of a US/UK-led no-fly zone (appropriately titled Operation Provide Comfort), Iraq’s Kurdish population proceeded to build Iraqi Kurdistan.
Their newfound independence was a cause for celebration. Within two years the Iraqi Kurds had secured international protection, established a parliament, set up their own social services and held elections to choose their leaders. The Kurds were building their nation with immense success. They were beginning to recover from years – decades – of life under Saddam’s “republic of fear”.
Unfortunately, this recovery didn’t last long; as a result of tensions between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), civil war erupted in 1994. This led to the creation of two rival administrations in two different cities; a KDP-led government in Arbil and a PUK-led government in Sulaymaniyah. The war came to an end when the two leaders, Barzani and Talabani, agreed to a ceasefire in Washington in 1998.
The Gulf War inadvertently brought Iraqi Kurdistan into existence; President Bush (“Bush the Elder”) became the “accidental liberator” of the Kurdish people, and his son seemed set to inherit this post. On April 9 2003, American troops symbolically toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. The next day, in the northern town of Kirkuk, Iraqi Kurds toppled another state of Saddam Hussein. The dictator responsible for hundreds of thousands of Kurdish deaths was hanged in 2006.
Now the Kurds are fighting another Ba’athist dictator in neighbouring Syria. This conflict, like the invasion of Iraq, may inadvertently give rise to an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. Since the start of the civil war in 2011 Kurdish militias have taken control of large areas around the North and Northeast of Syria. This is obviously an important, but partly precarious, step towards autonomy. (Most Syrian opposition groups are currently fighting under the principle of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, meaning the Kurds are in a very uncertain position regarding their political sovereignty in the north – many opposition groups oppose the notion of an independent Kurdistan in Syria.)
Kurdish forces, specifically the Popular Protection Units (YPG), have largely stayed out of the Syrian conflict, instead focusing on securing their regional autonomy. The flag of Kurdistan now flies over many cities in northern Syria. From Jindires in the northwest to Al-Malikiyah in the far northeast, the Kurds are enjoying unprecedented independence in, what they call, Western Kurdistan. They have established their own police forces, started teaching Kurdish history and language in schools and are even reportedly using their own license plates.
What does this mean for the state of Kurdistan? The civil war in Syria has provided the Kurds with an opportunity to further realise their aspirations for statehood, but they need to be prepared for when (or if) the regime falls to opposition fighters. (Assad’s recent victories, especially in the strategic city of Qusair, coupled with continued Russian support challenges the conventional wisdom that the collapse of Assad’s regime is imminent.) Kurdish militias have fought loyalist and opposition forces alike, but these clashes have mostly been minor disputes and haven’t significantly served the interests of any pro or anti-Assad groups.
Some countries bordering Syria (specifically Turkey, but also Iran) are worried that the Kurdish autonomy in Syria may lead to disturbances in their own Kurdish populations. The far-left Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, whose leader Abdullah Öcalan (described by Christopher Hitchens as the “Kurdish Pol Pot”) has led a three-decade long guerrilla war against the Turkish government, is allegedly working with Kurdish groups inside Syria.
In truth, nobody knows what’s next for Syria, much less the fate of Western Kurdistan. Can Syria’s Kurds survive without international protection? If the Kurds are to keep hold of their de facto autonomy in the north they’ll need to be cautious and ready for any contingency, especially now that the West is arming rebel groups. (As mentioned, alliances between the Kurds and other opposition factions are tenuous at best.)
It’s difficult to predict whether mild antagonisms between Kurdish militias and opposition fighters (or even intra-Kurdish animosity) will fester in the coming months or years. One thing, however, is certain, and that is Syria’s Kurds will not readily surrender their newfound independence.