Western journalism loves to simplify things for readers and audiences at home which is why so much nonsense gets written or broadcast about faraway events in faraway places. The tripartite (quadripartite? octopartite?) conflict in Syria is a prime example, especially now that it has expanded into an already fractious Iraq. If one or more chunks of the Syrian nation-state as we know it go down they might well take parts of the barely functioning Iraqi sate with them (not to mention the repercussions for the Lebanon or the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Iran). The borders of the Middle East which have seemed so immutable since their colonial imposition a century ago may well be redrawn in the next two decades and this time by the people who live there. That is certainly true of the transnational quasi-state established by IS (ISIL/ISIS) in the border lands of Syria and Iraq, with its fingers of influence reaching out to communities elsewhere. While numerous politicians in the United States, Britain, France, Australia and elsewhere have exaggerated the threat posed to the “West” by the Islamic State for their own strategic ends, so too have some downplayed the threat posed to the familiar territorial landscape of the Middle East. The truth of course is that IS is neither a global-reaching terrorist state-in-waiting nor a small ragbag group of desert bandits. Ultimately it and its imposition of an Islamic “year zero” may well go the way of the Khmer Rouge or pre-2001 Taliban, overthrown or subsumed into local politics. However it is unlikely that we will return to an era of presidents-for-life, de facto royalty ruling vast stretches of quiescent territory from their palaces in Damascus and Baghdad. If the Assad family end up with a rump Syrian state around the capital and tenuously linked enclaves of support elsewhere in the country they will consider themselves lucky. Heaven knows what type of government will emerge on the banks of the Tigris.
Of all the groups most misunderstood outside their home country the Kurds surely range somewhere near the very top. That was illustrated by the claims some months ago of a “Kurdish army” stepping into the vacuum left by the collapse of Baghdad’s authority in northern Iraq and stemming the lighting advance of IS forces through the region. Of course there was and is no “Kurdish army”, simply a diverse and at times internecine collection of militias varying greatly in size and equipment. While some are linked to the various departments (and factions) of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government more are affiliated to particular organisations or communities. One of the few sites that have attempted to tease out all this has been the War is Boring group-blog which has published several lengthy articles explaining to an unfamiliar audience the complexities of Kurdish politics.
This is especially important at the moment as we witness the besieging of Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria by the Islamic State and the reluctance of the anti-IS coalition under the leadership of the United States to intervene in a way any more meaningful than some tactically dubious, financially wasteful air-strikes against infantry-level targets. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that one source of the unwillingness to commit more is the obvious desire of the Turks to see the Syrian Kurds “bled dry” before intervening or hammering down on their own restless Kurdish population. Turkey has become adept down through the years of playing Kurdish groups (and international critics) off against each, making allies here and enemies there, and switching the situation around whenever advantageous to do so. The Kurdish militias under siege at Kobane are very much in the enemy category even if at some future date they may be (temporarily) reclassified as allies. Ankara is pursuing its own interests in relation to its southern neighbours and will not be swayed by the demands of Washington or London (though understandably so, since they will have to live with the effects of all this for many, many years to come). In that light I highly recommend a read of this latest piece from WisB.