ISIS, Kurds, Iraq, and Syria

I don’t post blogs often, because of my teaching and writing load. However my last post, six weeks ago, seemed prescient. There was striking evidence of the remarkably low legitimacy of the Maliki Government in the eyes of the Iraqi people. It seemed, at that time, that the entire American project in Iraq since 2003 (and in some ways since 1991) was an utter waste.

This week the news was even worse. On June 10 I heard that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, had captured Mosul. By June 12 they had already captured Tikrit as well. And, in the pell-mell retreat of the Iraqi Army from the north, the Kurds had quietly taken control of Kirkuk. The Kurds in Iraq have wisely cultivated a friendly relationship with American Special Forces operatives in Iraq since 1991. More recently they have negotiated peace with Turkey, as evidenced by their ability to conduct cross-border attacks against the Syrian government from Turkish territory. This is striking, considering the long history of Turkish suppression of Kurdish identity and the decades of armed insurgency of the P.K.K.

Now, with control of Kirkuk, the Kurds also control quite a lot of oil. And if they have secured really friendly relations with the Turkish government, they may be able to ship that oil through northward pipelines into Turkey to sell it on international markets. So even if the Kurds cannot come to any agreement with the Maliki government to the south, they may have secured a major source of funding.

I decided to map this, as best I could. I begin with a key-map of the region:


Below is a map I compiled by cross-checking various news sources. This shows the extent of Kurdish and ISIS control in Iraq and Syria as of June 12, 2014:


ISIS-controlled areas are shown in green. While they control Tikrit and Falluja, the cities of Ramadi and Samarra are still contested.

Kurdish-controlled areas are in three colors. In orange, the three Iraqi provinces which they explicitly control: Dahuk, Arbil, and Suleymaniah. In yellow-orange, the portions of northern Iraqi provinces where they seem to have de facto control. In yellow, the portions of Syria under Kurdish-insurgent control.

The map below shows the same area, but the colors represent land-cover:


In this map, pale yellow-tan represents sand and pale pink represents bare rock or gravel–a type of desert known as reg in the region. Yellow-green represents arid, sparse shrubs. If you compare the land-cover map and the insurgent-territory map above, what should become apparent is that the ISIS-held land is real desert, where the population is extremely low. So the solid-green polygon of “ISIS-held territory” is a misrepresentation. In fact they hold population centers and the segments of major roads between them. Now that they have Mosul, and are taking hostages, ISIS has better access to revenue. But they may have a hard time selling the oil from the Mosul fields, because they have hostile relations with the Syrian government and the Iraqi government.

However, ISIS might be able to sell oil to the Kurds. Reminder: there is no such thing as Kurdistan. Kurds have been fighting for international political recognition for decades, in southeast Turkey, northern Iraq, and now northern Syria. They might even try to claim territory in western Iran. Even Iranians acknowledge Kurdish presence in their western border provinces; one Iranian province just east of Suleymaniah is named “Kordestan” on Map #2 above.

So the Kurds are also insurgents, but they are in a very strong position both diplomatically and geographically. What is the relationship between the Kurds and ISIS? There is a lot of indication that the ISIS leadership has come to an agreement with the Kurdish leadership, both in Iraq and Syria. They hold different territories in both countries. In their dramatic advance on Mosul and Tikrit, ISIS avoided confronting Kurdish forces, and did not seem to capture any territory held by the Kurds. Likewise, Kurds have benefited significantly from the ISIS offensive, by finally (re?)capturing Kirkuk.

The Kurdish-held territory, in contrast to ISIS-held territory, is relatively fertile: grasslands and croplands. So they have viable land, oil, and friendly relations with the U.S. and Turkey. I wonder: how friendly is their relationship with Iran? If they have worked out a detente with Iran, too, then they are in a good position to establish a viable independent country. As for ISIS, how solid is their support from Gulf Arabs? What are their relations with Turkey (to the north) and Saudi Arabia (to the south)? And do they seriously want to capture Baghdad? Or is that a diversion from other issues, like consolidating control within their newly-acquired cities?

Now to bring this back around to American policies: the Bush Administration dismissed the tens of thousands of San Franciscans who repeatedly demonstrated against invading Iraq in the fall of 2002 and winter of 2002-2003 (millions of others also demonstrated across the world and were disregarded). The Bush cabinet tried to link Saddam Hussein’s government with al-Qaeda, although there was strong evidence of mutual hostility between Iraq’s secular Ba’athist government and bin Laden’s religious-extremist insurgent movement. As a second reason for invading Iraq, Bush argued that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. However US-backed UN weapons-inspectors argued (correctly) that Hussein’s arsenal was destroyed. Bush tried to discredit Hans Blix and dismiss his evidence. Third, Bush and Donald Rumsfeld argued that a U.S. intervention would spread democracy in the Middle East.

One could argue that the Arab Spring was vindication of Rumsfeld’s “messy process of democratization.” I partially agree with this: in Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, Libya, and Egypt. Even though Egypt is now ruled by a general. And even though there is major violence in Libya, including the death of four U.S. diplomats. But the Arab Spring also led to major increases in repression in Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria. And the civil war in Libya also provided a huge flow of armaments to al-Qaeda in the Islamic West in Niger, Mali, and Algeria, and to Boko Haram in Nigeria. Furthermore, in direct refutation of Bush and Rumsfeld, an al-Qaeda offshoot really does exist in Iraq now, as a direct result of our intervention. And “the world is not safer for Americans” with the rise of ISIS and the African branches of al-Qaeda.