Syria and Iraq After ISIS: Is an Independent Kurdistan in the Cards?

The Kurds have not only shown that they are capable of maintaining order and stability in their autonomous zones, but have also spilled their own blood to survive and defend themselves. Forcing the Kurds to return to Arab rule would be seen by them, justifiably, as an act of American betrayal reminiscent of Bush Senior’s decision to abandon them in 1991 following the Gulf War.

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By Paweł Piotr Styrna | September 26, 2017

Kurdish women fighting ISIS

Unfortunately, the Syrian Civil War continues to rage and the ISIS Caliphate in Syria and Iraq continues to persist – in spite of territorial shrinkage, including the loss of Mosul. Nevertheless, it is surely not premature to discuss the possible post-war, post-ISIS future(s) of the region. After all, it certainly seems that things in Syria and Iraq will not return to the status quo ante. Thus, it is necessary for the United States to have a prudent strategy and a vision for this large and strategic swath of Middle Eastern territory between the eastern Mediterranean to the west, the Persian Gulf and Iran in the east, Turkey in the north, and Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia in the south.

There is nothing particularly sacrosanct about the current borders of Syria and Iraq, nor do they conform to religious and ethnic lines. Prior to the Arab conquests in the seventh century, the region had been mostly Christian and fought over by the Romans/Byzantines and the Zoroastrian Persians. From the sixteenth century until the First World War in the early twentieth century, Syria and Iraq were ruled by the Turks.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire – which had sided with Germany in the First World War – the victorious British and French partitioned the Fertile Crescent in response to their own strategic and economic priorities. On the basis of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (which local Arabs still curse, as if Middle Eastern leaders had not divided the region among themselves at other times in history) the French received Lebanon and Syria while the British took Iraq, Trans-Jordan, and Palestine as League of National “mandates” (quasi-colonies).

They gained complete independence after the Second World War, which had irreparably weakened the British and French empires. Afterwards, the force of inertia – along with the mutual hatred between the Iraqi and Syrian Baathists – helped maintain the border status quo. The Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS, which boasted of erasing the Sykes-Picot frontier, have violently upset the local balance of power, making the likelihood of things returning to the status quo ante quite slim.

To begin with, the Kurdish question has been thrust to the forefront like never before.

Kurdish-inhabited and controlled areas in northern Iraq and Syria are now practically independent. They would like to turn that independence into an internationally-recognized reality. Thus, some have argued compellingly that the U.S. should support an independent Kurdistan in areas of current-day Iraq and Syria. The Kurds have not only shown that they are capable of maintaining order and stability in their autonomous zones, but have also spilled their own blood to survive and defend themselves. Forcing the Kurds to return to Arab rule would be seen by them, justifiably, as an act of American betrayal reminiscent of Bush Senior’s decision to abandon them in 1991 following the Gulf War.

Sure, the neighbors – Iran and Turkey in particular – will not be happy about an independent Kurdistan, but the former continues to chant “death to America” and foment trouble for us anywhere it can, while the latter has not been particularly helpful to us lately either. Why allow Ankara’s temper tantrums to continue to dictate U.S. policy in the region, particularly with as untrustworthy a person as Erdogan in charge?

The native Christians – who have suffered persecution and genocide at the hands of ISIS – should be granted autonomous enclaves in areas where they constitute the majority. Similarly, any post-war, post-ISIS territorial settlement in Syria and Iraq should ensure the equal and humane treatment of minorities, both ethnic and religious, whatever the future borders and arrangements.

As far as the rest of ‘Syraq’ is concerned, perhaps the biggest obstacle has been and continues to be the divide between the Sunni and Shia denominations within Islam. In Iraq, it would make sense to allow the population to vote on whether the country should remain a unitary state, become a dual federation, or whether the Sunni Arab center and the Shia Arab south should simply part ways. In case of the latter, a possible merger of Sunni-dominated eastern Syria with the Sunni-majority center of Iraq (sans the Kurdish north and Shia south) might also be a blessing-in-disguise for western Syria, with its diverse Alawite, Shia, Christian, and Druze population.

The above-described options should not be a utopian, neocon-style exercise in “nation-building,” but rather a realistic recognition of the ethnic, religious, political, and strategic realities on the ground. As in the case of almost any other political or life problem, there is no perfect solution that will satisfy everyone. Nevertheless, allowing and even encouraging the map of Syria and Iraq to be redrawn makes more sense than clinging rigidly to borders and state structures that many locals themselves dislike and do not wish to perpetuate. Regardless of future borders, however, our main priority in the Middle East should be keeping Islamists – be they the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, or Al-Qaeda – out of power.


Paweł Styrna is a Ph.D student in Russian history at a DC area university. He holds two MA degrees, one in modern European and Russian history (University of Illinois at Chicago) and another in statecraft international affairs (Institute of World Politics in Washington DC). Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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