Updated: Aug 28, 2019
By: Lachlan Corbett
Autonomous Region of Iraq
Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region of Iraq, located in the mountainous northern region of the country, bordering Iran, Syria and far-eastern Turkey. The region operates as a recognised, highly autonomous entity of Iraq with its own regional democratic Government and armed forces, (the “peshmerga”). Iraqi Kurdistan is the Iraqi area of the greater ‘Kurdistan’ region – a wider geographical region historically inhabited by Kurdish people, but now divided by the modern borders of several different states - Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
Iraqi Kurdistan is a modern, politically defined region which must be viewed through the wider prism of the Kurdish people and Kurdistan.
The Kurds are an ethnic group of people whose modern population is estimated at 30-35 million people. They have inhabited the Western Asian region north of Arabia and South of the Caucuses, and speak their own language with regional dialects.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, Central or Sorani Kurdish is spoken and is the official language of the region along with Arabic. The Kurdish people have an established identity and a long history in the region.
The lack of a modern Kurdish state obscures the depth of the Kurdish presence in Western Asia and their geopolitical significance. The League of Nations in 1923 stripped the Kurdish people of their small homeland in the Treaty of Lausanne, which divided up the Ottoman Empire. The Kurdish people have lacked an internationally recognised state ever since.
Whilst Iraqi Kurdistan remains only a quadrant of what is considered Greater Kurdistan and the historical cultural extent of Kurdish land, it is the only Kurdish region where Kurdish people have a degree of autonomy or state recognition. Syria, Iran and Turkey, the other regions that encompass ‘Greater Kurdistan’ all have no recognised Kurdish regions, despite their significant populations of Kurdish citizens.
Where is Kurdistan on the map?
Although as a result of the instability of the Syrian Civil War and the rise of Islamic State (ISIS), Syria’s Kurdish-majority north-east region, known as Rojava, has become a de facto autonomous region with no state recognition. Across the four modern countries that encompass ‘Greater Kurdistan’, state discrimination of Kurdish people has been commonplace and this has been exacerbated by the lack of an internationally recognised Kurdish state.
As a result of being constitutionally recognised by Iraq and enjoying a higher level of economic and political stability than other Kurdish regions, Iraqi Kurdistan has become the central region for Kurdish affairs and has experienced high levels of immigration from Kurds from other areas. This being said, Iraqi Kurdistan and the Central Iraqi Government remain in dispute over several regions on the periphery of Iraqi Kurdistan in Northern Iraq.
The Iraqi Kurdistan Government (the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG) is responsible for the foreign affairs of the Iraqi Kurdistan region and is a voice for the wider Kurdistan region in international affairs.
The Kurdish people are afflicted by the varying factions and political groups that exist across the Greater Kurdish region. A population of over 30 million, spread over a large and politically complex region, the Kurds have a complex network of groups that do not always operate cohesively. Domestic Kurdish conflicts have broken out, such as in 1994 in Iraqi Kurdistan, between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Their internal conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan followed the conclusion of the Central Baathist Government’s conflict with Iraqi Kurds, and it delayed the growth of Iraqi Kurdistan considerably. Such conflicts have severely undermined the key Kurdish causes – international recognition, autonomy over their historic lands and protection against enemies.
Furthermore the disparity between the legality and validity of Kurdish groups is vast, with some Kurdish groups such as the Turkish based Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), regarded as a terrorist group internationally.
Whilst the Kurdish Democratic Party has a broad global reach and maintains branch offices across the Middle East, London, Sydney and Washington D.C. Islamic, ultra-nationalist and socialist parties also exist in Iraqi Kurdistan and the wider Kurdish region. The divided and tribal nature of the Kurdish political arena has greatly encumbered their ability to achieve international recognition or bolster their foreign relations.
KRG - Iraq Relations
The Kurdish-Iraqi relations of Iraqi Kurdistan – what could now be considered ‘domestic’ relations, are notoriously hostile. Iraqis and Kurds are culturally disparate, and in a 2005 plebiscite held by the KRG during the year’s Iraqi elections, 98.8% of Kurds voted for full independence from Iraq. Kurds and Iraqi’s have an ethnically different heritage – Iraqis being of Arabic lineage, the Kurds being Persian – and thus has manifested into different cultural, linguistic and culinary customs.
Even geographically the two different areas of the country are different, with Iraqi Kurdistan occupying the fertile, mountainous upper regions of the country, whilst Baghdad and the surrounding regions are flat river lands that merge into desert. Presently, Iraqi Kurdistan has become a bastion of stability in Iraq and has a stronger economy and more stable political structure than the rest of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan has its own democratically elected parliament and its government has a high and secure degree of autonomy.
The differences between Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Arabs manifested into a lengthy 20th century history of political disputes and often violence between the Kurds and the central Iraqi Government. The most notorious incident was the Halabja chemical attack of 1988 which saw Hussein’s forces massacre over 5000 Kurdish civilians with chemical gas in the city of Halabja, in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan near the Iranian border.
In 1991, the United States, France and Britain established a no-fly-zone over Iraqi Kurdistan to protect them from the Iraqi Government’s frequent attacks on the region. This protective measure was the first step to an autonomous Kurdish state in Northern Iraq.
Fortunately, the recent history between the two groups has been more sedate and political in nature, particularly since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their consequential presence in the region. With the US, an important ally and advocate for the Kurds, as a mediator, the Kurds secured their autonomous area of Iraq and it has become the most secure parts of the country, providing key resistance against ISIS after their rise in 2014.
The United States continues to be a middleman between hostilities between the Kurds and the Iraqi Government, but their presence in the region has become more ambiguous since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as US President and the raft of policy changes brought in by his administration.
With the US being a major force in establishing Kurdish recognition in Iraq, they have remained an important advocate of wider Kurdish affairs and taken measures to protect the Kurdish people from hostility from neighbouring states, especially the pre-2003 Iraqi Government and Turkey.
Throughout the 20th century, the Kurdish people have been more accepting of American and Western interests than their Arab or Iranian neighbours, and are more religiously tolerant than many countries in the Middle-East. Kurds also have a noted history of suppressing Jihadi movements or radical Islamic factions, which correlates with American and Western interests in the region.
Whilst showing solidarity with the Kurdish cause and defending the human rights of civilians in the region, US support has always stopped short of advocating the political aims of the Kurdish people and has not given any serious countenance to the concept of a Greater Kurdish state.
Rojava: Syrian Kurdistan
In Syria, where the situation is admittedly more complex due to the brutal civil war in that country than in Iraqi Kurdistan, the US withdrawal from the country has been called a “betrayal” of the Kurds, who without the US’s hegemonic presence in the region will be vulnerable to Turkish and domestic Syrian threats. This “betrayal” is exacerbated by the significant contribution of Kurdish militias to the fight against ISIS, providing much of the ground-level military personnel and front line troops for the coalition who defeated the self-proclaimed caliphate in early 2019.
Despite the complexity of Syria’s Kurdish groups, the most critical foreign relationship of Iraqi Kurdistan is with Turkey. Turkey has a contradictory policies to broader Kurdish interests. A country with a significant Kurdish population, Turkey have suppressed, often violently, its Kurdish people and has been in a long running active conflict against Kurdish insurgencies that advocate for independence or autonomy as well as improved conditions for Kurdish people in Syria.
North Kurdistan: Turkey
The key Kurdish rebels, the Kurdistan Workers Group (PKK), have moved much of their base of operations across the border to Iraqi Kurdistan. Atrocities from both belligerents have occurred and the stability of South-Eastern Turkey continues to be fragile. Turkey has politically taken steps to hinder the process of Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomy, but Turkey are also the largest foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan’s economy and are building oil and gas pipelines connecting Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.
This contradiction implies Turkey remain hostile at a political level towards key Kurdish aims but are on an economic level accepting of a Kurdish presence, at least across the Iraqi border. Kurdish-KRG relations are generally the smoothest of all Turkey-Kurdish relations.
East Kurdistan: Iran
Iran has a significant Kurdish population along its western border and, like Turkey, it has a history of conflict with its Kurdish minority population. The Iranian Government has long persecuted Kurdish groups such as the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) due to their activism in promoting the transnational goals of Greater Kurdistan and their rebellion against the poor living conditions of Iranian Kurdish regions.
Religiously based acrimony between Kurds and Iranians also exists, with the majority of Iranian Kurds being Sunni who clash with Iran’s Shia population. Iran’s central government has violently oppressed Kurdish uprisings in its territory and this has seen Kurdish fighters retreat across the border to Iraqi Kurdistan – especially the rugged Qandil mountain range which straddles the border of both countries. This mountain range has become the base for PJAK, the Iranian arm of the Turkish based Kurdistan Workers Group (PKK), and has seen Iran make military incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan.
PJAK are one of many ethno-nationalist groups that present Iran with significant security issues, and the group has been listed as a terrorist organisation. Iran, like Turkey, has sought to bolster economic ties with Iraqi Kurdistan whilst concurrently condemning its political aims.
In Turkey, Iran and Syrian-Kurdish groups fight for transnational aims of independence and authority against their respective states. Poor living conditions and violent suppressions of groups contribute to continual rebellion in these areas of “Greater Kurdistan”.
In Iraq, autonomy has seen the Kurds make strides in their political and economic spheres and has shown Kurdish people, when given independence and self-determination, are reliable regional actors who are willing to fight against the religious extremism that is rife in the Middle-East. They have also shown the ability to provide their citizens with greater levels of security than is common in the region. The United States and other international actors should continue to support Kurdish aims in the region and build on the successes of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Beehner, I 2007 The Iraqi Kurdish Question, Council on Foreign Relations, retrieved at https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/iraqi-kurdish-question
Barkey H 2019, The Kurdish Awakening, Foreign Affairs, retrieved at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2019-02-12/kurdish-awakening
Charountaki M, 2012, The Kurds and US Foreign Policy: International Relations in the Middle East since 1945, American Foreign Policy Interests (Vol.36, (4)), retrieved at https://www-tandfonline-com.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/doi/full/10.1080/10803920.2014.947214?scroll=top&needAccess=true
Chiu Y, 2018 Kurdistan, The Taiwan of the Middles East? Springer Nature (Society, 55), retrieved at https://link-springer-com.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/content/pdf/10.1007/s12115-018-0266-6.pdf
Cook S 2017, Is The World Ready for “Kurdexit”? Referendum Amongst Iraqi Kurds Has Middle East on Edge, Council on Foreign Relations, retrieved at https://www.cfr.org/blog/world-ready-kurdexit-referendum-among-iraqi-kurds-has-middle-east-edge
Gunter, M 2011 Arab-Kurdish Relations and the Future of Iraq, Third World Quarterly (32:9), retrieved at https://www.tandfonline.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1080%2F01436597.2011.618649
Nordland, R 2018 US Exit seen as betrayal of the Kurds, and a boon for ISIS, The New York Times, retrieved at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/world/middleeast/syria-kurds-isis-us.html
Mansfield, S 2014 The Miracle of the Kurds, Worthy Books: First Edition
Meho, L, Nehme, M 2005 The Legacy of U.S Support to Kurds: Two Major Episodes, American University of Beirut retrieved at https://staff.aub.edu.lb/~lmeho/meho-nehme-legacy-of-us-support-to-kurds.pdf
Soguk, N 2015, With/Out a State, Kurds Rising: The Un/Stated Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, Globalizations (12:6), retrieved at https://www-tandfonline-com.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/doi/pdf/10.1080/14747731.2015.1100857?needAccess=true
Zambelis, C 2011 The Factors Behind Rebellion in Iranian Kurdistan (Vol. 4 Issue 3), Combating Terrorism Center, retrieved at https://ctc.usma.edu/the-factors-behind-rebellion-in-iranian-kurdistan/