For many years, Kurds in Iraq and across the Middle East said they felt abandoned. Kurdish minorities were ill-treated in many countries, with their political ambitions repressed.
The government of Saddam Hussein committed horrific crimes against the Kurdish population. However, since 1991, most of Iraq’s Kurds have lived in a region outside Baghdad’s rule and, following the 2003 US removal of Saddam, Iraqi Kurdistan has looked much better.
After the dramatic emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS), a new war came to Iraq in 2014.
In Iraq, as indeed is the case in Syria, Kurdish forces have been effective fighting ISIS militants, thanks in part to strong Western backing. However, once these forces move beyond Kurdish-majority regions, a new trouble takes form. The Kurdish militias began to eye and control many non-Kurdish towns and villages.
Kurdish politicians and leaders are using military success against ISIS as an opportunity to pursue claims to additional territory. They are consolidating their grip on disputed Iraqi areas.
Human Rights Watch reports that, in Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk, Arabs have been threatened with eviction and ejection. Some alleged to have links to ISIS have had their homes demolished.
ISIS has made extensive use of such acts to present itself as the defender of Sunni Arabs, even though no community is spared from the brutality of the militants. The group is using the global indifference to the persecution of Sunni Arabs to stir up ethnic and sectarian tension and gain more recruits.
There is a perception, especially among Sunni communities in Iraq, that the international coalition unduly favours the Kurds. Western politicians give both rhetorical and practical support to Kurdish peshmerga forces.
Kurdish forces have indeed proven effective at displacing ISIS from their territories but this has been enabled in both Iraq and Syria by extensive external support.
After the defence of Syria’s Kobane, which was aided by a massive coalition air campaign, many in Western policy and media circles decided that defeating ISIS must mean backing the Kurds in all cases — often to the detriment of other groups.
Arab rebel groups in Syria often say that if they had the same Western backing as their Kurdish counterparts, they would have achieved greater success against ISIS. At times, the rebels complain the West abandons them to fight ISIS without air cover.
A patronising undercurrent has also come to the fore in Western media, which often depicts Kurdistan as a fundamentally liberal project in the making, a haven amid the maelstrom of the wider Middle East, a vision in the West’s own image.
Even dogmatically anti-war writers give conditional support to this utopian mirage. It is a fundamentally cheap and unchallenging position to hold, an easy but reductive point to make.
Much like all easy answers, this solution is both partial and myopic. Though this may lead, eventually, to the defeat of ISIS, it could not guarantee long-term peace or stability.
Kurdish forces will not be welcomed as liberators in Sunni heartlands in Iraq or Syria. They could eventually be viewed less as liberators than conquerors, and possibly a worse option than remaining under ISIS rule.
In both Iraq and Syria, the search for easy solutions can only lead to an accumulation of problems. Supporting the Kurds in their own fight against ISIS is vital; expecting them to liberate the entire region is profoundly delusional.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.