Watching the sudden and (to Western eyes) unexpected unfolding of the Islamic State and its territorial gains in Iraq has been fascinating. The dynamics have been heretofore unpredictable – a few weeks ago a conflict scholar asked on a social media forum whether ISIS (as it was then known) would bother with the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan or concentrate on Baghdad. The consensus at the time was that the Kurdish peshmerga, battle-hardened from years of war, were probably too much for this new upstart force and that the Islamists didn’t really want to rule the Kurds anyway.
Turns out we were wrong. While the Islamic state has been pushing south towards Baghdad, it is also pushing east towards Erbil and Kirkuk, the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan. And along the way it’s been doing pretty well, by press accounts, in battling what had been Iraq’s most organized and formidable military force. The popular explanation for this, which may be true, is the imbalance of heavy weaponry (tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery) between the Islamic State forces (which have taken significant quantities of these weapons from the dissolving Iraqi military) and the Kurds (which have few if any heavy weapons). This looks bad right now for the Kurds – but it this crisis may contain the seeds of their greatest victory.
The Kurds’ greatest success in recent years has been establishing itself as a serious proto-state and (more importantly) the “safe haven” for Western oil companies looking to do business with Iraqi’s substantial oil reserves. There are two main sources of that oil: in the north around Kirkuk and in the south, in the heart of Shiite territory. Shiite-Sunni tensions have kept the latter area somewhat unstable and contested, and so many Westerners have quietly decided that doing business with the Kurds in the north, where things have been quiet for at least a half dozen years, is the safer route.
Now that is being threatened by a force no one in the West saw coming. Western companies are scrambling, even as refugees and ethnic minorities are pouring into the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan hoping for safety. Suddenly Exxon Mobile and the Yazidis find themselves on the same side of the conflict, with very much the same interests.
This, of course, represents a huge opportunity for the Iraqi Kurds. The US has already begun engaging in airstrikes against IS forces in an effort to slow down their advances, with more likely to follow. And there is open talk of arming the Kurds with heavy weapons and countermeasures (anti-tank missiles and the like) so they can hold their ground against the advancing Islamic State. Two years ago such talk was way out of bounds, and would have been seen as threatening to destabilize the region by encouraging Kurdish secessionism. Now the instability is here anyway and the US has few options.
I have little doubt that the Kurdish leadership has long since figured all of this out. Kurdish ambitions are plain for anyone who wants to look – past referenda have demonstrated massive support for eventual Kurdish independence. If the Kurdish proto-state proves an able partner in this IS crisis and becomes a bulwark against the advancing Islamic State forces, it will reinforce its position as the best partner for Western oil companies to do business. In the process, it will build better and deeper diplomatic ties to the US, the UN, and various European countries and international organizations. Provided it wins the war, Iraqi Kurdistan could emerge far closer to its dream of statehood than it currently is.
The only puzzle remaining, at least for me, is why the Islamic State chose to go east at all. While it’s true that their Islamic ideology sees all branches of Islam other than their own as apostates, they are likely to have far greater success advancing into Sunni Arab areas where they have some hope of winning over some of the population. Instead they chose to poke the one place in Iraq that Western interests are most committed to defending. Like Hitler’s declaration of war against the US in 1941, this may prove their undoing.
There is still a lot of fighting to take place, and war is an unpredictable thing (as we’ve seen to date). But the forces pressing on the Obama administration are strong – everyone from Islamophobe conservatives and evangelical Christians to human rights liberals to big oil wants to see the Kurds succeed. Airstrikes, training, and weapons are easy and fairly cheap. And the more resources the US commits, the more credibility will be engaged – at some point, the administration won’t be able to tolerate an Islamic State victory for fear of losing too much on the domestic political front. So I suspect we’ll see some pretty significant US engagement (short of boots on the ground, but substantial nevertheless) in the near future. And in the end, the real winner may be the very Kurdish secessionist movement that we have tried to prevent twice in the last 25 years.