A Semester in Review: The Microcosm of Iraqi Kurdistan

The semester ended and I sat pondering what I had learned over the past sixteen weeks. Do I know more about international politics in the Middle East than when I started? If so, what did I learn and how can I best summarize my new knowledge? These questions were running through my mind when I came across this analysis about Iraqi Kurdish relations with Iran and Turkey. The pieces suddenly came together when I realized that Iraqi Kurdistan is a good microcosm for my semester. The four trends which I found to be most significant in my study of international politics of the Middle East are all present within Iraqi Kurdistan: the lingering effects of colonialism; the struggle between politics, or realism, and identity, or constructivism; the impact of oil; and the involvement of outside actors.

The above analysis makes no direct reference to colonialism but the simple fact that I am writing about the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan is in itself a testament to

The map proposed by the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. Note the region labeled as Kurdistan. (www.ekurd.net)

The map proposed by the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. Note the region labeled as Kurdistan. (www.ekurd.net)

colonialism. Following its defeat in WWI, the Ottoman Empire signed the 1920 Treaty of Sevres of which Articles 62-64 granted the Kurds autonomy in the region and a path to statehood upon recognition from the League of Nations. However, after the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 the League of Nations recognized the new Turkish state in the treaty of Lausanne, with no mention of the Kurds or their independence. The Kurds in the mountainous regions of Mosul and Irbil were soon lumped into the new British Mandate of Iraq. Here, their subsequent attempts at breaking free were violently crushed by the British as late as the 1940s. More broadly, the colonial pattern of creating arbitrary borders and forced modernization was followed across the Middle East and is a factor in many regional conflicts today.

Colonial policies can not shoulder the full blame for the current status of Iraqi Kurdistan. The unsuccessful bids for independence were also a product of infighting among various Kurdish factions. Unable to project strong and unified leadership, Iraqi Kurds

Regions of under the control of the KDP and PUK. (www.positivity.wordpress.com)

Regions of under the control of the KDP and PUK. (www.positivity.wordpress.com)

have consistently allowed outside powers to play one faction off another. This pattern is clear in the analysis mentioned above. Turkey and Iran have each allied themselves with one of the two major Kurdish factions, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) respectively. These alliances question the constructivist belief within international relations which focuses on the importance of identities and ideologies. Within Iraqi Kurdistan this theory is clearly at odds with the realist theory, which focuses on the importance of geopolitics, borders, and the power of states. The Sunni Kurd PUK is allied with the Islamic (Shiite) Republic of Iran. Similarly, the KDP has allied itself with a Turkish government who has a long history of violently suppressing its own Kurdish population. Clearly, these two parties have chosen a political path that conflicts, in at least one way, with their ideology and identity. Again, this is a prevalent pattern throughout the Middle East and is probably best encapsulated by the failure of Iran to export its revolutionary Shiite identity following the revolution in 1979.

The Middle East is well known for its unparallelled reserves of oil and Iraqi Kurdistan is no exception. A recent discovery of up to 45 billion barrels of oil underneath northern Iraq has pushed Iraqi Kurdistan into the center of regional oil politics. The boosted Kurdish oil industry has created significant economic opportunities with neighboring states such as Turkey. However, these economic opportunities have come at the expense of increased tension with Baghdad who wants to boost its central revenue and claims sovereignty over the Kurdish fields. The oil fields of Iraqi Kurdistan have also placed the region on the global map, enticing at least one western oil giant, ExxonMobil, to abandon its wells in the south and begin exploration in the Kurdish north. The impact of oil on the Middle East as a whole can not be over stated. The ebb and flow of cash for oil has propped up governments, brought down governments, incited war, and quickly modernized a desert landscape.

Iraqi acting Defence Minister Dulaimi and U.S. Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Miller speak to the media during a news conference in Baghdad. (REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen, http://www.almonitor.com)

Finally, the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan has drawn in players from outside the region, further complicating the situation and adding to the myriad of interests present. An example is the U.S. who has invested billions of dollars and thousands of lives into their democracy project in Iraq and therefore has a vested interest in the survival and success of central rule in Baghdad. This interest is made clear through the sale of military equipment from the U.S. to Iraq, equipment that is sure to end up in tense show-downs between Baghdad and Irbil. Furthermore, in October, the U.S. sent a message to the Kurdish leadership signifying American opposition to any Kurdish independence movement in Iraq. This type of outside intervention needs no introduction in the modern history of the region. From U.S. and British involvement in the Mossadegh coup in Iran in 1953, to western quietism throughout the violent and bloody oppression of opposition movements in Bahrain. Outside powers have continually sought to influence the sequence of events in favor of their interests often at the expense of local and regional stability and prosperity.


Kurdistan within the larger Middle East. Iraqi Kurdistan occupies a large portion of Kurdistan’s south-east. (www.almanar.com)

No example is ever perfect, but it seems that Iraqi Kurdistan functions as a good microcosm of the Middle East. The four patterns mentioned above map well over the region as a whole and Iraqi Kurdistan as a small part of that region. As my first official political science or international relations class, I must say this semester was a success. I enjoyed learning about international relations theories and methods and then applying them to a region that I have studied in depth for over two years. This added a new and interesting layer into my study of the Middle East. I look forward to exploring these patterns, and discovering more, as I explore the region further during my last semester at Dickinson.


5 thoughts on “A Semester in Review: The Microcosm of Iraqi Kurdistan

  1. Isnt the KDP labeled a terrorist organization in Turkey? I guess I dont really get what you mean in terms of the KDP and Turkey having an “alliance.” Could you clarify?

    Reading your blog was really enjoyable all semester, Chris. Your writing is so professional and so captivating, and I was constantly impressed by your posts. If you keep writing them, even after class is over, I’ll keep reading.

  2. Kurdish politics quickly becomes a blur of similar acronyms. The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are the two dominant Iraqi Kurdish parties while the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK- the acronym gets lost in translation) is the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey. Turkey, as well as the U.S. and the E.U., label the PKK as a terrorist organization.

    The acronyms aside, you raise a good point regarding the word ‘alliance’. An alliance conveys the idea that signed agreements or treaties exist which is not necessarily the case here. The idea may be better explained through ‘align with’. The Iraqi KDP increasingly aligns with Turkey while the PUK increasingly aligns with Iran.

    These alignments are seen in statements and policies. The KDP has chosen to follow Turkey’s lead in the Syrian crisis by supporting the Turkish backed Syrian Kurdish National Council as opposed to an armed off-shoot of the PKK in Syria. Meanwhile, the PUK has supported a petition condemning the Turkish government’s human rights abuses (largely against Turkish Kurds) and openly supports an opposition party within Turkey’s parliament that is linked to the PKK. On the economic front, the Iraqi Kurdish region under KDP control accounts for trade up to $10 billion/yr while the PUK region facilitates up to $8 billion/yr in trade with Iran. (Numbers come from the analysis piece quoted at the beginning of my post)

    Sarah, thank you for your compliments and supportive comments. I am glad that you enjoy the blog. I plan to continue blogging, at least through next semester, as I explore institution building in post-2003 Iraq and authoritarianism and democracy in the Middle East. You can sign up for email notifications of new posts or keep an eye on Twitter and Facebook for updates. Thanks!!

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