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Upwards of about thirty million Kurds live as embattled ethnic minorities who endure varying degrees of political, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural discrimination in a geographic space that encompasses Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. The territories claimed in the aforementioned countries are referred by the Kurdish nationalists as “Greater Kurdistan”. The countries who host Kurdish nationalists are often subject to separatist aspirations and face consistent threats to their respective territorial integrities. The U.S. has leveraged the Kurds post-2003 invasion of Iraq as one of their main tools to project power in the region. My research paper will explain why Iraqi Kurdish nationalism has been on a consistent decline after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Iran maintains a significant influence in Iraq – not only with the central government in Baghdad, but also with the Kurds. Therefore, as Iraqi Kurdish nationalism continues to decline due to lack of support from the U.S. and recognition of Kurdish independence, the U.S. will face difficulties trying to project power in the region. The former U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007-2009, Ryan Crocker, claims that the U.S. has appeared to be taking Baghdad’s side in the dispute with the Kurds. Baghdad’s central government is dominated by Shia Muslims, and therefore is supported by Iran. As the U.S. and Iran tensions continue to escalate, the U.S. will lose the capability to leverage the Kurds for power projection. Moreover, Crocker claims the situation is “for the Kurds and Iraqis to work out, but by injecting ourselves on one side of this, the concern is that we will no longer be seen as an honest broker as we move ahead”. Despite conflicting interests between the U.S., Iran, Turkey, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries all share a common goal: stability in Iraq. The decline of Iraqi Kurdish nationalism has created the prospects for more conflict inside Iraq.
In order to explain the Iraqi Kurdish nationalism decline, three states will be used: The United States, Iraq, and Iran. The United States will represent a push factor, who attempt to prop up Kurdish nationalism for U.S. national security. Iran and Turkey will be used as a pull factor, who effectively wage war against Kurdish nationalism to protect their central government control. By using Iran and Iraq, I hope to highlight that the decline of Kurdish nationalism largely has been due to the lack of independence from the international community. Moreover, we see disagreements among scholars on which country (Iran, Iraq, U.S., etc.) has had the greatest influence on Kurdish nationalism. Lastly, I will examine the inner-workings of Kurdish society and how it changed post-2003, such as through the reliance on party networks and power dynamics between classes, generations, and genders. I hope to highlight that the emergence of localized identities, largely due to the regional turmoil, has hindered a unified Kurdish nationalistic identity and mobilization. The combination of external and internal forces into Kurdish nationalism complicates trying to discover the root driving force behind the decline of Kurdish nationalism post-2003.
First, I will examine the Iraqi central government as a factor into Kurdish nationalism. The perspective from the Iraqi central government has been, and still is, that Kurdish succession would be a direct challenge to Baghdad’s authority. However, the Iraqi central government faced significant challenges post-U.S. invasion, namely the decimation of the Iraqi military by U.S. forces. In addition, Iraq faced a financial crisis, sectarian conflicts, political divisions, a fledgling economy, and inability to provide everyday services to its citizens due to decades of war. The Iraqi central government is also susceptible to regional regimes, such as Iran economic and military actions should Iraq grant sovereignty to the Kurds.
Second, I will examine Iran as a factor into Kurdish nationalism. Iran is primarily concerned that the granting of Kurdish independence in Iraq will embolden its large domestic population of repressed Kurds. Should Iraq grant the Kurds independence, Iran could benefit through economic development and political reforms, effectively extending control over the new regional state. On the other hand, a unilateral and abrupt announcement of Kurdish independence could result in crackdowns against Kurds within Iran. The effort, led by the Iranian government, would be designed to tamp down any hope for Kurdish-Iran independence.
Third, I will examine the United States as a factor into Kurdish nationalism. The Kurds in Iraq primarily align with Washington’s values simply because they want to eject the Iraqi central government. The reasoning is simple: with no Iraqi central government, the Kurds will be able to fill the power vacuum and reach independence. However, the newly-formed Iraqi government by the United States post-2003 invasion did not grant the Kurds total independence. Rather, it granted the Kurds a more visible role in the new central government (created in 2004), such as controlling the positions of Army chief of staff, foreign minister, and finance minister. Despite these new powers, Kurdish political influence began to decline soon after 2004 due to the emergence of an Arab-Kurdish rivalry for Iraq domestic control. For example, as the Sunni and Shia political parties became more organized, Kurdish influence became diluted and the enacting constitutional provisions were delayed. A majority of the constitutional provisions would have granted the Kurds concessions over contentious issues. Most notably, Article 140 of the new Iraqi constitution post-2003 invasion, laid out a referendum to resolve disagreements over the disputed territories. It was never implemented. Therefore, while many U.S. Government representatives argue that support for the Kurds is imperative for regional stability, the United States has failed to provide Kurdish independence during the post-2003 invasion power vacuum. This lack of support from the United States has had a direct impact on the decline of Kurdish nationalism post-2003. In 2015, the President of Iraq’s Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani to state, “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us”.
Lastly, I will examine Kurdish internal identity changes. It can be argued that the turmoil in the region has led to the international community viewing Kurdistan as a relatively stable area. However, the turmoil has also created divided views within the Kurds. Localized identities and regional autonomy begun to emerge post-2003 U.S. invasion, which has prevented mobilization of a unified Kurdistan identity. We see the rise of localized parties who have deliberately fueled societal fragmentation “in order to manipulate the population’s anti-establishment feelings into forms of pressure on rival local party leaders”. There is strong kin-based (familial and tribal) identities in Kurdistan. The proliferation of universities in small and medium-sized towns has reinforced the expectations of parents that their children will remain home. As a result, the Kurdish youth have minimal opportunity to interact with their counterparts from other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan. In addition, we see a rise of perceptions of inequality within Kurdistan – such as those living in rural areas feeling alienated to those who live in urban areas. I plan to use public opinion based polling to supplement and support the claim that localized identities have prevented mobilization of a unified Kurdistan identity post-2003 invasion. However, public opinion polling presents a major gap in knowledge as data is not consistently drawn from certain time periods (i.e. there could only be public opinion data from year 2005 and 2010 while years 2006-2009 are omitted).
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan’s wealth in natural resources encouraged the regions leaders to carve the population up into clientelist networks. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) economic strategy focused almost entirely on developing its oil and gas resources. Oil rents have employed up to seventy percent of the workforce. Therefore, Kurdish societal dependence on oil for providing a source of employment and income has hindered the Kurds taking action against the establishment leadership.
In conclusion, it is important to determine the root cause for the decline of Kurdish nationalism post-2003 because the Kurdistan is viewed as one of the last stable areas in the Middle East. We see the U.S., Iraq, Iran, and Turkey reluctant to grant Kurdistan independence. Moreover, we see the U.S. attempt to leverage Kurdish support for U.S. national security while simultaneously abandoning the Kurds ambitions for independence. Finally, we see the rise of internal Kurdish localized identities as a result of decades of conflict. With the decline of Kurdish nationalism, the United States will find it increasingly more difficult to project power in the region.
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