Since the collapse of three divisions of the Iraqi army at Mosul in June 2014, it has been the Peshmerga, Kurdish militias, that have strongly opposed the apocalyptic death cult of ISIS in Iraq. Already Syrian Kurdish forces had strongly defended their territories in Syria. The relief of the besieged Yazidis on Mount Sinjar saw Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Turkish PKK forces help on the ground. The conflicts in Iraq and Syria are continuing to mutate and some of the results mean that western countries have to support groups such as the PKK previously labelled terrorists.
The Kurds have long sought their own country and they were right to feel they were misled after the First World War when they were promised independence in the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 only to lose it with the resurgence of Turkish nationalism under Ataturk and the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Since then, the estimated 30 million Kurds have been split between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. They have risen in rebellion in Turkey on a number of occasions and the Marxist PKK is their armed wing. There have also been Kurdish rebellions in Syria, Iraq and Iran, all have been severely repressed. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein infamously used chemical weapons against the Kurds in the Al Anfal campaign against the town of Halabja, during the time of the Iran/Iraq war. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Anfal_Campaign)
With the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, the Kurdish region in northern Iraq was established under the protection of the West’s no-fly zone. Since then, the Kurds have managed their own territory with little control from Baghdad. The new Iraqi State saw the Kurds gain the positon of President and further develop the Kurdish Regional Government, where Kurdish in the main language, not Arabic. Until recently, even speaking Kurdish in Turkey was likely to get you targeted by the Turkish security forces. US forces worked well with the Kurds and there were no reported deaths of US military personnel in the Kurdish region after 2003.
Now we have the PKK and Iraqi Peshmerga fighting ISIS in Iraq, with the Syrian Kurds (YPG) and some PKK fighting ISIS in Syria. The Kurds have a formidable reputation but are not well armed, as the Iraqi Government did not agree to the Peshmerga being equipped with modern weapons, so the old Soviet era Kalashnikov is still their main weapon.
Now it has changed and Australia, the US, France and other western powers have sent modern weapons to the Kurds, with the reluctant agreement of the Iraqi government. Combined with US and western airpower, the Kurds are holding their ground and recovering some territory in Iraq from ISIS. (http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/iraq-situation-report-september-18-19-2014) They have also expanded their territory to include the ‘disputed’ city of Kirkuk, and its surrounding oilfields. The Kurds have long wanted to control Kirkuk and get the economic benefit of the oil fields nearby.
Meanwhile in Syria, Kurdish YPG forces have held their own territory whilst Assad and the mainly Sunni rebels fought it out. In some places, the Kurds were supported by regime forces to defend their territory against rebels, especially those of Jabhat Al Nusra (JN is the Al- Qaeda linked opposition force).
The Kurds now are threatened by the rise of ISIS which is advancing against the Syrian regime, JN, the Free Syrian Army and several Islamist opposition forces. In the last week thousands of Kurds have fled into Turkey seeking shelter from ISIS, whilst their militias try to hold the ground and repulse ISIS. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/22/syrian-kurdish-fighters-islamic-state-isis-kobani) . It is estimated that 100,000 Kurds have fled to Turkey in a week. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/21/isis-kurds-escape-into-turkey-from-syria-kobani )
The Syrian Kurds have worked with the Turkish PKK forces against ISIS and now it seems a coalition of US lead airpower is helping them, as well as their fellow Kurds in Iraq. It is likely that the Syrian Kurds will also need more weapons to help them hold back an expansionist ISIS so will these weapons be supplied by the West? This would be an intervention without the support of the Syrian regime, but ironically, it would support the aims of the Syrian regime against ISIS.
A week ago we saw the smiling face of unveiled female Kurdish fighters in Iraq on the front pages of the Fairfax papers. (http://www.theage.com.au/world/is-australia-arming-terrorist-pkk-fighters-20140915-10h8cc.html) The PKK is more political than religious, and religious extremism like you see in ISIS is rare amongst the Kurds. She was with the PKK, and the PKK and Turkish government have only recently reached a truce after decades of fighting which has cost the lives of thousands. We must remember that Turkey is a member of NATO, and so it would be difficult for the West to supply weapons to armed militias that have until recently been involved in armed conflict against the Turkish State. However the advent of ISIS means that survival trumps politics.
It is possible that if ISIS can be constrained, or even seriously depleted, then the Kurds in Iraq will be in their strongest position to claim de jure independence since 1920. Such a move would be provocative for Turkey and Iran, neither of which would want to recognise an independent Kurdistan as that would only encourage the minorities in their own countries. What will happen in Syria is a harder question, but if the Kurds can survive and hold back ISIS, it will make their bargaining position much stronger for a post war Syria.
Kerry Murphy is a Sydney solicitor who specialises in Immigration Law