KRG’s military help to Kobane from international relations perspective

By: Yoosef (Aso) Abbaszadah
2015-01-28 21:33:08

 The emergence of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) dramatically changed the balance of power in and outside Iraq especially after the 2003 regime change. The new constitution of Iraq, ratified by a popular referendum in 2005, gave formal recognition to the Kurdistan Region within a federal Iraqi state, thus causing many people to consider KRG as a semi-state. Given that the State is defined by characteristics such as the control of territory, provision of government institutions and use of coercion against its own population, could categorise the KRG if not as a sovereign state as a quasi-state. 

In a liberal interdependency context, the KRG has successfully established a vast network of international economic and political relations. Hence as the KRG is not a sovereign state, its controversial foreign engagement has been a hotspot in its relations with the central government of Iraq. The most recent of KRG foreign involvement in Syria in order to help Kurdish fighters battling ISIS in the Kurdish city of Kobane marked this action as an astonishing internationally approved non-state foreign military intervention. This extraordinary development in the region together with the fact that the KRG’s military forces known as Peshmerga did cross Turkish and Syrian borders to reach Kobane, has raised the question of how and according to what theory of international relations, could KRG’s foreign contribution including the recent intervention be explained and analysed.

Moreover, the ongoing ISIS attacks on Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan has deepened the complexity of the situation in the Middle East, especially when the Peshmerga forces, after negotiations, crossed Turkey and Syria’s borders to help the Kurds in Kobane. This intervention by a sub government, yet unrecognised by many actors, is a potential challenge to some of the accepted assumptions in international relations. 



The 2005 Iraqi constitution clearly allows the KRG to have foreign relations. The KRG established the Department of Foreign Relations (DFR) in September 2006 to conduct relations with the international community. Since then, the KRG has successfully established relations with regional and international states. This growing trend however has not been welcomed by the Iraqi central government and there have been ups and downs between Erbil and Baghdad. The Syrian civil war has deepened the existing fracture between the two governments as each sides with a different part of this crisis. The KRG despite its disputes with Baghdad and the complex regional political atmosphere could successfully cut across all the barriers to help its fellow Kurds in Syria in order to stop ISIS taking over the city of Kobane. 

ISIS attack and KRG involvement in Syrian conflict 

The Islamic State (ISIS) launched a massive assault on Iraq from its base in Syria in  June 2014. This development soon dragged the KRG into an unprecedented war to defend its territory in all the Kurdish inhabited areas of Iraq. The scale of insecurity that ISIS caused, pushed Kurdish officials to ask the US and most NATO members to back Kurdistan politically and militarily. 

ISIS also started a major attack on the province of Kobane in Syria in September the same year. The Syrian civil war had created a vacuum for the Kurds in Kurdistan of Syria (Rojava) to establish a semi-autonomous region ruled mainly by the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and Democratic Union Party (PYD). The ISIS offence caused the KRG to lobby the Americans to launch air strikes in order to prevent Kobani falling to Islamic militants. However, after nearly two months resistance by Kurdish fighters alongside US air strikes, there was no sign of an ISIS withdrawal. Fearing the fall of the city to ISIS as well as strong public pressure, the KRG lobbied the US and Turkey to allow Erbil to send Peshmerga forces and ammunition through Turkey to Kobane. Turkey, under pressure from America, agreed to co-operate. 

With this recent development in the fight against ISIS as part of the Syrian civil war, there is a major shift in Middle East politics, as Iraq expert and former UN advisor Gareth Stansfield said, KRG’s interventionist foreign policy is novel, specifically when it is in opposition to the policy of the central government in Iraq. He therefore, speaks of the existence of two foreign policy centres in Iraq: Erbil supporting the Kurds of Syria, and Baghdad backing the Assad regime.



Theoretical explanation

The KRG showing ability to intervene beyond its borders has raised questions amongst scholars of international relations and politicians who have an interest in Middle East politics. As a theory in international relations focusing on political entities sharing identity and values, security based co-operation and an economic interdependency, constructivism can explain and illustrate the KRG’s recent military action in Syria. 

In the context of this the Constructivism theory, states and other political entities such as regional governments, transnational bodies can co-operate with one another and attempt to form groups and coalitions sharing the same ideas, values and interests to face a common threat, widen common security measures to secure collective economic and political interests. 

Based on this theory the KRG has been establishing and encouraging a Kurdish identity discourse in educational, social, media and political arena inside Iraqi Kurdistan known as Bashur (the south). Far beyond the domestic level of establishing a national identity as explained above, the KRG has nonetheless, attempted to hold national congresses to enhance unity amongst all the Kurds, not only those of Iraq but the whole region. The Kurdish National Congress held in Erbil, was welcomed by most of the political parties, groups, individuals and organisations from all four parts of Kurdistan of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. This was an inclusive approach to an extraordinary identity-oriented national activity involving the Kurds of the whole region, illustrating that the KRG, whilst ignoring the risk of ethnic conflict in neighbouring states with their own Kurdish minority, is attempting to construct a national concept of identity.

Based on above theoretical grounds, there are separate but associated segments of identity between the regional and international actors that need to be highlighted to give a constructivist analytical explanation for KRG’s current military intervention in Syria.

•  The Iraqi central government has been backing Assad’s Shiite regime (Sharing religious identity)

•  Kurdistan Regional Government does not back Assad’s regime but fully supports the Kurds including with military aid (Sharing ethnic identity).

•  US government put pressure on Turkey to allow KRG forces to cross its borders (the US and Turkey share a common security as two members of NATO on the one hand, and US and Kurdistan being in a strategic alliance share regional interests on the other). 

•  Turkey’s co-operation with KRG, clearly illustrates an identification with Kurdistan (sharing Sunni religious identity encountering both Baghdad and Assad’s Shiite powers, and huge economic inter-subjectivity with the KRG).

•  The KRG could successfully lobby the Obama administration to extend the air strikes into Syria, particularly in the city of Kobane. The KRG’s capability to lobby the US government stems from a well-established relationship between the two sides. 

•  And finally, a collection of all the above actors stemming from transnational values such as human rights and defending innocent people against the common threat of ISIS, in this case, can be considered as a pathway to facilitate KRG’s military action in Syria. 

Considering the above picture, it is fair to argue that it is the Kurdish national identity that KRG’s leaders share with their brethren in Syria, alongside the shared security concerns of US-Turkey, US-KRG, US-Iraq and Turkey-KRG trade relations that made it possible for Erbil to take this successful action that contributed to the liberation of Kobane and created a strong sense of solidarity among Kurds. 


Source : Rudaw