With this week’s spotlight on Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and their successful advance against the Islamic State, we chatted with interruptor, Cale Salih, a Project Manager at the Institute for Integrated Transitions, to break it all down for us.

Since graduating from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, she has been working as a political analyst and multimedia journalist focusing on the Middle East.

Salih was a Middle East and North Africa Fellow for the International Crisis Group for two years, based in Beirut and Cairo. She subsequently served as the Video Editor at Al-Monitor, an online newspaper covering the Middle East, and as the Senior Syria Analyst at Integrity Research & Consultancy based in Beirut. She has also worked as an Editorial Fellow at The Atlantic, and has written op-eds on the crisis in Syria and other reported pieces for various publications.

Fun fact: She has a pony-sized Bernese Mountain Dog puppy named Hugo.


FPI: For people who are just tuning in, who are the Kurds?

The majority of Kurds inhabit contiguous corners of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Smaller populations exist across northern Syria, and in other countries such as Georgia and Lebanon. They speak an Indo-European language distinct from Arabic and Turkish, and similar to Farsi. They are mostly Sunni Muslim, but tend to prioritize ethnic over religious identity in defining their politics. They are also the largest stateless populations in the world.

Ever since European powers denied the Kurds a state after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kurdish leaders in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria have been fighting for self-rule. Some Kurds have come closer to realizing it than others. In Iraq, an autonomous Kurdish region exists in full force, complete with its own Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), security forces, and economy. In Syria, the Kurds are an active player in a complex civil war, establishing de facto autonomy amid the confusion. In Turkey, however, a growing number of Kurds are opting to work with the state instead of seeking self-determination, pinning their hopes on a problematic but promising peace process between Ankara and the rebel Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Tehran frequently represses expressions of Kurdish political and cultural identity, and an Iranian Kurdish insurgency linked to the PKK ebbs and flows.

Many Kurds dream of an independent Greater Kurdistan. But links among the four Kurdish regions are weak due to political and linguistic differences. Most Turkish, Syrian, and many Iraqi Kurds speak one dialect of Kurdish (Kurmanji and its variants) whereas most Iranian and many Iraqi Kurds speak another one (Sorani and its variants). The dialects are so different that their speakers often cannot understand one another. Moreover, a political rivalry between Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and Turkish Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, head of the PKK, shadows all four regions. Both Ocalan and Barzani buttress Kurdish proxies in other countries, namely Syria, and use them to compete with one another. This overarching division, among other smaller ones, incapacitates Kurdish ties across borders.

As such, an independent Greater Kurdistan is not on the horizon. Only in Iraqi Kurdistan is a fully independent Kurdish state actually politically and economically feasible. Since 2003, the KRG has steadily gained control of Kurdish oil, unilaterally signing deals with foreign oil companies over Baghdad’s objections, and building a pipeline to Turkey. With a promising economy and carefully balanced political relations with regional powers, the Kurds have built the only stable, secure, and Western-friendly region in Iraq. But even then, independence is not an easy course to pursue.

FPI: What does the Islamic State’s advance in Iraq mean for them? 

ISIS’s advance into Iraq – and into Syria, for that matter – spells bad news for Iraqi Kurds. Despite the KRG’s advances, the region will always be bound by its geography. Iraqi Kurds now face the reality of neo-caliphates rising on two of their borders – with Iraq and with Syria. ISIS’s ideology is diametrically opposed to what the KRG has built – a largely Western-friendly and secular region that is generally tolerant of religious minorities in the Middle East. The group has proven its determination to target Kurds in both Iraq and Syria. Dozens of Iraq Kurds have joined jihadis in Syria – young men who may return home and pose security risks there.

FPI: You’ve written that while Kurds have long yearned for an independent state, Kurdish people have more to gain from remaining part of a stable Iraq. Why is that so?

Independence is a risky strategy. Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors, in particular Iran and Turkey, are opposed to the idea, fearing that their own restive Kurdish populations may be inspired by the Iraqi Kurds’ example. Washington is obsessively insistent on a unified Iraq, partly out of fear that deconstructing the region’s borders would start a messy process that would eventually require their intervention. Without international support, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would be economically and politically isolated, and even more vulnerable to threats like ISIS. Moreover, Iraq potentially has a lot to offer the Kurds. Iraq is potentially one of the most oil-rich countries in the world, and the KRG is in theory entitled to 17% of the country’s revenue. That 17% is currently not coming through due to a longstanding dispute between Baghdad and Erbil over oil management, but that could change – especially if politics start to shift in Baghdad under the new prime minister. Also, borders matter less and less in today’s Middle East. Secession is a dream that holds a lot of emotional pull in Iraqi Kurdistan. But practically speaking, most Kurdish leaders realize that they would benefit more from maintaining an extensive degree of autonomy, and leaving the door open to being part of Iraq’s economy.

FPI: You’ve also written that the Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government is “pursuing a dual track policy: bargaining to stay part of Iraq on more advantageous terms while also developing the option of secession.” Sounds tricky. How do you think that will work out?

It will definitely be tricky. But of the two options, I think secession is the trickiest. The Kurds have proven to be adept at establishing facts on the ground, and then simply waiting for Baghdad to get used to them. Their ideal situation is one in which they can stay part of Iraq on terms that allow them to act as a federal Iraqi region and as a de facto independent state, depending on which is more advantageous in a given situation.

FPI: How is the international community — and the press — getting these recent events wrong?

The hardest thing about understanding and analyzing the Kurds is trying to get all the Kurdish factions straight. It involves a bewildering list of acronyms that refer to various patron and proxy parties. The factions relevant to these recent events can roughly be divided into three groups: those affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), an Iraqi Kurdish party led by Masoud Barzani; those affiliated with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurdish group led by Abdullah Ocalan; and those affiliated with one of the two Sulaimani-based parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, and the Change Movement, led by Nawshirwan Mustafa. Barzani and Ocalan are rivals espousing competing models of Kurdish nationalism. The third group maintains ties to both the KDP and the PKK, and at times plays a balancing role between the two. The KDP leadership is considered to be relatively close to Ankara, with which it has built an important economic relationship, and the PUK leadership is seen as being somewhat closer to Iran, with which it has a historical relationship.

It’s totally confusing, but also totally essential to understanding the recent events. In the coverage of the story of the US arming the Kurds to aid them in the fight against ISIS, Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters have often been confused with Syrian, Turkish and Iranian PKK-affiliated fighters. This is problematic because by treating the Kurds as a monolithic group, one overlooks the fact that the Kurds who are taking on the bulk of the fighting against ISIS are actually not the ones who are (officially) receiving US support. PKK-affiliated fighters, battle-hardened from their experiences fighting jihadists in Syria, are securing key victories against ISIS in Iraq, and have aided in the rescue of thousands of civilians who were trapped on Mount Sinjar. Despite the PKK-affiliated fighters’ role, the US officially only works with the Iraqi Kurds. Washington designates the PKK as a terrorist group due to its decades-long war with the Turkish state.

FPI: What is your favorite thing about Kurdish culture? 

My favorite Kurdish cultural traditions can be found in the Kurdish parts of Turkey. The food in majority-Kurdish areas such as Mardin, near the Syrian border, is spectacular – it’s Kurdish food heavily influenced by Syrian mezze and Turkish grills. Diyarbakir is in particular famous for its breakfasts, which can include up to 20 different dishes.

FPI: Any readings or film recs for people interested in learning more? 

Susan Meiselas’s book, Kurdistan, In the Shadow of History, is a stunning photographic history of the Kurds. Joost Hiltermann’s book, A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq and the Gassing of Halabja, is an incomparably thorough study of the Iraqi state’s use of chemical weapons on the Kurds in 1988, a tragedy that today still stands at the forefront of the collective Kurdish memory. And Zaid al-Ali’s book, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, is totally indispensible to understanding how we arrived at this mess in Iraq today. For shorter readings, I would recommend the International Crisis Group’s reports on Kurds in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. And finally, Iraq Oil Report is a great source for all things oil-related.

FPI: Any advice for young and fellow interruptors?

Develop meaningful relationships with analysts/journalists who you admire. If you can, find a mentor!