Op-Ed: Will Kurdish Statehood Upend the Middle East?

In this Sept. 25, 2017, image provided by Rojava Photo, Kurds in Qamishli, Syria, wave their parties' and Kurdistan flags as they celebrate after the Iraqi Kurds in Irbil held an independence referendum. Baderkhan Ahmed, Rojava AP
In this Sept. 25, 2017, image provided by Rojava Photo, Kurds in Qamishli, Syria, wave their parties' and Kurdistan flags as they celebrate after the Iraqi Kurds in Irbil held an independence referendum. Baderkhan Ahmed, Rojava AP

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker.

On Sept. 25, the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq announced that 92 percent of voters had backed a referendum to seek independence from Iraq.

Some 70 percent of Kurdistan's voters went to the polls. Significantly, the referendum was supported by followers of both Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), and his main political rival, Jalal Talabani.

The referendum did not call for an immediate separation of the KRG from the rest of Iraq, nor did Irbil indicate that it was contemplating issuing a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Iraq.

Kurdish leaders have long advocated independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. The referendum confirmed what had long been suspected, that Kurdish voters were strongly in favor of independence.

The referendum came almost four years after Syrian Kurds had declared the creation of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, most commonly called Rojava or Western Kurdistan.

The region is made up of the cantons (provinces) of Afrin, Jazira and Kobani, as well as adjacent areas of northern Syria. While the region is predominantly Kurdish, there are also large populations of Yazidis, Assyrian Christians, Turkoman and Syrian Arabs.

There are now two incipient Kurdish states, one in Syria and one in Iraq, that are moving toward independence.

Is this the beginning of the fulfillment of the long-held Kurdish aspiration of a Kurdish state? Or will the Kurdish referendum become a pretext for a new round of fighting between the Kurds and the Turkish-Iraqi-Iranian coalition that is coalescing against them?

Turkey, Iran and Iraq have all moved to isolate the Kurdish Regional Government in Irbil. Air service has been suspended and some roads have been closed.

Russia has expressed its opposition to an independent Kurdistan but is also hedging its bets.

The U.S., despite its de facto alliance with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds in combating the Islamic State, has also expressed its opposition to an independent Kurdish state.

In the meantime, Iraqi military forces and their associated, Iranian-backed Shia militias have taken up positions across from the Kurdish-controlled Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

While in Syria, Turkish forces, that have repeatedly clashed with the largely Kurdish-manned Syrian Democratic Forces, continue to threaten an all-out war against Syria's Kurds to roll back their territory along the Turkish-Syrian frontier.

The Tortured History of the Kurdish State

The Kurds are a Middle Eastern ethnic group, numbering somewhere between 30 and 45 million people, who are mostly found in a contiguous mountain region across southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq and northern Syria.

These four regions are referred to by Kurds respectively as Northern Kurdistan (Turkey), Eastern Kurdistan (Iran), Southern Kurdistan (Iraq) and Western Kurdistan (Syria). The entire region is described as Greater Kurdistan.

Approximately 14 to 20 million Kurds are found in eastern Turkey; 8 to 12 million in Iran; 5.5 to 8.5 in Iraq; and 2 to 3.6 million in Syria.

In addition, there are approximately two million Kurds living outside the Kurdistan region. Over half of those live in Europe, with the overwhelming majority in Germany, and the rest are scattered around the world in a modern Kurdish diaspora.

While ethnically the Kurds are considered an Iranic people, and while the various Kurdish languages appear to have been derived from the same roots as Farsi, the exact origin of the Kurdish people remains unknown.

In antiquity, the region around Lake Van in southeastern Anatolia was referred to as the "Land of Karda." Sumerian clay tablets refer to a people called the Qarduchi and Qurti that inhabited the same region. Whether this is the origin of the term Kurd or whether these ancient peoples have any relationship to modern-day Kurds is unclear.

The term Kurd first appears in Arabic sources in the 7th century. The expression referred to a variety of nomadic western Iranic tribes that were ethnically and linguistically different from Persians. In wasn't until the 12th century, however, that a recognizable Kurdish ethnic identity began to emerge.

Starting in the 9th century, a succession of Kurdish states emerged, centered on the region today called greater Kurdistan, and expanding to incorporate broad areas of the Middle East including Iraq and modern-day Iran.

Under the Ayyubid dynasty, which was founded by Salah al-Din (Saladin), an ethnic Kurd, and that lasted from 1171 to 1341, the Kurds controlled an empire that stretched from Egypt to southern Anatolia and included the northern portions of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Ayyubid dynasty fell to the Mongol invaders in 1341. Much of the Kurdish region eventually ended up as part of a new Persian kingdom until the Ottoman Sultan Selim I defeated the Persian Shah Ismail I and annexed western Armenia and Kurdistan.

The region would be fought over between successive Ottoman and Persian rulers but, for the most part, the Kurds would remain part of the Ottoman Empire for the next four centuries.

A Kurdish national movement began to develop in the late 19th century. In 1880, a Kurdish uprising over the issue of political autonomy or outright independence was put down by Ottoman and Persian forces. The Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid also responded by co-opting prominent Kurds into his government.

The original division of the Ottoman Empire, negotiated by British diplomat Mark Sykes and French diplomat George Francois Picot (Sykes-Picot Agreement), envisioned the creation of an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Anatolia.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson also strongly supported the creation of a Kurdish state at the Versailles Peace Conference following the end of World War I.

The Treaty of Sevres, signed in 1920 by representatives of the Ottoman government and the four principal Allied powers, also envisioned a separate Kurdish nation. That treaty was subsequently rejected by the Grand National Assembly of the Ottoman Empire.

The treaty triggered what Turks call the Turkish War of Independence. The Turkish Army, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, defeated the allied forces then occupying Anatolia. A new treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne, was negotiated in 1923, to replace the rejected Treaty of Sevres.

The provision for a Kurdish state was dropped in the Treaty of Lausanne, which formally ended the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Allied powers. The treaty also marked the creation of the Republic of Turkey and preserved the historic area of Anatolia for the Turkish state.

This period was marked by heightened Turkish nationalism and by the ethnic cleansing of large areas of eastern Turkey of its Armenian and Kurdish inhabitants. Turkish nationalists had accused Armenians and Kurds in eastern Anatolia of openly siding with Russian forces during the war.

While this was largely true of the Armenians, roughly 200,000 of whom served as adjuncts to the Russian army, it was less true of the Kurds. Largely Kurdish Hamidiye regiments had fought loyally for the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

Forcibly Removed

Starting in 1916, and continuing until 1920, some 700,000 Kurds were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands in parallel with the displacement of the region's Armenian population.

Roughly half of the Kurds died because of their deportation. A significant number ended up in Syria. What has been called the Armenian genocide was as much Kurdish, though smaller, as it was Armenian.

Kurdish revolts occurred in 1925, 1927-1930 and 1937-1938 in eastern Anatolia. In 1927, with support from Great Britain, Kurds in eastern Anatolia declared their independence and established the short-lived Republic of Ararat. The republic was eventually overrun by Turkish forces in 1930.

There were also independent Kurdish enclaves in Iran during the 1920s. These were eventually suppressed by the government. After the end of the Second World War, the Soviets set up the Kurdish self-governing, Republic of Mahabad in northwestern Iran.

The republic collapsed after six months, however, after the USSR withdrew its military forces from Iran. The establishment of the Republic of Mahabad is often cited by historians as the beginning of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

A kingdom of Kurdistan existed in northern Iraq from 1922-1924, before it too was suppressed.

Following the Baathist takeover of Iraq, frictions over Kurdish nationalist ambitions led to outbreaks of violence that continued intermittently from 1960 on. From 1960 through 1975, Kurdish militia forces led by Mustafa Barzani engaged in protracted fighting against Iraqi forces.

His son, Masoud Barzani, is the current leader of the KDP and the president of the KRG.

During the 1950s, Turkish Kurds moved into the political mainstream and became increasingly integrated into Turkish society. This development stopped after the Turkish military coup in 1960.

Starting in the 1970s, Moscow began to actively fund the development of a Marxist-inspired Kurdish nationalist movements. In 1978, with the Kremlin's support, Abdullah Ocalan founded the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK).

Since 1984, the PKK has led an armed insurrection, with brief interludes of peace, against the Turkish government. The PKK officially abandoned its Marxist-Leninist roots in the 1990s, but has still maintained close ties with Russia.

The U.S., along with its NATO allies, has branded the PKK a terrorist organization.

Civil War

Concurrently with the Iraq-Iran war, there was also a civil war between Iraqi Kurds and the Baathist government of Saddam Hussein.

The campaign against the Kurds saw the destruction of more than 2,000 villages and the killing of more than 180,000 Kurdish civilians. The fighting included the use of poison gas by the Iraqi military, most notably against the town of Halabja. Five thousand civilians died in that attack.

During that war, Tehran gave financial and military support to Iraqi-based Kurdish groups, such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which were fighting against the Baathist government. It also gave asylum to more than 1.4 million Iraqi refugees, most of them Kurds.

In turn, Saddam Hussein gave aid to the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), an Iranian-based Kurdish group seeking autonomy from Tehran. The conflict between PJAK and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp persisted until a ceasefire was agreed to in 2011. Sporadic clashes have continued.

On April 5, 1991, U.N. Security Council Resolution 688 condemned the repression of Iraq's Kurdish population and established no-fly zones above the 36th parallel for Iraqi aircraft. The no-fly zone was enforced by a U.N.-sponsored coalition led by the U.S.

Although Syria has a long-standing Kurdish population, many of the Kurds in Syria are relatively newcomers -- the result of post-World War I migration from adjoining Turkey and Iraq.

The Baathist government in Syria has long discriminated against its Kurdish population, forcing an Arabization of the Kurds and their communities. Violence broke out in 2004, and continued intermittently until the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War.

Because of the collapse of the Syrian government's authority during the ongoing Syrian Civil War, Syrian Kurds were eventually able to take control of a large area of northern Syria along the Turkish border from Islamic State militants.

In 2013, they declared this area independent as the state of Rojava (Western Kurdistan).

The Kurds and Islamic State

The conflict between the Kurds and the Islamic State began in 2013, when forces from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacked three Kurdish enclaves that bordered its territory in northern Syria.

The attacks continued for almost a year and were successfully repelled by the Popular Protection Units (YPG) -- the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD). The PYD had been organized and in part funded by the Turkish PKK.

In June 2014, ISIS militants crossed the border into Iraq and rapidly overran a large area of western Iraq along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys.

The collapse of the Iraqi Army, and the subsequent ISIS seizure of the city of Mosul, prompted the Kurdistan Regional Government to dispatch Peshmerga militia to the city of Kirkuk before ISIS forces could take control of that city, as well as surrounding areas that had been abandoned by the Iraqi Army.

At the end of June 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the creation of the Islamic State. A short lull followed, but in August, ISIS jihadists launched an offensive against Kurdish held areas in northern Iraq.

The Peshmerga were forced to withdraw and ISIS militants captured several towns, most notably Sinjar, inhabited by a religious sect called the Yazidis. Thousands of Yazidis were either killed or captured as a result. Many of the captured Yazidis, especially women, were later sold as slaves.

In response to the ISIS advances and the genocidal threat they posed to the Yazidi communities, a U.S.-led multinational coalition began launching airstrikes in northern Iraq.

The U.S. also dispatched military advisers to help the Peshmerga. The YPG and the PKK also dispatched soldiers to assist the Peshmerga. This was the first time that Kurdish militia units from Turkey, Iraq and Syria had fought together.

In mid-September, ISIS militants launched an assault on the Kurdish town of Kobane along the Syrian-Turkish border. The attack forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee to safety across the border to Turkey. It also prompted the U.S. and its allies to expand the air campaign against the Islamic State to Syria as well.

Aided by U.S. air power, Kurdish forces, including Peshmerga units that had been dispatched by the Kurdistan Regional government, regained control of Kobane in January 2015.

Over the course of 2015, the U.S. government attempted to identify and train so-called moderate elements among the various Syrian Arab militias that were fighting the Assad regime. Eventually, after spending a reported $500 million, Washington abandoned the effort.

In the meantime, Syrian-Kurdish militias were reorganized as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multinational force consisting of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrian Christians, Turkoman and Yazidis, although the makeup of the SDF was still predominantly Kurdish.

Aided by American air power, arms and advisers, the SDF had considerable success in clearing a narrow strip of land along the Turkish-Syrian border of ISIS militants -- in the process, also disrupting the supply and smuggling routes used by ISIS militants to bring jihadists and arms into Syria.

The SDF's success reached a tipping point when they reached the east bank of the Euphrates and besieged the ISIS-held city of Jarabulus on the opposite bank.

In addition to straddling a major smuggling route from Turkey into the ISIS' Syrian heartland, Jarabulus was also only roughly 50 miles from the predominantly Kurdish province of Afrin in western Syria.

Alarmed by the prospect of a Syrian Kurdish enclave along its border declaring its independence, Turkish forces intervened to create -- with Turkish-sponsored, Syrian Turkoman militias -- a Turkish-controlled buffer between Afrin and the eastern bank of the Euphrates.

Ankara insisted that SDF forces not be allowed to advance west of the Euphrates and pressured Washington to rein in the SDF.

Initially, U.S. Special Forces were visibly deployed between Turkish and SDF forces, to try to prevent any outbreak of fighting between the two sides. Later, Moscow, with U.S. support, brokered an agreement that saw the SDF pull back and have their positions assumed by Syrian Army units.

The maneuver had the added effect of boxing in Turkish military forces and preventing them from participating in the advance on Raqqa or on Deir ez Zor.

Currently, the SDF continues to hold the regions that have been incorporated into Rojava, and continues to turn over territory captured from ISIS in predominantly Syrian Arab regions to local Arab officials.

In Iraq, the original area under the administration of the Kurdish Regional Government -- the three provinces of Irbil, Duhok and Sulaymaniyah -- has expanded as a result of the Peshmerga's seizure of areas that were abandoned by the Iraqi army in June of 2014 -- most notably Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields.

Additionally, areas that had been liberated from Islamic State militants along the periphery of Iraqi Kurdistan have led to de facto control over parts of Diyala, Nineveh and Kirkuk provinces.

The immediate point of contention is Kirkuk. Although the city has deep cultural and emotional significance to Iraqi Kurds, it was never part of the original Iraqi Kurdistan. Moreover, the oil wealth that surrounds it makes it a valuable prize regardless of whatever cultural significance it may have for Iraq's Kurds.

Irbil has dispatched approximately 6,000 heavily armed Peshmerga soldiers to positions around the city of Kirkuk. The deployment was triggered when the Kurdish government accused Baghdad of massing Iraqi forces, including Shia militias, to seize the Kurdish held oil fields around that city.

Kurdish leaders have consistently claimed that they will not give up control of Kirkuk.

According to Kurdish officials, the Popular Mobilization Forces -- paramilitary units dominated by Iranian-trained Shia militia -- have also been massing fighters in two mainly Shia Turkoman areas south of Kirkuk to provoke a confrontation with Peshmerga forces.

The Geopolitics of Kurdish Independence

On the surface, Turkey and Iran, historic rivals in the region, have aligned themselves with Iraq in opposing Iraqi Kurdistan's bid for independence.

Moscow and Washington have both voiced their opposition to the Kurdish referendum and to Kurdish moves for independence.

Beneath the surface, however, the maneuvering that is taking place is much more complex.

First of all, and most importantly, it is difficult to speak of Kurds as a homogenous group.

To begin with, there are five distinct groups of Kurdish languages. Although all of them are ultimately derived from the same roots as Farsi, today they are largely unintelligible to each other.

For example, the Kurmanji dialect spoken in the north (Turkey and Syria) is as different from the Sorani dialect spoken in the south (Iraq) as German is from English.

Moreover, the different languages employ different scripts. Kurmanji is written in the Latin script and is spoken in Turkey and northern Syria, while Sorani is written in Arabic script and is spoken predominantly in Iraqi Kurdistan and Kurdish Iran. The two written languages are indecipherable to each other's readers.

Religion-wise, many Kurds are Sunni, although they follow the Shafi'i legal code, unlike the Turks and Arabs in the area who largely follow the Sunni Hanafi legal code.

There are also a significant number of Shia Kurds in Iraq, however. The two groups are separated by both religion and language since the Sunni Kurds largely speak Sorani, while the Shia Kurds speak Zaza.

In addition, there are also Christian Kurds, Jewish Kurds, Sufi Kurds and Yazidi Kurds.

Politically, there are significant differences between and within the various Kurdish communities.

The PKK in Turkey, for example, has often had conflicts with both the KDP and the PUK.

The Iraqi Kurds fought a bitter civil war between the supporters of Barzani's KDP and Talabani's PUK.

Additionally, tribal loyalties still run deep and often trump national allegiances. There are more than 100 different Kurdish tribes in the region.

Their loyalty to any government is largely a function of the prevailing patronage network. If money runs tight and that patronage disappears, so will tribal loyalties to the current government.

In short, moves toward independence by Iraq's and Syria's Kurds notwithstanding, there is little likelihood of any move toward a Kurdish "Greater Kurdistan" emerging any time soon.

That does not mean that Syria's and Iraq's Kurds may not move toward their own independent state or that such moves might not encourage similar moves among Kurds in Turkey or Iran.

But a Kurdish homeland that would unite all the Kurdish peoples of the Middle East is simply not tenable now.

Ankara is opposed to Iraqi Kurdistan's independence, fearing that it would further encourage Turkish Kurds' demands for more autonomy, if not outright independence. It could also further spur Syria's Kurds on the road to independence.

Any kind of union between the Syrian Kurds (Rojava) and Iraqi Kurdistan is highly unlikely, however.

The unanswered question is whether the Iraqi Kurds would intervene if Turkey found itself in open conflict with the Syrian Kurds.

The terrain of Rojava is largely flat. Syria's Kurds would have a hard time opposing a full-fledged invasion of Turkish armor and mechanized units in this environment.

Both Washington and Moscow have been ambivalent about whether they would support the Syrian Kurds in an all-out conflict with Turkey, although both have discouraged Ankara from pursuing that course.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has openly called for the closure of the Ceyhan pipeline to Kurdish oil exports. Since those oil exports represent the bulk of Irbil's revenues, such a closure would crush Kurdistan's independence hopes.

On the other hand, Turkey is a major investor in Iraqi Kurdistan. The region is also Turkey's second-largest export market. The Ceyhan pipeline moves around 120,000 BOPD from Kurdish oil fields to the same named Turkish port. The pipeline is profitable for Turkey, as well as offering an alternative oil supply to what it gets from Russia.

Ankara has cultivated a relationship with Irbil since it gives Turkey leverage in Iraq and helps it counter Iranian influence there. It also gives Irbil pause about the amount of support they want to give the PKK. Turkey wants to squash Kurdistan's ambition for independence but still retain its influence there.

Like Turkey, Iran wants to discourage its own Kurdish community from any aspirations of autonomy or independence, although, on the whole, the Kurdish population in Iran is better integrated into Iranian society than their Kurdish cousins elsewhere.

It's unclear whether the Iraqi army could handle the Kurdish Peshmerga forces without the support of the Iranian-controlled Shia militias. Kurdish moves toward independence strengthen Iran's position in Iraq and Baghdad's dependence on Tehran and the militias it controls.

Moreover, Tehran wants a direct road link between Iran and its Syrian and Lebanese allies. A route through the Sunni heartland of Iraq is likely to attract repeated attacks by Sunni jihadists. A northern route through territory currently controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government would be easier to keep secure.

Baghdad's agenda towards Irbil is straightforward. First, Baghdad wants to regain control of those areas outside of Kurdistan's original boundaries; in particular, Kirkuk and the oil fields that surround it.

Moreover, a successful move toward Kurdish independence would likely spur similar moves toward a separate, independent Sunni state in western Iraq. While the Sunni regions do not control any significant oil deposits, Baghdad will fight to maintain the integrity of the Iraqi state.

Russia's position is equally complex. On the one hand, Russia's Rosneft is a multi-billion-dollar investor in Kurdistan's oil sector. Russian President Vladimir Putin has argued against the suspension of Kurdish oil shipments to protect Rosneft's investment.

Notwithstanding Turkish-Iranian collaboration in thwarting Irbil's independence hopes, ultimately Ankara and Tehran are rivals in the Middle East.

That puts Moscow in the cat bird's seat in mediating between the two rising regional powers.

Moreover, Russia's influence with Turkey ultimately puts it in a strong position to mediate between Turkish and Syrian aspirations and ultimately with the future of Syria's Kurds.

While Washington still has some say in these deliberations, it is being increasingly marginalized by Moscow.

Washington's position on the developing Kurdish situation has been vague. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned the referendum vote and called the outcome illegitimate.

On the other hand, the U.S. is continuing to support SDF forces securing the Islamic State's capital of Raqqa. As of Oct. 15, close to 90 percent of Raqqa had been liberated by the SDF and hundreds of ISIS militants were surrendering to them.

Washington's biggest concern is to maintain Kurdish support for its war against Islamic State, while at the same time holding together the anti-ISIS coalition.

The SDF has emerged as a proxy for U.S. boots on the ground and would be impossible to replace. In Iraq, the Peshmerga have proven to be a reliable military force and have played an important, if less visible role, in rolling back Islamic State forces.

The dilemma for Washington is that Turkey is a rising power in the Middle East -- one that seems increasingly willing to go it alone and that acts as if it is no longer dependent on the U.S. or NATO for its security.

The U.S. wants to keep its influence in Ankara. Moreover, the U.S. effort against the Islamic State is heavily dependent on continued access to military facilities in Turkey, especially Incirlik Air Base.

Ankara seems determined to force Washington to choose between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, a choice that Washington would prefer to defer for now.

Kurdish aspirations for independence threaten to unbend the fragile alliance that was formed to defeat ISIS. The Islamic State is on the verge of defeat, but the alliance created to destroy it is already threatening to unravel.

Although a greater Kurdistan state is not in the cards, it is likely that Syrian and Iraqi Kurds will continue to push for even greater autonomy, if not outright independence.

Those aspirations will make unlikely allies of Iran and Turkey and, at least in the short term, will continue to give the Kremlin opportunities to expand its regional influence, while complicating U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East in general and American-Turkish relations in particular.

Latest Developments

On Oct. 16, units of the Iraqi Army supported by various Shiite militias moved into Kirkuk and took control of the city and the surrounding oil fields.

According to witnesses, the flag of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which had been flying at government buildings in the city, was taken down and replaced by the Iraqi flag.

The KDP claimed that the swift takeover of the city had been facilitated by the sudden withdrawal of Peshmerga units loyal to the PUK, as a result of a secret agreement reached by the PUK with the government of Prime Minister Abadi.

Peshmerga units loyal to the KDP maintained their positions but, other than for a few isolated instances, did not resist the advance of the Iraqi army and were subsequently withdrawn. At last report, Peshmerga units in the area appeared to be returning to Iraqi Kurdistan.

The KRG also claimed that the attack had been planned and led by Quds Force officers. They also contended that Iranian soldiers and officers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were imbedded in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that had participated in the attack on the Kurdish positions.

There have been persistent claims that some of the Shia militias in the PMF are being led by IRGC officers.

In a related development, a militia unit comprised of Yazidis claiming to be loyal to the Baghdad government took control of the village of Sinjar.

Over the course of Oct. 16 and 17, there were additional reports that Iraqi units were moving to take control of Kurdish-controlled areas outside of the official boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan. The extent of their progress, however, could not be confirmed.

In the meantime, the Trump administration signaled that it would not get involved in the ongoing dispute between the KRG and the Iraqi government.

On Monday, the SDF announced it had secured control of the Islamic State capital of Raqqa.

Symbolically, the last ISIS flag that had still been waving over the city was taken down late Monday evening.

Sporadic fighting was still going on in the city center, however. It is not clear whether the SDF will continue its advance into ISIS-controlled territory.

The developments this week are a striking defeat for Kurdish plans to control any territory beyond the original boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan.

What impact it will have on Kurdish aspirations for independence is unclear. It underscores, however, that the rest of the international community will not support Kurdish independence.

What is equally clear is that KRG President Barzani and his government massively overplayed their hand.

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