The fight against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) over large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria captured by the terror group in its juggernaut expansion and declaration of the “caliphate” in 2014 will at some point be coming to a conclusion. And with that will come a new set of challenges for the region.
While the Iraqi Army along with its affiliates has orchestrated a major push from the south on the ISIS’s bastion city of Mosul, the Kurds have moved in from the north to close in amidst hope of permanently stamping out the structures of the Islamic State from the northern spheres of Iraq. The success of these operations, which have over the past few months started to show as ISIS dwindles, has also started to give the Kurds more impunity to push for one of their own long-standing demands, the declaration of the independent state of Kurdistan.
In the north of Mosul, not far from the capital city Erbil of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, the Kurdish forces fighting ISIS have dug-in deep and built trenches well beyond the territory that they currently govern, stretching more than 1,050 km in northern Iraq into land that was under the Iraqi Arabs before ISIS took over. According to reports, the Iraqi Kurds have orchestrated the takeover of this land as a standing policy being pushed by officials of the Kurdish government in Erbil. This is seen as spoils for the sacrifices made by the Kurds, known to be the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state, who have fought ISIS through thick and thin for a stronger push in post-ISIS Iraq on their long-standing call on the formation of a fully independent and sovereign state of Kurdistan.
Currently, Erbil is used not just by the Kurds but various militias that are fighting ISIS as a place to rest and replenish before going back to the frontlines such as in Mosul, Al-Bab and elsewhere The Kurdish fighters believe that many of the insurgents currently fighting in battle-hardened areas such as Mosul are in fact crime syndicates that have adopted the veil of the so-called Islamic State. Older groups such as Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and Jaesh-al-Mujahideen, who were always known as Daesh (the Arabic term for ISIS) perhaps pose the biggest challenge for the Kurds, and indeed the people of Mosul and adjoining regions have been confronting this challenge since long before ISIS.
As a result of the Kurds’ battle with ISIS, they have gained increasing amount of legitimacy amongst certain sections of the international order involved in the regional conflict. The Kurdish Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG), also known as the People’s Protection Unit, an infantry militia largely made up of Kurdish fighters, is known to be a “democratic” army that holds internal elections to appoint commanders. The YPG has its roots in the formation of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) in 2003 as one of the Kurdish opposition parties in the Syrian parliament. Today, perhaps as reward for its efforts against ISIS and for the interests of the Kurdish people, the YPG has official diplomatic missions in Prague, Stockholm and Berlin, and a new one in Moscow, with another in Paris planned for the near future. Analysts believe that Beijing could host the first such YPG mission in Asia.
Both India and China now have operating consulates in Erbil. In August of last year, New Delhi opened the doors to its official consulate in the Kurdish city, offering full consular services. Deepak Miglani, an Indian Foreign Services officer with prior experience of serving in other conflict hotspots such as Kabul and Kandahar in Afghanistan was appointed as the first consul general in Erbil. This not only expanded India’s diplomatic access in the larger Middle East region, which hosts more than 8.2 million Indians, but added an interesting aspect to India’s security outreach and validated the battles of the Kurdish forces against ISIS and its regional offshoots.
The autonomous government of Erbil has long been asking India to take a bigger presence in the region. New Delhi’s apprehensions had been warranted, as it did not wish to sour relations with Baghdad, which views the growing calls for autonomy from the Iraqi Kurdistan, specifically related to the production of oil, as in direct conflict to the interests of the central Iraqi government. Both New Delhi and Beijing have economic interests there as well, with China’s SINOPEC acquiring Addax Petroleum, which developed the Taq Taq oil field near Kirkuk. India has also previously bought oil from Kurdistan via Turkish companies and Mumbai based Reliance Industries Ltd in 2007 had invested in two oil blocks in Kurdistan, Rova and Sarta, only to sell majority stakes in both in 2012 after pressure from Baghdad.
Erbil has previously taken center stage whenever Indian diaspora in the region have been caught in the regional conflicts. In 2015, India launched a diplomatic effort to track down 39 missing construction workers who had reportedly been taken hostage by ISIS and have since then been known to have been killed, a claim corroborated via multiple sources (although the Indian government has yet to declare them as deceased). During that period, India sent its experienced Middle East hand and former Ambassador to Iraq, Suresh K. Reddy, to Baghdad and then Erbil in an effort to use contacts with former Ba’athist leaders from Saddam’s regime, some of whom are now high-ranking commanders in ISIS for regions such as Mosul and Tikrit. Other Indian diplomats with regional experience such as Sanjaya Rana and Arabic-speaking officer Abu Mathen George were also sent to Erbil, not only to help in gathering information about the missing Indians, but inadvertently also cement India’s narrative in the Kurdish region.
In 2014, during the peak expansion period of ISIS, the Kurdish Democratic Party’s then head of international relations, Heman Harwani, told India’s The Hindu newspaper that the “old Iraq is dead” and that the future perhaps holds a confederation of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish states or an out-and-out partition of the country. “We have to move forward now, and see India as an important partner,” Harwani added.
Indian Ambassador to Iraq George Raju’s visit to Erbil in May 2016 can be seen as a major move for India to gather a strong diplomatic foothold there. Last year, after the ambassador’s visit, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) sought India’s help for its war against ISIS. Falah Mustafa, the head of KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations called on India to assist the region with humanitarian aid and, perhaps more importantly, military assistance. Mustafa conveyed this to Miglani during his first briefing as Consul General. The Kurdish region is today home to more than 1.8 million refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDP) of Iraq from all walks of life.
However, with this recent Indian outreach to the Kurds, it begs the question: Is New Delhi is prepared to support the larger cause of the Kurdish people as well? This cause is in direct conflict with the position of the Iraqi government and of course that of regional heavyweight, Turkey. This latter views the Kurds as a greater long-term peril to its own interests than ISIS, which explains why Ankara turned a blind eye towards the terror outfit during its early rise, hoping it would confront Kurdish militias.
India has long maintained a balanced approached in the region. New Delhi is comfortable without much moral or ethical conundrum of who rules states in the larger Middle East region as long as its own large diaspora is protected. A sudden collapse, such as the one witnessed in Yemen recently where India orchestrated a large evacuation operation by air and water, is perhaps its biggest lingering headache. New Delhi has held good relations with all, whether it is Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria or Ayatollah Khamenei’s Iran. New Delhi’s base argument is not intertwined in any long-term “plan,” but on the principles of maintaining stability in the region, whether that is via dictatorship or democracy, so as to protect its 8 million plus people, their remittances to India worth more than $40 billion every year, and the security of India’s oil supplies, as it imports more than 70 percent of its requirements from abroad and most of it coming from the Gulf states and Iran.
It is extremely unlikely that India would any military aid to the Kurds in their fight against ISIS. However, it is more than probable that humanitarian aid in the form of medicines, tents, portable housing, food and other support could be initiated in the future directly with Erbil instead of going through the UN, specifically as ISIS’s hold on that part of Iraq rapidly dwindles and more so with the Development Partnership Administration (DPA), India’s answer to USAID and UK’s DFID, signing up with other agencies such as the U.S.-based Millennium Challenge Corporation to exclusively provide aid to third world nations. Beyond this, under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has also been proactive in marketing itself as a “friend” of poor nations, using the Indian Air Force as a soft-power tool by flying in aid to countries hit by natural disaster, from Nepal to Fiji.
India’s approach to the Kurds could mirror its approach in Afghanistan. While it is going to stay away from taking a stance on the issue of a Kurdish push for an independent state, it will provide developmental aid and projects in areas that will help build India’s image as a force of positivity and a country doing good for the people. This, then, automatically means that KRG’s calls for military assistance against ISIS will not find many takers on Raisina Hill. And that is a tried-and-tested foreign policy status quo India seems comfortable with in the Middle East.
Kabir Taneja is a journalist and researcher specializing in foreign affairs, energy security, and defense.