2014 proved a remarkable year for Kurdistan that will long serve in the memory and echo for many generations to come.
Kurdistan started the year on a historic footing with oil flowing, stored and read to sell via its new oil pipelines to Turkey. It completed a symbolic quest for self-sufficiency and opened a new chapter in its strategic standing with first oil exports a few months later in May. It finished the year on the attack against the Islamic State (IS) after breaking the siege of Mount Sinjar, just a few months after IS threatened to knock on the doors of Erbil.
These two events demonstrate the turbulence and emotional journey of Kurdistan in the last 12 months.
Independent oil exports were a significant stride for Kurdistan. It threatened to cut the last remaining umbilical cord with Baghdad. The first half of 2014 was tainted with much of the same relations with Baghdad – disagreements, distrust and marginalization policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Relations with Baghdad turned so sour that Maliki effectively launched an economic siege on Kurdistan, withholding budget payments.
Iraq may have held national elections on April 30th 2014 but any sense of unity or reconciliation amongst Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds was as distant as ever. Maliki’s State of Law coalition may have won but for the Kurds a third term for Maliki was a firm red line.
The Kurds themselves took several months after parliamentary elections to form their own government owed to changing political realities on the ground.
The real game changer undoubtedly came in June. IS, already prominent in parts of Anbar province, launched a whirlwind attack on Mosul, Tikrit and surrounding areas leaving Iraqi security forces in disarray. As IS took over town after town, not to mention oil installations and vast amounts of heavy weapons, it made mockery of US President Barack Obama’s assessment of groups such IS as minor players just six months prior.
Iraq was shaken with IS threatening to break down the door to Baghdad. The Kurds quickly assumed the security vacuum in Kirkuk and other disputed territories as IS forces closed in. It may have been far from an ideal scenario, but the lands that Kurds failed to get in 11 years of diplomacy and political jockeying, were swiftly in Kurdish control in merely hours.
Add to Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani’s public declaration to hold a referendum and independence never felt so close.
If Maliki’s days were already numbered, then the IS onslaught laid to rest any faint chance of retaining premiership. Such was the frayed relations with Kurds, that even under immense pressure and with Shiite militias effectively the last barrier between IS and Baghdad, Maliki resorted to launching a fierce tirade at the Kurds accusing them of hosting IS and other insurgents.
The Kurdish borders were no longer with Iraq but with the Islamic State. As IS seemed determined to head south, Kurdish forces became complacent and events thereafter will live in the memory much like other atrocities against the Kurds.
The Kurds, caught off-guard, were overrun in Sinjar and several other towns. Religious minorities were already the subject of widespread atrocities after the initial IS invasion in June, but what was to follow shocked Kurdistan and world. Thousands of Yezidis were slain with thousands of women taken captive, not to mention the thousands more that died in harsh conditions on top of Mount Sinjar under searing heat and threat of IS.
IS didn’t stop at Sinjar as it quickly took Zumar, Makhmur and threatened the very doorsteps of Erbil.it was at this moment that IS was no longer a regional problem that could be ignored. It became an international crisis and an international dilemma, even if the Kurds bore the brunt of the battle.
With threat of humanitarian catastrophe increasing by the day, the US and its allies finally intervened in August, a campaign that was later extended to Syria in September, helping Kurdish forces push back heavily armed IS forces.
The first casualty of US intervention was the end of Maliki. An already reluctant US was not going to intervene without their own preconditions for fractured Iraqis.
The struggle and determination of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces received wide coverage across the globe. US and European powers soon felt compelled to supply key arms to the Kurds.
Now the Kurds were at the forefront of the battle against IS that continues valiantly and with much sacrifice to this day. Syrian Kurdish forces were already engaged in deadly battles for many months before, but the latest battle for Kobane was a much different prospect. Surrounded on 3 sides, it was coalition airstrikes that gave much needed relief to Kurdish forces even as Turkish tanks on the border stood and watched on.
So iconic and defining was Kobane for Kurds across the border that it even threatened the end of the peace process in Turkey with the PKK.
The deployment of 150 Peshmerga to help Syrian YPG forces was symbolic in that it eroded borders of Kurdistan as Kurds in Syria, Turkey and Iraq came together.
With such widespread media coverage of Kobane, the bringing together of Kurds across the region and not mention regional and international players involved, Kobane transformed the regional dynamic.
Kurdish forces in Rojava received much acclaim as a bastion against IS in Syria as ties with the US slowly blossomed, much to the annoyance of Turkey whose relations with the US were already strained over Syria.
What 2015 brings for the Kurds is unclear. But top of the list of wishes is the end of IS, protection of their communities and renewed peace. Either way, 2014 will long echo in the history of Kurdistan.
First Published: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.