Originally published: https://www.abc.net.au/religion/kurds-reliable-defence-partners-conflict-middle-east/103795512

01 May 2024 | Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)

In response to Israel’s strike on Iran’s consulate in Syria and the killing of Iran’s top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) cadres, Iran launched its first-ever direct aerial assault on Israel on 13 April 2024. Employing a swarm of 300 plus drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles, Iran aimed to overwhelm Israeli defence systems. Many of these projectiles, however, were intercepted with assistance from non-Israeli states and entities before they could breach Israeli territory and were neutralised by Israel’s aerial and anti-missile defences.

This incident underscores the imperative for a comprehensive reassessment of defence strategies in the tumultuous Middle East. The evolving landscape necessitates a nuanced approach to identifying potential allies and forging robust partnerships to address emerging security threats effectively.

The rise of Islamic State in the region prompted Western powers to forge alliances with regional states and other states across the world, recognising the imperative of collective action to counter the growing menace of terrorism. However, in addition to traditional state actors, there has been a growing recognition of the pivotal role played by non-state Kurdish entities in shaping the region’s security dynamics. These entities, although not formally recognised as sovereign states on the international stage, have emerged as formidable players on the ground, wielding significant influence and exerting control over strategic territories.

Despite not being internationally recognised as sovereign states, two self-governing Kurdish entities — Rojava (Western Kurdistan in Syria) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG, Southern Kurdistan in Iraq) — exemplify this phenomenon. Through their effective leadership, military capabilities, and strategic alliances, particularly with the United States, they have played a pivotal role in combating terrorism and stabilising conflict-ridden areas previously under the control of Islamic State.

While they have entered military agreements with the United States, these agreements lack the legal weight of formal treaties between sovereign states due to constraints imposed by international law. This legal ambiguity exposes these entities to vulnerabilities, leaving them susceptible to external interference and exploitation by regional powers.

Compromises have been made under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, allowing the United States and other Western nations to provide weapons, training, and other assistance in exchange for de facto basing rights and ground support. Yet, these arrangements offer no enduring assurances against invasions by other states — as evidenced by Turkey’s recurrent incursions into Rojava and occupation of parts of Kurdish territory since 2018, as well as the Iraqi government’s actions following the KRG independence referendum in September 2017.

Moreover, Iran’s missile strike on the KRG in January 2024, purportedly justified by the unproven presence of “Mossad secret bases” within KRG-controlled territory, further underscores this fragility. Another stark example is Iran’s assault on the headquarters of Kurdish opposition parties during the Jina uprising in 2022 and 2023, by means of suicide drones and missiles. These incidents perpetuate a pattern of aggression, underscoring the enduring security challenges facing Kurdish entities in the region.

The importance of recognition of Kurdish sovereignty

In the wake of the events of 13 April 2024, and the subsequent the downing of several Iranian drones and missiles over Southern Kurdistan, the Kurds could once again emerge as reliable partners in a new defence realignment. However, for such partnerships to be sustainable and effective, there is a pressing need for upgraded treaty alliances with the requisite security assurances and legal protections equivalent in stature to formal states.

The Kurdistani entities, pivotal and positioned at the forefront of defence partnerships, must not be susceptible to exploitation for the sake of advancing ad hoc American or Western objectives. This is particularly crucial given the possibility of a counterstrike against Israel following its attack on the heart of Iran. Providing assistance to all its allies in safeguarding themselves against armed assaults is beneficial for the United States. Extending such support aligns with the Kurds’ right to self-determination.

To fulfill this objective, acknowledging the de facto sovereignty of Kurdish entities is crucial. Despite lacking international recognition as sovereign states, their governments effectively govern their territories and populations, and have demonstrated the ability to engage in diplomatic relations with other states. Notably, the KRG hosts over 40 international diplomatic missions, including the United States consulate. Conversely, Rojava lacks recognition from the United States, despite military partnerships and ongoing efforts, supported by the US administration, to modernise oil fields through deals with Rojava’s self-rule authorities.

For the United States, engaging in negotiations for defence agreements with the Kurds is essential. Such treaties could encompass military assistance, training, intelligence sharing, and logistical support. Equally important is the development of long-term strategies for security cooperation and stability in the region, taking into account the unique circumstances and aspirations of non-state entities.

The Kurdish right to self-defence

Recognition also involves advocating internationally for the entity’s right to self-defence. This requires lobbying with countries sharing similar security concerns and engaging with international organisations to acknowledge the security needs of Kurdish entities. Forging strategic alliances with like-minded states or entities sharing common security objectives is essential. Leveraging collective resources and capabilities can address shared security challenges, enhancing defence capabilities and providing additional support in times of need.

Investing in building the defence capabilities of the entity is also paramount. This should include comprehensive training programs, technology transfer, and infrastructure development. While the United States has made significant advances in this area over the last decade, there remains a gap in aerial defence for both the KRG and Rojava’s governments. Adopting flexible ad hoc arrangements tailored to specific security threats or circumstances is essential for facilitating rapid response and cooperation during times of crisis.

Ultimately, comprehensive long-term defence strategies are necessary. These strategies must address the entity’s unique security environment, threats, and vulnerabilities while aligning with broader regional and international security frameworks.

Beyond transactional arrangements

While both de facto states of the KRG and Rojava have proven to be more dependable partners for the United States compared to Turkey, the latter, as a sovereign state and NATO member, present significant challenges, lobbying efforts at hindering the deepening of ties between the United States and Kurdistani governments. Despite having allies within key US government structures, Kurdish entities remain vulnerable to exploitation, lacking the long-term assurances enjoyed by NATO treaty allies. This dynamic has eroded trust in the United States among its allies and weakened its geopolitical standing.

In light of these complexities, any proposed defence realignment, if confined solely to transactional arrangements devoid of binding international treaties, risks further tarnishing the reputation and credibility of the United States on the world stage. While the hosting of US military bases within Kurdistani territories may confer tactical advantages — particularly in intercepting threats to regional stability and countering hostile actions directed at allies like Israel — the fundamental issue remains one of fostering enduring trust and reliability in diplomatic and security partnerships.

Dr Loqman Radpey is an independent researcher, based in Scotland. Over the past decade, he has written extensively about the legal status of the Kurdistan question and the application of international law to the right to self-determination of the Kurdish nation. He is the author of Towards an Independent Kurdistan: Self-Determination in International Law.