So much can change in so little time in the Middle East.
In spite of this, the northern, Kurdish region of Iraq—a band of territory like a crooked crown atop its Arab motherland—has proved a beacon of growth and stability following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S.
While the Iraqi Government and its Kurdish counterpart—the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), ruled by President Massoud Barzani—have had ongoing disputes over territory, oil rights and autonomy, the two have, for the most part, begrudgingly endured one another.
Iraq has had its hands full since 2003. After the U.S.’s routing of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, focus turned to forming a new government, a constitution and new armed forces. An al Qaeda in Iraq insurgency morphed into sectarian warfare between militias of the Shiite majority and Sunnis, who claimed maltreatment by the Shia-dominated central government. When the U.S. left in 2011, Iraq’s security problems were compounded.
The Kurds, on the other hand, have been developing with few of the distractions south of the vague border that separates them from their Arab neighbors. With little fuss they absorbed hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced by the ongoing civil war to the west while the skylines of major cities like Erbil (the Capital), Duhok and Sulaymaniya sprouted high-rises and five star hotels. At the same time, multinationals like Exxon Mobile poured money in as oil extraction and production increased.
In June, that all changed. With the incursion by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into western Iraq, and subsequent territorial gains across much of the north, the calm of the past decade was no more.
As yet, it’s unclear how the new disorder will affect Iraq and Kurdistan, but tensions remain high as ISIS looks for new targets.
In July, with the Iraqi government and its military in disarray, talk of Kurdish Independence was as assured as it had ever been. A referendum was slated for the coming months. With a combination of opportunism and strategic savvy from Kurdish leadership, the long disputed and oil-rich city of Kirkuk fell back into Kurdish hands as did other territory along the border-cum-frontline with ISIS. Things were looking up for the Kurds.
In early August, however, the reality of what was becoming a broad and increasingly complicated affair hit home. ISIS came within 30km of Erbil and made sporadic attacks and incursions along the length of the front.
Tens of thousands of people from the Yazidi minority ethnic group were chased from their homes and besieged on nearby Mount Sinjar before being given sanctuary in the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq to the north. The same happened to Christians from Qaraqosh, Alqosh and elsewhere.
Schools and empty buildings in every major city are crammed with them. Muslims of the Shiite sect have not been spared either. Lines for gas have stretched for miles with supply roots cut, while the government itself—shortchanged of the seventeen percent of national oil revenue owed by Iraq and with little revenue coming from its own industry—is effectively broke.
The perception of security that the Kurds enjoyed—thanks to the fearsome reputation of the Peshmerga—has also proved fallible. The fighters gained their reputation in the mountains during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s and against Hussein after that, but they’re now old, ill-equipped and less effective on the plains than in the hills where their guerrilla tactics were born.
Without assistance from the air by the U.S. in August, things may have been very different on the wide boulevards of Erbil, just as it may have been for Iraq had air strikes not assisted in pushing ISIS off Mosul Dam.
The Kurds are walking a fine line. Their dream of independence has never been closer, yet, economically, they remain heavily reliant on a weak and vulnerable Iraq while the new threat of ISIS threatens across a 600 mile front line.
Things are changing quickly in Kurdistan.
*Story originally published by Newsweek.