The Making of the Kurdish Frontier: Power, Conflict, and Governance in the Iraqi-Syrian Borderlands

The Iraqi-Syrian borderlands remain a geopolitical hotbed even since ISIS's collapse. In the past few years, Kurdish forces along these lines have become a powerful lobbying force, unwilling to take a back seat as the region's future is decided. How did the Kurdish frontier on the Iraqi-Syrian borderlands come about and what's next for one of the most restless regions in the Middle East?
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Executive summary

Even after the collapse of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Iraqi-Syrian border continues to be one of the most geopolitically restless areas in the Middle East. In the last few years, various Kurdish entities and groups have increasingly shaped the dynamics across the northern section of this border. In particular, two dynamics deserve attention.

First, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria have come to effectively control new border crossings in this area as the Syrian government has lost access and the Iraqi government’s presence has been contested. This means that the movement of people and goods in this area is largely controlled by two entities that are neither state nor non-state actors. The reality on the ground reflects hybrid arrangements that have emerged as a result of the weaknesses of both central governments and the increasing autonomy gained by Kurdish parties (which, in the case of the KRG, is stipulated constitutionally).

Second, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), by virtue of its participation in the war against the Islamic State and taking advantage of the consequent power vacuum, managed to augment its influence along the border. Its ideological and organizational ties with local groups, such as the People Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) in Iraq, enabled it to exert security and political influence. On the one hand, this turned segments of the border into an arena for transnational, pan-Kurdish militancy. On the other hand, these groups’ presence intensified intra-Kurdish rivalries, especially between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is the KRG’s main ruling party, and the PKK. This rivalry reflects a clash of two visions for the border: the PKK’s revolutionary, transnational vision that seeks to eradicate or at least underplay the reality of the border; and the KDP’s pragmatic and territorial vision seeking to assert the border’s reality as a demarcation of the KRG’s authority and future statehood. In addition, the KDP is allied with Turkey, which has been fighting the PKK for several decades and is currently waging a military campaign against the group in northern Iraq and Syria.

To a large extent, the future of this border is predicated on this geopolitical conflict and whether the PKK manages to entrench itself further or becomes isolated and marginalized as the KRG, the Autonomous Administration, and the Iraqi federal government assert their territorial authorities.

What’s next?

Future developments in Sinjar and northeastern Syria will influence each other and shape the dynamics of the Iraqi-Syrian border. A number of scenarios are possible in this constantly changing region.

Scenario one:

The first likely scenario will occur if the Iraqi federal government manages to exert more control in its border districts and the KDP is able to restore some of its previous influence; this outcome may weaken the PKK and force local groups to further distance themselves from it.

Greater securitization of the border on the Iraqi side may weaken the links that the PKK nurtured between its bases in Iraq and in Syria. This scenario may have a greater chance of success if it is accompanied by the success of the U.S.-led efforts to distance the SDF from the PKK as a condition for continued U.S. political, military, and financial support. Doing so may hamper the revolutionary trend represented by the PKK, reassert the border as a fait accompli, and limit transnational forces’ ability to instrumentalize cross-border connections to serve their interests and revolutionary vision.

Scenario two:

The second, opposite scenario will occur if the Iraqi federal government and the KDP fail to reestablish control over this border section, or if the competition between them escalates again. The PKK would be able to take advantage of this opportunity to sustain its influence and underplay the reality of the border. Such a scenario would be more likely if the confrontation with Turkey escalates and
turns into a zero-sum game, which would bring the SDF and the PKK closer to each other.

Scenario three:

A third and more plausible scenario is a middle way between the two previous scenarios. The PKK will continue to have a presence in the area but it may have to contend with its already achieved goals and perhaps further embed its members in other existing factions while simultaneously maintaining a low profile. This approach may be helped by its increasingly malleable character as it attempts to adapt to new societal environments outside of Turkey. In this process, the PKK may become less relevant as the new administrative entity in northeastern Syria consolidates itself further, partly by emphasizing its local characteristic over transnational associations.

Undoubtedly, this process of reconfiguration will be affected by the roles, rivalries, and settlements of key international and regional actors in Iraq and Syria, primarily Turkey, Iran, the United States, and Russia. The United States is trying to maintain its commitment to the SDF, its main ally in the war against the Islamic State in Syria, as well as its alliance with the KRG, which is a partner in the war against the Islamic State and a host to U.S. military troops operating across the border. Turkey will continue to push for the reduction of Kurdish-controlled geography in Syria while seeking to uproot the PKK. Both the United States and Turkey agree on the need to expel the PKK as a necessary condition to legitimize the Autonomous Administration in northeastern Syria, or at least to stop the hostilities between Turkey (and its Syrian allies) and the SDF. If they used their leverage to that end, their efforts could help define the borders of the Kurdish areas in Syria more clearly and thus assert the reality of the border with Iraq. It is unlikely that Russia and Iran will oppose such an arrangement if it takes place within the framework of U.S. and Turkish acceptance of the Syrian regime as a reality on the ground, and perhaps compromises on other zones such as the southern section of the Iraqi-Syrian border, which both Iran and Russia seek to influence.
Such a broad geopolitical re-articulation will take time to materialize—if, indeed, it materializes at all—and will require the formulation of complex win-win equations for all or most of these parties.

If this path proves possible, the trajectory of normalization likely would overrule the PKK’s transnational, revolutionary vision in the ongoing process of the Iraqi-Syrian border’s reconfiguration.

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