Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Do Homework Before Supporting Groups in ISIS Fight

| August 25, 2014

The developments in Iraq have once again brought up the issue of border in the Middle East. Some argue that the best way to put an end to the volatility in Iraq is to divide the torn country into three states: Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish. Others believe that the West should support the Kurds in its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The United States is showing its willingness to take steps to this effect by arming the Kurds. The Kurds are often viewed as the moderate entity among the three groups. Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, eager to benefit from Kurdistan's oil resources, showed support for its independence, creating a moderate state to align itself with Israel. But as the other key Middle Eastern puzzles of the past decade have shown, supporting a group, any group, in the region, is as difficult as guessing the color of an object blindfolded. Most recently, Libya, Syria, and Iraq itself have proven this point.

The Kurdish areas in the Middle East are mainly divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. These areas are under the control of the central governments of their respective countries, with varying degrees of independence. But these regions also communicate. Iranian Kurds, for instance, go over to neighboring Iraq for trade, entertainment, and other activities, communicating with the Kurds on the other side of the border. These regions share a language and, in addition to the media of their countries, also have access to Kurdish media. This means that ideas, both moderate and extreme, travel across borders in the Kurdish areas. This is and could also be the case in the future for extremist groups in the region.

There are a number of extremist groups throughout the Kurdish areas in the Middle East. They have not been discussed much in the West because of the lack of information on them. In Iranian Kurdistan alone, there are several groups, ranging from more "moderate" Islamist groups, to very radical ones. Their commonality is that they are all Sunni groups and do not try to appeal to non-Sunni Kurds, including Shi’a and Jews. They stem from the ethnic Kurdish movements, which involved religious leaders. Among these groups are Salafist groups, groups following the Muslim Brotherhood (Da’vat va Eslah), and more mainstream groups, such as Maktab-e Ghor’an. The Salafists are a group with a global network and ambitions and are an Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Central governments in the region, particularly Iran and Turkey, have effectively neutralized these and other similar groups, albeit sometimes at a price, and by using questionable methods. In the past, Turkey and Iran have cooperated to neutralize what they considered terrorist groups, such as the Kurdistan's Workers' Party (PKK). With the events in Syria and Iraq and the potential for other Kurdish extremist groups to feed into it, these two countries play an important role in maintaining the region's stability. However, while Iran has clearly chosen to directly counter the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), while clearly signaling its opposition to Kurdish independence, Turkey seems to be normalizing relations with Iraq's Kurds. The United States and other players should consider the potential implications of pushing for Kurdish independence for these groups and their potential empowerment.

These groups could influence the events in Iraqi Kurdistan and the empowerment of Iraqi Kurdistan without careful examination of its political and religious scene could backfire for actors that support it. This is especially the case for the United States, which has unintentionally, supported the creation and empowerments of several radical Islamic groups throughout the Middle East and beyond in the past few decades. This was because of a lack of understanding of these regions. Careful scrutiny of these regions, the various actors involved, both known and, especially, unknown to mainstream U.S. foreign policy, could prevent future similar faux pas. Cooperating with regional actors could allow the United States to better identify and understand these groups and make the right policy decisions.

The United States and several key regional states, including Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey may have very different interests, but they all have a shared interest in better understanding and working together to stop groups that dislike Americans as much as Jews, Persians, Shi’as, secular Muslims, and the Saudi monarchy. They should refrain from empowering and expressing blind support for a group or entity without fully understanding it first.

Khaled Sheykholeslami is an Iranian Kurdish Ph.D. Candidate at Iran's Institute of Social and Cultural Studies.

Ariane Tabatabai is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Follow her on Twitter @ArianeTabatabai


Statements and views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the authors and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sheykholeslami, Khaled and Ariane Tabatabai. "Do Homework Before Supporting Groups in ISIS Fight." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, August 25, 2014.

The Authors