If after the World Cup anyone is looking for a new underdog worthy of support, I submit the Kurds as the most up-and-coming players of the geopolitical world.
The Kurds are the Middle East’s classic underdog story: a swashbuckling ethnic group numbering 30 million and residing in pockets of Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Left out of the twentieth-century nation-making due to a PR problem, the Kurds have been the favorite pin cushion of their respective governments. After decades of being used as pawns in geopolitical power plays, the Kurds have used the recent distraction of terrorists taking over Sunni Iraq to improve their real estate options.
The Kurdish Peshmerga army is the only fighting force that has successfully retaken Iraqi territory from the Sunni militant group ISIS. The Kurds have taken over much of northern Iraq, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. They plan to make the move permanent, said Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, at a news conference Friday:
Now it [the issue of Kurdish autonomy] is accomplished because the Iraqi army pulled out, and our Peshmerga forces had to step in. So now the problem is solved. There will be more no more conversation about it.
The Kurds are appealing because of their support for fellow disenfranchised Iraqis. Their proposed “Kurdistan” has been the only safe haven for half a million Mosul refugees, and especially native Christians.
Their protection of their fellow minorities has charmed the other major outcasts of the Middle East: the Israelis. In fact, Israeli media has freely declared its government’s support for their budding state. Haaretz reports:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday evening that Israel supports the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, where autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan is located today.
“We need to support the Kurdish aspiration for independence. They deserve it,” Netanyahu said in his speech at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
A few days earlier, President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman raised the issue in a closed meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.
The rumor is that Israel has been clandestinely supporting the Kurds for years as an “enemy’s enemy,” particularly in Iraq. The first public evidence of mutual good feeling came last week, when Kurds exported their first shipment of fresh Kirkuk oil to Israel via Turkey, according to Reuters.
That might intimate that Turkey will also let the underdogs come in for the night. No doubt the Iraqi Kurds are hoping that their oil at least will persuade neighboring governments to respect their autonomy. They know that events in Iraq do not necessarily mean a change for the Kurds of Syria or even Turkey. What the Iraqi Kurds do hope, however, is that after years spent suppressing the territorial ambitions of their respective Kurds, governments are now too busy with Arab factions to notice or care as the Kurds take a slice of Iraq.
When the World Cup is over, the Kurds will be the underdogs of choice, and they look like the only team that has a chance of winning in Iraq.