As a coalition of Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia targets Shiite Houthi forces and their allies in Yemen, Iraqi Kurds are watching with concern and caution, wondering how the repercussions of the region’s deepening sectarian conflicts might affect them.
Sandwiched geographically between opposing Shiite and Sunni regional powers such as Iran and Turkey, Iraqi Kurds wonder how long until they are dragged into the unfolding regional hostilities.
“If the struggle reaches its pinnacle and leads to an even deeper polarization, Kurds might be forced to become part of it,” said Muthana Amin, a member of the Iraqi parliament from the Kurdistan Islamic Union. “If Kurds become part of this struggle, then we will be serving outside agendas and will end up empty-handed.”
In recent years, Kurds have shown signs of division in face of regional polarization. The eruption of the Syrian revolution in 2011 divided the largely united Iraqi Kurds regarding the Kurdish response to Syrian events. The two major Iraqi Kurdish groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), appeared to be aligning themselves with opposite regional camps.
The KDP, led by Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, adopted a pro-opposition stance, as did most of the Sunni states in the region, from Turkey to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The PUK, led by former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, refrained from supporting that policy and has been seen as closer to the Iran-led camp.
While most other regional actors possibly chose allies based on sectarian identities, Iraqi Kurdish politics are hardly defined in terms of Sunni-Shiite affiliations. In fact, both the KDP and PUK are heavily dominated by secular elites.