The Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without a state of their own. Since their best hopes for independence were dashed a century ago, they’ve lived as minorities dispersed across a handful of countries in the Middle East, subject to ill treatment by Arab- and Persian-dominated governments. Territorial gains by Kurdish fighters in the war in Syria and the overlapping battle against Islamic State in Iraq raised the possibility that an independent homeland was within reach for the Kurds. But with governments of the countries where they live adamantly opposed to a sovereign Kurdistan, those prospects have dimmed again.
The strongest push for statehood has come from Iraq’s Kurds, who in an October referendum voted for independence. In response, Iraq’s national government dispatched troops who retook territory beyond the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region that Kurdish forces had expanded into in 2014. The Kurds had moved into those areas, which included the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, after the Iraqi army fled in the face of Islamic State attacks. In Syria, the Kurdish force known as the YPG has been under periodic attack by Turkey. During the civil war and battle against Islamic State in Syria, the YPG gained control of cantons in the north and has been pushing to link them to create a contiguous zone of “self administration.” Turkey fears that the group’s advances will encourage separatism among its own Kurds and accuses the YPG of working hand-in-hand with Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, from which it is an offshoot. Turkish officials have strongly objected to U.S. support of the YPG. In 2015, Turkey resumed its fight with the PKK, which the U.S. and European Union consider a terrorist organization. That ended a three-year truce and reconciliation effort.
Numbering about 30 million, the Kurds are an Indo-European people who were traditionally nomadic. Mostly Sunni Muslims, Kurds have long had a reputation for military acumen; Saladin, 12th century vanquisher of the Crusaders, was Kurdish. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, dissolving the Ottoman Empire after World War I, established a path toward a Kurdish state. But the victorious allies scrapped those provisions in the final 1923 Treaty of Lausanne because of opposition from the newly formed Turkey. The freshly drawn borders of the region divided the Kurdish homeland between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Kurds have been discriminated against in those countries in a variety of ways. They’ve been stripped of their citizenship, excluded from some professions and barred from giving their children certain names. They have pushed for equal rights and autonomy over their affairs and periodically rebelled. National authorities have responded severely, with measures including expelling Kurds from their villages and, in Iraq, attacking them with chemical weapons. After the 1991 Gulf war, the U.S. and its allies created a safe zone in Iraq to protect rebelling Kurds from reprisals by Saddam Hussein’s regime, paving the way for Kurdish self-rule there.
Is a Kurdish state realistic? Not even the Kurds speak seriously of welding Kurdish areas together to form one united country anytime soon. There is no pan-Kurdish movement. Kurdish leaders are badly disunited, in part because regional governments play them against each other. Even without the Kirkuk area, oil could make a state in Kurdish Iraq economically viable. Before the rise of Islamic State, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s favorable laws attracted so many foreign investors, its capital Erbil was nicknamed the new Dubai. Yet the area is landlocked and relies on Turkey and Iran for trade routes. Both oppose the creation of a Kurdish state in Iraq for fear it would encourage their own Kurds to break away. The U.S. is also against the idea. It worries that Iraq would splinter further into Sunni Arab- and Shiite Arab-controlled areas, exposing minority groups to abuse. Iraq’s Kurds were accused of destroying Arab villages around Kirkuk in an effort to ensure the residents never returned.
The Reference Shelf
- A multimedia guide on the Kurds produced by the Council on Foreign Relations.
- A report by the International Crisis Group and an article in the Atlantic on current challenges faced by the Kurds.
- A report on the U.S. partnership with Iraqi and Syrian Kurds by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
- Related QuickTakes on the YPG, Iraq’s brittle nationhood, Syria’s civil war and Turkey.
First published Sept. 21, 2015
To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at firstname.lastname@example.org