The Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without a state of their own. Their shot at independence dashed a century ago, they have lived since as ill-treated minorities dispersed across a handful of countries. They’re the most reliable ground forces in the U.S.-led fight against the militants of Islamic State. They’ve used their victories in that conflict to establish control over their own enclave in Syria and to expand their virtual mini-state in Iraq. It’s not clear, however, that the Kurds are any closer to their dream of an independent homeland. Impediments include internal divisions as well as the opposition of Iran, the U.S. and Turkey, which has resumed a harsh campaign against Turkish Kurds and is fighting Kurds in Syria too.
As Islamic State jihadists try to erase the Mideast’s borders, Kurds have seized the chance to refashion the region to their own liking. In Syria, Kurdish forces have created cantons in the north which they have been seeking to link by expelling Islamic State from territory populated mainly by ethnic Kurds as well as predominantly Arab lands. Turkey, which fears those gains may inspire similar ambitions among its own Kurds, began shelling the Syrian Kurdish fighters in February. It escalated its involvement in Syria in August by sending tanks across the border to enable Syrian rebels to take the town of Jarablus from Islamic State militants, at the same time deterring further advances by Syria's Kurds. Turkey argues that the Kurds are coordinating with Russian and Syrian forces against Syrian rebels backed by Turkey and its allies. The Turkish government had earlier resumed its fight with Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which the U.S., European Union and Turkey consider a terrorist organization. That ended a three-year truce and reconciliation effort. The Kurds’ position is most secure in Iraq, where the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq has been emboldened by the weakening of the central government by Islamic State’s assaults. When the Iraqi army deserted Kirkuk in 2014, Iraq’s Kurds took parts of the oil-rich city and its environs and now control significant oil exports. Their leaders have vowed to hold an independence referendum.
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. 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. Already Iraq’s Kurds have been accused of destroying Arab villages around Kirkuk to ensure the residents never return.
The Reference Shelf
- A multimedia guide on the Kurds produced by the Council on Foreign Relations.
- A report on implications of the Kurds’ fight against Islamic State by the International Crisis Group.
- A report on the U.S. partnership with Iraqi and Syrian Kurds by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
- Related QuickTakes on Iraq’s brittle nationhood, Fighting Islamic State, Iraq’s oil, Syria’s civil war, Turkey, al-Qaeda’s heirs and jihad.
First published Sept. 21, 2015
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