The battle for Mosul has begun. For the past two years, Iraq’s second-largest city has languished under the harsh rule of the Islamic State (ISIS). Now a combined force of Iraqi army troops, Shiite militias, and Kurdish fighters, backed up by a US-led coalition of more than sixty nations, is pushing forward to retake the city. The stakes are high. Dislodging ISIS from the city where its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared his “caliphate” in 2014 promises to be a formidable undertaking, given the ferocity of resistance so far. But if the coalition manages to restore Iraqi government control over Mosul, it will certainly count as a major blow to the ambitions of the jihadists—even if final victory over them is still a long way off.
So far the campaign appears to be going well. Yet its initial successes—to be expected, perhaps, in a situation where the attackers outnumber the defenders by more than twenty to one—cannot conceal the fact that the members of the anti-ISIS forces in Iraq have strikingly divergent interests. The United States and its Western allies are concerned above all with thwarting the Islamic State’s ability to stage terrorist attacks against them. Preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq, while important, is a secondary aim. The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is intent on restoring his government’s sovereignty over the country as a whole and reasserting, along the way, the dominance of the Shiite majority over a restive Sunni minority that, at least for a time, saw the Islamic State as a protector of its interests.
And then there are the Kurds. For the past twenty-five years, since a crucial intervention following the first Gulf War by the United States to protect them from Saddam Hussein’s killings, the 5.5 million Kurds of northern Iraq have been quietly running their own affairs. Currently some 40,000 Kurdish troops are taking active part in the effort to retake Mosul, and dozens have died since the operation began. But the peshmerga, as the Iraqi Kurdish militias are known, are not fighting to preserve Iraq. They are fighting to remove a major threat to their own homeland, the three northern provinces that make up the Kurdish Region of Iraq. The Islamic State, which is dominated by Salafist Sunni Arabs, has always regarded the Kurds as mortal enemies, and when the jihadists staged their surprise attack on Mosul in the summer of 2014, the momentum of their offensive brought them within just a few miles of the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. It took a series of hasty American air strikes to stop the jihadists from going further.
Since then the Kurdish region has shared an uneasy thousand-mile border with the territory controlled by the Islamic State to its south, and the Kurds are determined to put an end to this lingering security threat. There is an urgency to their mission. For the continued existence of the ISIS caliphate is, in effect, the last remaining obstacle between the Iraqi Kurds and their fondest wish: the creation of the first independent Kurdish state.
There are more than 30 million Kurds scattered across the Middle East, most of them in the four countries of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria—a circumstance that helps to explain the label they are often given—“world’s largest people without a nation.” The Kurds in all of these countries have endured various forms of persecution. And yet, as the Turkish journalist Amberin Zaman notes in her report “From Tribe to Nation,” “The Iraqi Kurds have endured far greater horrors and betrayal than any of their brethren across the borders.” The government of Saddam Hussein repeatedly subjected his Kurdish population to acts of genocidal violence, including, most notoriously, the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish communities in 1988. Every Iraqi Kurd has long and searing tales of trauma: childhoods spent in refugee camps, relatives dispatched to the anonymity of mass graves, villages razed to the ground.
The dream of a national homeland is one that all Kurds share, no matter where they currently live. For the past century—ever since World War I brought about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent creation of new nation-states that excluded Kurdish aspirations—they have yearned in vain. Yet now circumstances have conspired to bring the Kurds—or some of them, at least—closer to achieving a workable state than at any other time in recent memory.
To be sure, not all of the Kurds are equally well positioned to take advantage. The Kurds of Iran, who briefly enjoyed a self-governing state under Soviet tutelage after World War II, seem the least likely to strike out on their own, given the strength of the Tehran government and the relative weakness of the Kurdish nationalist movement. In southeastern Turkey, the goal of self-determination has long been pursued with particular ferocity by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has carried on a four-decade-long insurgency against the government in Ankara. After years of effectively denying the existence of the roughly 15 million Kurds within its borders, the Turkish state embarked on a policy of cautious rapprochement that culminated in the launching of peace negotiations in 2013. Last year, however, the war flared up again, prosecuted on the Turkish side by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had, for a time, pursued the peace process with more determination than any of his predecessors. The return to war, amid scenes of extraordinary destruction in Kurdish communities, makes the attainment of any sort of independence for the Turkish Kurds—a long shot under the best of circumstances—even less likely.
The situation in Syria, at least on the surface, offers more grounds for hope. The outbreak of the civil war in 2011 led to the weakening of government control over the Kurdish regions in the country’s northeast corner, and the Kurds there were quick to seize their chance. Over the past five years the Syrian Kurds have steadily built up formidable institutions of self-rule. In contrast to Iraq’s Kurdish region, however, the regions currently controlled by their Syrian counterparts contain large populations of Arabs and other minority groups, and their presence might well complicate an aggressive push for independence.
Even so, it is hard to overestimate the degree of international goodwill that the Syrian Kurdish forces have managed to acquire thanks to their muscular prosecution of the war against the Islamic State. Since the Assad government doesn’t seem especially keen on confronting the caliphate, the Kurdish-dominated forces have been supplying most of the fighters on the Syrian front of the war against ISIS. It is precisely for this reason that the Obama administration has recently begun directly supplying the Syrian Kurds with weapons. This would amount to an extraordinary departure from past practice, since providing arms would implicitly bolster the Kurds’ control over their part of Syria, and potentially bring them closer to independence—a prospect of which Washington policymakers have long been leery, since it would entail a fundamental redrawing of the borders of the Middle East.
Such caution is understandable. Yet US policy toward the Kurds will face a crucial test in the next few years—and it will almost certainly come from the Kurds of Iraq, who believe that their twenty-five-year experiment in self-government is approaching its logical culmination. The leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government, based in Erbil, have explicitly declared that they have independence in their sights. Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, has announced plans to conduct a referendum on statehood once the threat from ISIS has abated. Washington, meanwhile, doggedly maintains that nothing can be allowed to compromise Iraq’s territorial integrity, periodically warning its Kurdish allies not to test its resolve. In view of the long history of thwarted Kurdish aspirations, one has to wonder: When the day finally comes, will the Kurds really be willing to wait for permission?
As a people, the Kurds are magnificently contradictory. They have a sharply formed sense of identity, and yet their ethnic self-understanding allows for a dizzying diversity. Most Kurds adhere to the beliefs of Sunni Islam, yet there are also Kurds who profess Shiism, Christianity, Judaism, and radical secularism—not to mention ancient sects such as the Yazidis and the Shabaks. Moreover, millions of Kurds have, over the years, fled oppression at the hands of the nations in which they lived, creating a vast global diaspora. There are some 800,000 Kurds in Germany alone. (The largest concentration of Kurds in the United States is a population of some ten thousand in Nashville, Tennessee.)
Kurdish identity often delineates itself along linguistic lines. The Kurdish tongue—based on three rather distinct dialects—belongs to the Indo-Iranian language family, giving the Kurds a degree of cultural kinship with Iran. (Unlike the Turks and Arabs, the Kurds observe Newroz, the traditional Persian New Year.) Geography is also an important source of Kurdish self-understanding. The core Kurdish population has long been centered on the spine of mountains that reach from southeastern Turkey across northern Iraq and into the northwestern corner of Iran.
Some Kurds trace their origins back to the Medes, an ancient people who built an empire in what is now Iran and Iraq. Historians are inclined to doubt this, but it seems clear enough that Kurds have had a long presence in their region. Saladin, the leader of the Muslim armies who defied the invading Crusaders in the twelfth century, was a Kurd—though he gained fame as a religious and military leader, not as a representative of his ethnic group. The Ottomans recognized the Kurds as a distinct minority, even coining the term “Kurdistan.” The Kurds engaged in periodic uprisings against Ottoman rule, but their rebellions were almost always cloaked in the language of religious discontent. Like so many other peoples of the Middle East, they were relative latecomers to the modern idea of ethnic nationalism.
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire seemed, at first, to offer a perfect opening for a Kurdish state. The victorious Allies originally planned to carve a Kurdish homeland out of the old Ottoman territories, a Kurdish delegation having pleaded its case at the Paris Peace Conference. But the Turkish nationalist leader Kemal Atatürk had other ideas. His victory in the Turkish War of Independence thwarted the West’s plans for the partition of Anatolia, and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which endorsed his new Turkish Republic, scotched the idea of a Kurdish state by including a large chunk of Kurdish-populated territory within the new Turkish borders.
This amounts to one of the great ironies of history. As Michael Gunter writes in The Kurds, Atatürk had originally envisioned his new state as a mutual homeland for both Turks and Kurds, and Kurdish fighters had formed a large part of his forces. The first Turkish parliament included seventy-five Kurdish deputies. As the years went on, however, Atatürk began to narrow his vision of the new republic to a mono-ethnic state for Turks alone. Ankara’s policies became correspondingly repressive. Within a few decades merely acknowledging the existence of a Kurdish minority had become a criminal offense.
The Kurds in the new post-Ottoman state of Syria had it somewhat better, at least at first. But as Syrian democracy withered, to be replaced by the Arab national socialist ideology of Baathism, the state’s tolerance for ethnic difference evaporated. During the 1960s, the government came up with a novel approach to making its Kurdish problem go away: it simply denied citizenship to many Kurds.
To the east, the post–World War I settlement had created yet another new state, called Iraq, which had been cobbled together from three Ottoman provinces, to be ruled under a British mandate between 1920 and 1932. The British soon found themselves facing a major threat from the Kurds of the north, who launched a full-blown jihad against their colonial masters under the leadership of a charismatic chieftain named Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji.
One of his deputies, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, would go on to become a central figure in the twentieth-century history of the Kurds—a career that ran from an old-fashioned tribal revolt to a cold war–style national liberation struggle. In the mid-1940s Barzani found himself turning for help to the Soviet Union, which became his patron during his brief period as defense minister of the short-lived Kurdish republic in Iran in 1946. When it collapsed, Moscow granted him asylum until he was finally able to return to Iraq a decade later, where he continued the struggle against the increasingly intransigent regimes in Baghdad in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite these contortions, Barzani never quite managed to live down his origins as a traditional tribal leader. The organization he created in Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), remains to this day very much under the spell of the Barzani family.
Other claimants to leadership of the Kurdish independence movement soon appeared. Within Iraq, critics of the KDP’s ascendancy—many of them members of the rival Talabani clan—formed in 1975 a party of their own, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), setting the stage for a tortuous relationship that has, on occasion, been known to explode into outright warfare.
In Turkey, the increasingly harsh oppression of the Kurdish minority under successive military governments prompted the rise of another resistance leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who founded the PKK in 1978. Unlike its Iraqi counterparts, who remained beholden to their clannish origins, the PKK started off as a classic Marxist-Leninist party but with strong nationalist claims. Öcalan ran his party along rigidly authoritarian lines, and like so many of his revolutionary predecessors, he pursued and eliminated rival Kurds with even greater ruthlessness than he attacked his enemies in the Turkish military. His claim to ultimate leadership of the global Kurdish community invariably brought him into conflict with the Iraqi Kurdish parties—a feud that continues to shape the Kurdish question today. (Öcalan, captured in 1999, is still held in a Turkish prison.)
The Kurds became deeply enmeshed in cold war politics, something that had a great deal to do with the fateful geography of their homeland. Both Turkey (with one of NATO’s biggest armies) and Iran, vital US allies, shared borders with the Soviet Union; Iraq, increasingly controlled by its own particularly virulent strain of Baathism, found a natural ally in Moscow. The PKK accordingly received active support from various revolutionary regimes around the Middle East. It sent its fighters to train in East Bloc–sponsored camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley alongside a hodgepodge of other terrorist groups.
The United States was just as happy to exploit the Kurds for its own purposes—most infamously in the 1970s, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger backed the Shah of Iran, Washington’s most important regional client, in sponsoring an Iraqi Kurdish rebellion against the Iraqi government, by then well on its way to becoming a Soviet client state. Once the rebellion had achieved the Iranian aim of extracting concessions from Baghdad, the Shah, and Kissinger, cut off support for the insurgents, leaving them to face the full wrath of their enemies. Thousands of Kurds died in the reprisals that followed. It wasn’t the first time the Kurds were betrayed by their ostensible friends; nor was it the last. Their own propensity for factionalism didn’t help their cause. For much of the cold war they appeared powerless to break the curse of history.
The turning point came from an unexpected quarter. President George H.W. Bush, an old-school foreign policy realist, had no intention of supporting Kurdish self-determination when he set out to defeat Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War in 1990. But in the war’s aftermath, his administration confronted an appalling humanitarian crisis in northern Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of Kurds were fleeing retribution from Saddam’s forces. (Bush himself had called upon the Kurds and Shias to bring down Saddam’s regime, but then failed to offer the rebels air cover, leaving them at the mercy of Baghdad’s air force.)
The images of women and children suffering amid the snowy peaks excited a public outcry, and in April 1991 the United States, the UK, and France agreed to create a safe haven for the Iraqi Kurds. Operation Provide Comfort, as it came to be called, imposed a no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel, effectively preventing Saddam’s planes and helicopters from killing Kurds, and enabling the Kurdish militias to push Iraqi troops back out and reassert control.
They have never relinquished it. “The Kurdish safe haven was supposed to serve Washington’s Iraq containment strategy, a launching pad for the harassment of Saddam Hussein,” as Quil Lawrence writes in Invisible Nation:
But there was an unintended consequence: one of the most successful nation-building projects in American history. The Kurds held elections, set up their own social services, and started educating their children in Kurdish, not Arabic. They banned the Iraqi flag and the currency with Saddam’s face on it.
This nation-building effort continued apace after the US-led invasion in 2003. Ironically, Ankara’s refusal to allow US troops to cross Turkish territory on the way to Iraq compelled the Americans to seek other options for the northern prong of the campaign; the Kurds were only too happy to offer their support. Throughout the war the Kurds proved themselves conspicuously loyal allies of the US. While the rest of Iraq descended into a frenzy of war and sectarian chaos, the Kurdish region became for the coalition a secure and reliable hinterland (with a relatively stable economy). The Kurds are rightfully proud that the US military didn’t lose a single servicemember on Kurdish territory during the war. This goes a long way to explaining why the Iraqi Kurds have managed to build strong bipartisan support in both houses of Congress over the past fifteen years, which could prove useful when the issue of independence comes to a head.
Even so, Iraqi Kurds will need more than congressional goodwill if they want to turn their region into a state. Though they can probably defy the Iraqi government in a pinch, achieving independence with Baghdad’s acquiescence would certainly be more desirable than the alternative. They may already be on their way to getting it. Amberin Zaman, one of the sharpest observers of Kurdish issues, observes that the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi government have already created two committees to discuss the details of a possible divorce. She also points out that Baghdad and Erbil have worked out a resource-sharing agreement for the rich oilfields in the region around the disputed city of Kirkuk—just the sort of compromise that could accompany Iraqi Kurdistan’s separation from Iraq.
But what about the neighbors? Given their own restive Kurdish minorities, would the Turks, Syrians, and Iranians be prepared to tolerate a Kurdish proto-state on their borders? In fact, current indications are that Turkey, and to some extent Iran, may be willing to accept just this possibility. Much depends on the factional fault line that still divides the Kurds themselves. During the past decade, the Turkish government, fully aware of the bad blood between its own Kurdish rebels and their Iraqi rivals, has seen the wisdom of cultivating good relations with the Iraqi KDP as a way of undermining the Turkish PKK.1 There are also sound economic reasons for such a partnership, since Turkey has benefited hugely by serving as the main conduit for Iraqi Kurdish oil to global markets. An independent Iraqi Kurdistan, given its landlocked position, is unlikely to prove economically workable without some sort of access to global markets—but the Iraqi Kurdish leaders in Erbil have already signed long-term agreements with the Turks to ensure just this sort of access.
If all this sounds far too optimistic, Michael Rubin, in Kurdistan Rising?, has good reasons for pessimism, pointing to the many obstacles to Kurdish statehood—whether restricted to an Iraqi enclave or incorporating larger swathes of the regional Kurdish population. For all its successes, he writes, the Kurdish region of Iraq remains plagued by deep-seated pathologies. The collapse of global oil prices, coupled with the costs of prosecuting the war against ISIS and the influx of a huge number of refugees (1.8 million at last count, more than a third of the population), have sent the economy into a tailspin. Corruption remains pervasive at every level of government. Factional differences between the KPD and the PUK affect every level of administration, including the peshmerga themselves, who still answer to their respective party leaders rather than to the Kurdish government.2 The Kurds’ hard-earned reputation for relatively democratic governance has been undermined by the extension of emergency powers to President Barzani, who, citing the exigencies of the war, has remained in office long beyond his legally set term—much to the anger of the other parties in the Erbil parliament.
Rubin has a novel suggestion for future sources of Kurdish money. He suggests that the Kurds issue a symbolic currency “equivalent in value to the US dollar or European euro. In this, there is precedent in Panama and Timor-Leste, which utilize the US dollar as their currency for all practical purposes.” When it comes to the idea of a future Kurdish state achieving recognition by its neighbors, however, Rubin remains deeply skeptical—a view he shares with many other outside experts.
Rubin is entirely right to scrutinize these potential pitfalls. Creating a new Kurdish state is likely to be a highly complex affair in the best of cases. Yet it is also true that some new countries have started life under even less auspicious circumstances. As Zaman points out, Kurds have been waiting for a state of their own for a century—and they’re unlikely to go on waiting until conditions are optimal. “The ‘we are not ready’ camp cites the economic crisis, corruption, the lack of unity, and opposition from Iran and Turkey as the main obstacles to Iraqi Kurdish statehood,” she writes. “Yet, many of these issues will not be resolved by remaining part of Iraq.” The Kurds are already on the march. Their friends in the rest of the world—including the next US president—will soon have to decide whether they want to keep up.
—November 9, 2016
The intense Turkish suspicion of the Syrian Kurds, as evidenced by recent Turkish attacks on their forces, also has its roots in Ankara’s hatred of the PKK, since the main Syrian Kurdish party happens to be a PKK affiliate. ↩
For a recent analysis of this particular problem, see Bilal Wahab, “Trouble Brewing in Iraqi Kurdistan,” The Washington Institute, September 30, 2016. ↩