Demystifying the Kurds

The Kurds are a Middle Eastern national group with a history going back centuries. They inhabit areas of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Between these territories, the Middle East is home to 15–20 million Kurds. During the Muslim conquest of Persia and the Arabization of much of the Middle East, they fiercely resisted conquest. Eventually, however, the Kurds were subjected through a series of surrenders by individual Kurdish feudal lords. Despite having converted to Sunni Islam after these events, the Kurds never considered themselves to be Arabs. In fact, they speak one of a number of Kurdish languages, rather than Arabic and Persian which are so prominent in the region.

In the following centuries, the Kurds did have a number of nominally autonomous political entities. However, like Bohtan for example, they were always under control of the Ottoman Empire or another caliphate. The only notable Kurdish polity which existed during this time was the Ayyubid dynasty of Kurdish origin. It was one of the many sultanates which controlled a large part of the Middle East. However, it was thoroughly Arab, not Kurdish, in nature.

During the late 19th century, a rise in Kurdish nationalism coincided with similar movements in Europe. The Ottoman Empire, which controlled the vast majority of the Kurds at the time, cooperated with the more moderate of these nationalists (the Committee of Union and Progress) in their quest for autonomy. After WWI, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Treaty of Sèvres opened up the possibility of an independent Kurdish state. However, objections, primarily on the part of Persia and the newly-formed Republic of Turkey, made this a geopolitical impossibility (with the exception of a number of small, nominal Kurdish states which existed immediately after this treaty was signed).

In the modern era, the Kurds have been divided between the countries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran/ Persia. In each of these states, the Kurds have received vastly different treatment. In Turkey, the Turkish government considers them to be Turks, and refuse to give the Kurds rights as a minority (but still consider them to be equal citizens). The situation in Iran is nominally better, with major politicians recognizing the Kurds as an independent people (without an political autonomy of course). In Syria, there is an independent de facto Kurdish state, Rojava. However, it has no recognition from the weakening central government in Damascus.

Finally, there is Iraq, which experienced a dramatic shift in its treatment of the Iraqi Kurdish minority. During the eight-year long Iran–Iraq War, the Kurds mostly supported Iran. Because of this, Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq at the time, punished the Kurds with persecution and even government-orchestrated massacres. However, following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Iraqi Kurds have been given the Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region within the rebuilt Republic of Iraq.

Today, the Kurds are mostly noted for their fight against ISIS. However, this is oversimplifying the situation on the ground. There are many Kurdish political parties, and two major armed militias: the Peshmerga and the YPG. The Peshmerga is a highly organized military under the control of Iraqi Kurdistan. It heavily supported by the United States and was said to have played a critical part in the capture of Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, the YPG is the slightly less organized militia of Rojava. It is closely affiliated with the PKK, a Kurdish militant group operating in Turkey. Because Turkey is an American ally, the United States distanced itself from the PKK and the YPG.

Although hopes remain high for an independent Kurdish state, it is unlikely to happen any time soon. Iraq and Syria may be in shambles, but Iran and Turkey, where the rest of what is supposed to become Kurdistan is located, are regional powers which are unlikely to give up pieces of their territory an time soon. In addition, there are far too many Kurdish factions, some of which are in direct opposition to each other. It would take a gargantuan effort to get them to negotiate, let alone sit together in a democratic government. However, Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava are likely to gain more independence when the Syrian Civil War and the associated conflict in Iraq come to an end.