The Kurdish people are the largest stateless nation on earth. Spread out of the mountainous region that adjoins Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, they have been the primary victims of the state system that emerged in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s fall during the First World War.
The Kurds often say “we have no friends but the mountains,” a reference to their being abandoned, brutally suppressed and often betrayed by those around them.
Numbering roughly 28 million people, most Kurds are Muslim and speak several different distinct dialects. They have diaspora communities throughout Europe and to a much smaller extent in the Americas and Australia.
During and directly after the First World War many Kurds had dreams that the new order in the Middle East would result in a state of their own. Those hopes were dashed when the colonial powers carved up Iraq and Syria for themselves and modern Turkey was born. In 1946, Kurds briefly set up a Republic in Mahabad, Iran. It was crushed by the Iranians and it’s leader hung.
Fearful of the Kurds resistance, the countries they lived in sought to erase Kurdish identity and language. In Turkey, early governments didn’t even admit that Kurds exist, calling them “mountain Turks.” In Syria, they were denied citizenship and often couldn’t register Kurdish names or speak Kurdish. And in Iraq, Saddam Hussein subjected the Kurdish areas to extensive ethnic-cleansing and genocide, destroying thousands of Kurdish villages and killing up to 100,000 people. He used poison gas against a town called Halabja, killing 5,000 Kurds in 1988.
For many Kurds these were years of ultimate betrayal. The West ignored the crimes of the regimes they lived under.
During this time, they developed unique political parties, steeped in the 20th century’s Cold War period. Remnants of the Kurdish Republic in Iran, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan came to dominate Kurdish politics in northern Iraq. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and a variety of other organizations linked to it emerged, promising a more socialist and deeply secular vision for Kurdish life.
In the 1990s, after Saddam had been ejected from power, Kurds in Iraq obtained autonomy under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In 2003, that autonomy increased and the Kurdish region began to function almost like a state; it had its own flag, its own airports, and its own army called the Peshmerga.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, a peace process and the rise of a more Islamic Justice and Development Party led to greater rights for Kurds and their language.
The Arab Spring seemed to bring hope that Syria’s Kurds could achieve what had happened in Iraq. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its fighters under the People’s Protection Units (YPG) emerged as the strongest power in northeast Syria. The Assad regime, which had brutally suppressed Kurds, lessened its grip as it fought against a mostly Sunni Arab rebellion.
Everything was going well until June of 2014 when Islamic State (ISIS) began to roll into cities in Syria and Iraq. Armed with two divisions worth of surrendered Iraqi equipment, the Islamists overwhelmed the Iraqi army and was joined by thousands of Sunnis who resented Baghdad's Shia-dominated government.
Kurds in Erbil, the capital of the KRG looked on, surprised and bemused as the Iraqi government melted away. They thought that the extremists would head to Baghdad, Iraq would disintegrate and a Kurdish state would emerge. In Syria, the Kurds steeled themselves for battle as ISIS closed in on Kobane, a Kurdish city on the border with Turkey, and on the city of Hasakeh. Kurdish regions were overwhelmed by refugees, many of them minority Christians, and other groups such as Yazidis, who were fleeing ISIS persecutions.
On August 3rd, ISIS struck the Kurds in Iraq, throwing back thousands of Peshmerga and overwhelming the region’s defenses. For a moment in 2014 the world watched and wondered if the Kurds would survive the vicious onslaught. They not only survived, but with the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of men and women, they threw ISIS back.
By August of 2016, the Kurds in Syria and Iraq had emerged as the most effective fighting force against ISIS. They also created regions in contrast to those of their neighbors. Much of the Middle East has become dominated by increasing religiosity. Regimes like Iran police the manner in which women dress; they also excel at hangings and burning flags. In contrast, the Kurds have created more open societies, where minorities have found shelter.
In Turkey, however, a crackdown by the AKP-led government in the fall of 2015 led to open war between the PKK and the government. Many have been killed as cities and towns in Eastern Turkey have seen open battles. The Turkish government views the PKK as terrorists and believes the YPG and PYD in Syria are the same as the PKK. When Turkey intervened in the Syrian civil war on August 24th in the town of Jarabulus on the Euphrates, it was aimed at forcing the YPG back across the river and stemming the YPG’s advances. The YPG had been fighting ISIS and trying to link up with Kurdish forces in Afrin, a mountainous district in northern Syria. The Turks sought to hem in the Kurds and support Arab forces fighting Assad.
In Iran, Kurds remain hidden behind regime propaganda. Many boycott local elections and dislike the regime. But as Mustafa Hijri, the head of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) told me in July, they feel betrayed by the West. The US has done a deal with Iran, and forgotten about the Kurdish struggle for democracy and rights. The PDKI has been actively resisting the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and wants to raise awareness to the plight of Kurds, who activists are often hung and disappeared by the authorities. In contrast to the Iranian regime, where women may not attend volleyball matches or wear their hair as they please, in PDKI training camps, women peshmerga fighters dress as they please and serve alongside men.
In Iraq, Kurds have created an enviable and viable autonomous region. But they suffer a deep economic crises, and they bicker with Baghdad about the right to sell their oil. Around 95% of their budget comes from oil, but Baghdad has been taking revenues to use in the war effort and not distributing the 17% of the profits that are supposed to go to the region. So, since 2014, the KRG has been trying to sell oil via Turkey or Iran, to survive economically. As usual they run into the struggle with the international community, that often wants to work through Baghdad. In addition, Kurds in Iraq fear that after ISIS is defeated, Baghdad will turn on the Kurds and use Shia militias against them.
This means Kurds in Iraq have carved out better relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as a counterbalance to the Iranification of Baghdad. But that puts them at odds internally with the PUK and with the PKK and YPG who have bad relations with Turkey. This creates a combustible puzzle. Kurds are united on their love for Kurdistan, but the question of how that Kurdistan should look is not altogether clear.
The US has close relations with both the KRG and the YPG in Syria. US special forces serve alongside Peshmerga and in Syria alongside the YPG fighters. The US has trained two brigades of Kurds in Iraq under a program run by the Kurdistan Training Coordination Center of the Combined Joint Task For Operation Inherent Resolve. The idea is to make them battle ready to fight ISIS. Many Kurds in the Peshmerga come to the front on a rotating basis, with weapons from home and often with different uniforms they buy themselves. They are brave men, but training them has aided in saving lives by teaching them to do de-mining and others operations.
Unique among the region's groups, the Kurds have a special relationship with Israel.
Since the 1960s Israel has cultivated relations with Kurds in Iraq, including training and working with the fighters who resisted Baghdad suppression. This lasting relationship, as well as Kurdish fond memories of Jews who lived in Kurdistan, make it one of the few areas where people speak openly of relations with Israel. They see also that they share similar enemies, whether it has been Islamist fanaticism, or Iran’s militias, or Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad. The view is that those regimes in the region who sought to genocide and disappear Kurdish identity also sought to murder Jews.
As the war with ISIS winds down, the next step for the Kurds in Iraq and Syria will be taken. Some speak of federalism or independence. Both have ramifications on what happens in Turkey and Iran. The Arab spring may give away to a Kurdish spring, but much hangs on what the US and western governments will do and what regional powers, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia will choose.
Seth Frantzman is the Op-Ed Editor at The Jerusalem Post. Follow him on Twitter @SFrantzman