By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
The history of the Kurds, a minority ethnic group in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, dates back approximately 3,000 years to the ancient Persian kingdom of Medes and Persians. The Kurds claim they are descendants of the Medes and traditionally live in the mountainous regions of their homeland.
While the Kurdish faith originally was Zoroastrianism, most Kurds today are Sunni Muslims. There are also small communities of Kurds who are Jews, Christians and Bahais. Kurds are essentially not Arabs, who view their faith somewhat differently than their Sunni and Shia Arab neighbors. The breakdown of Kurds across the region today is essentially as follows: Turkey 13 million; Iran six million; Iraq four million; Syria (and Lebanon) one million.
Historical Difficulties in Establishing a Kurdish Nation-State
After the First World War, the Treaty of Sevres delineated how the old Ottoman Turkish Empire would be divided. The treaty was pro-Kurdish and allowed for a Kurdish referendum on a homeland in Turkey, but the newly minted Turkish Republic rejected the treaty and the planned referendum.
From 1918 to 1990, the Kurds waged insurgent campaigns to gain a homeland. All of those insurgencies were put down forcibly and with increasing repression of the Kurdish minority across the region.
In modern times, the Kurds have been oppressed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq as well as during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The Hussein regime killed approximately 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds during the al-Anfal campaign in the 1980s, often with the use of poison gas. The Iranian Revolution allegedly executed 1,200 Kurdish political prisoners.
Due to the history of oppression and their unique cultural attributes, the Kurds have long dreamed of a separate Kurdistan.
Kurdish Nominal Autonomy and Political Progress
The U.S.-created “no-fly zone” after the First Gulf War (1990-1991) established nominal autonomy within the Kurdish-dominated portion of Iraq. In 1992, a coalition of Kurdish political interests created the Iraqi Kurdistan Front and subsequently the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
These actions led to the construction of a regional secular nation-state in league with other parts of Iraq. It had its own Kurdish parliament, military force (the Peshmerga), established borders and a Kurdish foreign policy.
One of the interesting facets about the Kurdish forces is their ready acceptance of women fighters, particularly in the People’s Protection Unit or (YPJ). Women have been very active in fighting ISIS in Syria. Another unique facet of the Kurdish people is their support for Israel, which is reciprocated in kind by the Jewish state.
The Kurds also support the Yazidi “Sun Brigade” in the fight against ISIS. The minority Yazid population was the victim of genocide under ISIS.
It is important to remember that the Kurds are loosely federated across the Middle East and that one party, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), fought a bloody internal conflict in Turkey from 1978 to 2013 before a ceasefire was declared. There are many factions within the loose Kurdish regional federation. As with many other countries, their politics can be truly byzantine, but the factions have one common goal – the creation of a Kurdish state.
Iraqi Kurdistan conducted a referendum on autonomy on September 25, 2017, and the results were overwhelmingly in favor of a Kurdish state. However, the Baghdad government is adamantly opposed to a Kurdish state in Iraq, in part because the oil-rich city of Kirkuk is in Kurdish hands.
The only state to support the Kurdish move for independence is Israel. A Kurdish state would give Israel a real and militarily strong ally in the region. The lengthy diaspora of the Kurds to establish a homeland of their own strikes a familiar chord with Jews around the world.
The Trump administration has not supported Kurdish independence, perhaps because the U.S. has backed both the Kurds and the Iraqi government in recent years. Some Middle East observers believe that U.S. decision was a mistake. The Kurds have been staunch allies and brave fighters willing to work with the United States for some years now.
Kurdish Support against ISIS
In 2014, the Iranian regime, perhaps proving the old adage that, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” began supporting the Kurds against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The religiously liberal Kurds and the hardline Muslim Iranians seem to be a strange pair.
However, the leadership in Tehran, ever pragmatic, may have concluded it is better to fight ISIS in Iraq or Syria than in its own country. Since then, the U.S. has provided support for the Kurds and views them as a major force in the fight against ISIS.
The YPJ has been instrumental in driving ISIS out of strongholds in northern Syria. The combination of U.S. airpower and the effective military operations of both the YPJ and the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) operating in coordination resulted in reclaiming Raqqa, the ISIS “capital” in Syria.
Unfortunately, Turkey has used ISIS as an excuse for attacking Kurdish fighters in Syria. Turkey sees no difference between its internal enemies of many years, the PKK and the YPG.
In Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga and associated forces have assisted the Iraqi army and U.S. forces to retake Mosul from ISIS. The temporary standoff between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish forces in Kirkuk was indicative of friction between them, but the situation was resolved peacefully by a Kurdish withdrawal. The issue of an independent or autonomous Kurdistan remains in play.
Uncertain Kurdish Future
The dream of a Kurdish state remains uncertain. The Kurds have benefited from significant upgrades in equipment from the United States, as well as from the experience of working with U.S. advisers.
The Kurds have also experienced the freedom of having an autonomous region for some time now. Considering the long history of the Kurds, my money is on these tough and resilient people to prevail eventually. As the Kurdish proverb says, “Not every cloud brings rain.”
About the Author
Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army officer, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.