It has been said that the Kurds are a nation without borders, though that is only partly true. They are, of course, citizens of any number of countries, ones that envelop their homeland in the Middle East and ones much farther afield. But for the Kurds — a nation of some 25 million people who, despite their shared culture, speak different languages, practice different religions, subscribe to different political ideologies and hold different passports — citizenship is not such a simple matter.
It would be more accurate to say that Kurds, having assimilated into countries they do not consider their own, tend to be citizens in name but not in practice. And they are subject, therefore, to discrimination and outright oppression. In Turkey, Kurdish language curriculums are still banned in most schools. In Iraq, an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds were killed in the late 1980s during Saddam Hussein's al-Anfal campaign. In Iran, as many as 1,200 Kurdish political prisoners were allegedly executed after the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
The Kurds had no choice but to assimilate, for the country most of them would prefer to call home — Kurdistan — does not exist and probably never will.
Countless other ethnic groups have lobbied for independence, but this is the story of the Kurds, who for more than a century have tried and failed to create a state of their own. Their failures were, perhaps, inevitable; establishing a state is difficult when the disenfranchisement of its prospective citizens has been codified into international law. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne — which replaced the failed Treaty of Sevres, a document that sought to set up a bordered Kurdistan — saw to that. Still, the Kurds succeeded in doing so, albeit briefly, in 1946, with the creation of the Mahabad Republic, a nominally Kurdish enclave in Iran that was supported by the Soviet Union and lasted less than a year. They have succeeded, moreover, in earning a degree of autonomy, if not outright statehood, with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, as well as in the Rojava area of northern Syria.
And so the Kurds find themselves not entirely displaced but not entirely with a state of their own, awkwardly situated in a region punctuated by chaos and exploited by foreign powers. The explanation for their predicament begins, as is so often the case, with geography.
Kurdistan, the colloquial name given to the Kurds' historical homeland, is a landlocked region that lies at the crossroads of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Zagros Mountains cut through its core from the southeast to the northwest, forming a formidable terrain that has impeded the kind of cohesion endemic in the countries that surround it. The Kurds, therefore, are ethnically distinct from their Arab and Turkish neighbors, even if many of them share the same Sunni religious tradition. (There are, notably, pockets of Jewish, Shiite, Yazidi and Zoroastrian Kurds scattered throughout the region.) And though the Kurds more closely approximate Persians than they do any other ethnic group, they are culturally unique, and that has imbued them with a strong, singular identity.
But if the conditions of their existence forged a singular cultural identity, those same conditions shattered their linguistic identity. Kurdish dialects fall roughly into two categories: Kurmanji in the north (Turkey, Armenia, Syria and northern Iraq) and Sorani in the south (central Iraq and Iran). Those who speak different dialects can generally understand one another, but there can be major linguistic differences. And, in keeping with the complexity of Kurdish identity politics, there is also a branch of the Gorani dialect known as Zaza, spoken by as many as 4 million in Turkey who sometimes identify as Kurds and sometimes as a distinct group.
Those conditions have also created political divisions. Most of the region's various organizations generally agree that the Kurds should create a state of their own, but they disagree on the best way to do so. Some advocate cooperating with state governments; others do not. Those disagreements have sometimes turned violent. When Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) allied with the government in Ankara in August 1995, for example, Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) responded by attacking the KDP — a stark reminder of the cost of supporting a regional adversary.
As if this were not enough, external benefactors have exploited these rivalries to contain the growth of independent Kurdish states. Their reasons for doing so are manifold. There is, of course, the issue of territory, which no state would voluntarily surrender to anyone, let alone an ethnic minority that could challenge its rule. Nor does any state want to set a precedent that would encourage other ethnic minorities in the Middle East to secede. States also block Kurdish statehood for financial reasons. Turkey, for example, wants continued access to northern Iraq's energy resources, not to mention its continued influence over Iraqi Kurdistan — hence its decision to support the KDP. Iraq, too, benefits financially from the oil revenue generated by the KRG, which it might be less inclined to share with Baghdad were Kurdistan an actual state.
What complicates the issue further is that in their efforts to exploit the Kurds, these states compete with one another as well. In fact, there is an ongoing competition in which Iran and Turkey use their affiliate Kurdish parties to jockey for influence in the KRG. A recent alliance between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the offshoot Gorran party appears to imperil the Turkey-KDP association for now, but if history is any indication, the situation could change at a moment's notice.
The Drive for Autonomy
With so much at stake, it is little wonder that governments in the region have repeatedly silenced Kurdish calls for independence. Failed uprisings have taken place in Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq since World War II. But in 1991, the Gulf War and another unsuccessful rebellion of Iraqi Kurds reinvigorated the Kurdish drive for autonomy. International condemnation of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait — and the United States' subsequent no-fly zone over Iraq — created a safe space in which a de facto Kurdish state began to emerge. Political unity remained elusive, however, and in 1994 civil war broke out between two of Iraq's biggest Kurdish parties: the KDP, supported by the Turkish and Iraqi governments, and the PUK, backed by the Turkish PKK and the Iranian-influenced Badr Brigade. It was not until four years later that the United States was able to broker peace between the two parties, which, along with the other Kurdish parties, now constitute nearly 20 percent of the Iraqi legislature.
The extremist groups that have sprung from the militant arms of these political parties continue to hinder the formation of a Kurdish state. Turkey's Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, the urban terrorist wing of the PKK, have launched attacks for more than a decade, though their assaults have become more frequent over the past few months. An Iranian PKK offshoot, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, meanwhile, has sporadically attacked Iranian security forces in Kurdish-majority areas for the better part of a decade. Iranian voters tend to remember these bouts of violence when they go to the polls and have frequently voted against Kurdish candidates accordingly.
But there are some recent signs of cohesion. The conflicts in Iraq and Syria have brought Kurdish factions a little closer together, thanks to the rise of a common enemy: the Islamic State. Despite their conflict-ridden past, even the PKK and KDP are working together to combat the jihadist group, though the KDP continues to allow Turkey to strike PKK targets on a regular basis. Still, deep fissures remain among the Kurdish people. The KDP and PUK, in particular, continue to squabble as the PUK works to ensure that it remains free of the KDP's control, even going so far as to strike deals with Baghdad to do so. Because these groups command their own armed forces, known as peshmerga, in the struggle against the Islamic State, tension among them often translates into incoherence and territorial losses on the battlefield. So while Iraqi Kurds have had some success in establishing a de facto state, a broader Kurdish state is unlikely to emerge anytime soon.
Instead, the Kurds will continue to be easy targets for foreign powers — even ones outside their region of origin — that want to use them for their own political ends. The British did so in Turkish Kurdistan in the 1920s, and the United States is doing so now in Syria, where it supports Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units to wage a proxy war against the Islamic State. And it is these powers, not the ones that aspire for a united and independent Kurdistan, that will shape the future of the Kurds.