By James Kim
At the crossroads of ancient empires in Upper Mesopotamia lies the largest stateless ethnic group on the planet: the Kurds. They number at around 35 million, but are spread throughout Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Perhaps their location, which the Persian, Hellenic, Roman and Ottoman armies once marched across, has been one of the reasons why the inhabitants of Kurdistan have yet to establish a permanent home for themselves. And even though those empires are dead and the Kurds have lived for millennia, the men of the mountains still find themselves a people without a nation.
Nevertheless, the hope to create a Kurdish nation continues on in their society, and for good reason as well. The Kurds of Iraq have benefited greatly from the U.S. invasion a decade ago, as American soldiers deposed the regime of Saddam Hussein, a man who gave the Kurds the same treatment Hitler had for the Jews: extermination by poison gas . Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region within Iraq, is currently experiencing an economic boom and has avoided the domestic chaos that occurs daily in the rest of the country. In fact, when renowned food critic Anthony Bourdain visited the area two years ago, he was astonished to find amusement parks, outdoor club activities and spacious shopping centers that go against common stereotypes of Middle Eastern instability . Later in his show, Bourdain meets with a few U.S. soldiers who admit, over a generous Kurdish buffet, that not a single U.S. casualty was recorded in the Kurdish regions. The Kurds know the door to self-determination has opened for them, and that now is the time to finally create a Kurdish nation.
Across the border, the Kurds of Syria now have their turn in securing the Kurdish homeland. At the same time Bourdain visited Northern Iraq, dissenters in Syria openly rebelled against the Assad regime, plunging the nation into a brutal civil war that has claimed over a 100,000 lives. The people of Rojava, as Syrian Kurdistan calls itself locally, have avoided much of the bloodshed, as the Kurds there have united under the Democratic Union Party (PYD). This party promptly wrested control of the Kurdish region of Syria from Assad in the initial days of the war while preventing other rebel groups from coming in, as the rebels’ extreme Islamic ideology clashes with Kurdish nationalism.
A stalemate has been reached in Syria, as the loyalists and the multiple rebel factions have neither the strength nor the numbers to finish each other off. The Syrian Kurds know they cannot rely on American support that has favored their brothers and sisters in Iraq, so they have decided to take advantage of this deadlock to extort more concessions for their people. They make temporary alliances with one faction until the other grows weak enough for the Kurds to switch allegiances. This ruthless exploitation of the balance of power maintains the frontiers of Rojava and prevents the enemies of the Kurds from gaining enough momentum to interfere with its local autonomy.
However, the PYD knows that they have enemies outside of Syria’s borders. Turkey, which has carried out a decades-long campaign of repression in their Kurdish regions, has been alarmed at the sudden growth of Kurdish political power in the two neighboring nations. Fearing that a Syrian Kurdistan would set off a chain reaction or even encourage a revolution in Turkish Kurdistan, Turkey has funded the Syrian rebel groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates, in order to bolster their strength in the conflict with the PYD. The PYD also has its own internal ethnic tensions, as Iraqi Kurdistan has hesitated to send arms because their leader, Massoud Barzani, has the Periclean fear that too much Kurdish expansion would force their neighbors to form a coalition to end Kurdish Nationalism, although limited support has now started to come through. These extra factors have shown the Kurds that creating a nation will be an uphill battle for the montane people.
There has been a precedent in which a stateless group has, against all odds, established a country for themselves. Israel only became the Jewish homeland after its founders toiled and endured conflicts with local empires and innumerable hostile neighbors, while surviving a terrifying genocide. Time will tell if history will repeat itself for the better for the Kurdish people.
Image by Jan Sefti