The Kurds are an the world’s largest “stateless nation” – roughly 25 million of them, living in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Ethnically and linguistically, they are an Indo-Iranian people, meaning they are not Turks or Arabs; they are related to the Iranians, or Persians, but distinct from them. (There is no one Kurdish language, actually, but two or three mutually unintelligible dialects.) They are mostly Sunni Muslims, but they also have some pre-Islamic, distinctly Kurdish celebrations and holidays. A lot of Kurds want their own independent state of Kurdistan, which was promised in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres between the Allies and Turkey. But ever since World War I, the governments of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran all have been determined that there should never be an independent Kurdistan. The Turks have even tried to suppress the Kurdish language and culture and called the Kurds “Mountain Turks.” And Saddam Hussein’s regime treated them even worse, sometimes using poison gas to reduce their numbers. As for the Iranian Kurds . . . haven’t heard much about them in a while. As Sunnis in a Shi’ite theocracy, I can’t imagine they’re too happy with the status quo.
Before the first Gulf War, these facts were, to most Americans, simply facts, possibly interesting but not of immediate concern. (Unless you happened to be a principled and consistent nationalist, committed to the idea that every ethnocultural nation should be governed by a single, independent state.)
Now, however, the Kurdish problem has become America’s business and responsibility. We have stuck our nose right in the middle of it. We occupy Iraq, including Iraqi Kurdistan. The two main political parties there, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, gave the U.S. full cooperation and support during the Iraq war, which means we owe them something. (We also owe them something because Bush Sr. encouraged them to rebel against Hussein in 1991 and then stood by and watched them get stomped.) Both parties have agreed to drop (for now) demands for an independent state, but both are committed to a federal Iraq in which Iraqi Kurdistan, as a single unit rather than a grouping of Kurdish-majority provinces, would continue to have its own regional government, as it has now (see the website of the Kurdistan Regional Government, http://www.krg.org/). Personally, I don’t see how an Iraqi federation on these terms could last very long. It would be like the Czech and Slovak republics united in Czechoslovakia – even if there were no obvious points of dispute between the two, a federation with only two members was always a breakup waiting to happen. It would be the same way with a three-part federation of Shi’ite Iraq, Sunni Iraq, and Kurdish Iraq. And if Shi’ite Iraq broke away and became an independent state . . . then it might start scheming to take over the Arab Shi’ite regions of southwestern Iran! (See the website of “Arabistan Online” at http://www.al-ahwaz.com/ – the site’s mostly in Arabic but there’s a plain map showing all the territory these dissidents consider “Arabistan” or “Khuzestan”.) And who knows where that could lead!
Furthermore, the Iraqi Kurds are striving to reverse Hussein’s “ethnic cleansing” policies by resettling in the historically Kurdish (and oil-rich) city of Kirkuk, which Hussein chased them out of about ten years ago. This means these returning Kurds are necessarily displacing some of the Arabs or Turkmens who moved in after they left. And we – the U.S. forces in the region – are letting this happen, which is effectively the same as siding with the Kurds.
Meanwhile, substantial regional Kurdish populations continue to live in Iran and Syria, two countries with which the U.S. has been on bad terms for a long time; and in Turkey, a “Western-looking” Islamic country which the U.S. depended on as a Cold War ally, and which is still a member of NATO, and a long-standing applicant to join the European Union.
Sooner or later, the U.S. is going to have to take sides. Do we support the Kurds’ ultimate goal of an independent Kurdistan or do we commit ourselves to indefinitely preserving the status quo? Do we sell out the Kurds, or do we sell out the Turks? Or do we just pull out of Iraq as soon as possible and let what happens happen?
If Turkey ever is admitted to the EU, that means that the EU, too, becomes directly involved in the Kurdish problem; the Kurdish regions of Turkey will directly elect their own representatives to the European Parliament, and they probably won’t let the issue die.
More useful links:
American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN): http://www.kurdistan.org/
Faili Kurds (a Kurdish ethnic subgroup, mostly in Iran): http://biphome.spray.se/faili.kurd/