Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
In the latter part of October 2017, the Iraqi army, allied with Shia militias under Iranian direction, assaulted and captured large amounts of Kurdish territory in Iraq. This represented a stunning defeat for the Kurdish military which, up until now, had been perceived as one of the strongest forces on the ground in the Middle East.
The Kurdish defeat in Iraq actually represented a triple tragedy. First, the Kurds had been promised from the beginning of the 20th century, particularly at the time of the First World War, that they, too, were entitled to a state. With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the Treaty of Sevres, signed by the Ottomans and the victorious Allied powers, spoke about a Kurdish state emerging, particularly from areas within Turkey itself. Within a short time, however, a new treaty called the Treaty of Lausanne replaced the older Treaty of Sevres and it said nothing about a Kurdish state. But the Kurds remembered that for a short time in history the international community recognized their need for a state as much as it recognized the rights of other peoples in the Middle East for a state, including the Jews.
The second tragedy that the Kurds have faced is they have repeatedly been targeted over the decades for nothing less than mass murder. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s it was the army of Saddam Hussein which entered Kurdistan and engaged in the destruction of some 2,000 Kurdish villages and over 100,000 Kurds were slain in those operations. Famously, in an attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, Kurds had to endure chemical weapons attack. The intensity of this warfare was such that 5,000 Kurds died as a result of Iraqi use of chemical weapons against them.
The third aspect of the Kurdish tragedy is that they have endured all of these defeats and yet they have been a strong ally – one of the strongest allies of the West – in repeated wars in the Middle East. They have led the fight against ISIS – known as Daesh in Arabic – whether in Syria or in Iraq.
The Kurds have built up democratic institutions in northern Iraq and the economic progress they’ve made has been impressive. The Kurds of Syria have waged a war also against Daesh and their military formations actually include women fighters who fought bravely against the radical jihadists in northern Syria near the Turkish border.
The tragedy of the Kurds has been compounded by a geostrategic reality. They are surrounded by Middle Eastern great powers. In fact, the Kurdish population of some 30 million people is divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and other places in the area of the Middle East. These Middle Eastern great powers have a strong interest in opposing the emergence of a Kurdish state and of denying the Kurds their right to self-determination.
It is true that Kurds speak different dialects like Kurmanji in northern Iraq or Sorani in central and southern Iraq, but that doesn’t prevent them from working together as one nation. And, in fact, in many of the struggles in the Middle East in the last number of years since 2011, Iraqi Kurds have helped Syrian Kurds, and Iranian Kurds have helped them both.
Despite those linguistic divisions, the Kurds are a nation that deserves national self-expression. In the short term, they face defeat in Iraq, but in the longer term they are a strategic asset to the entire Western alliance and, therefore, they deserve diplomatic and political support.