Are Kurds closer to realizing their dream of an independent state?

Kurds are considered the largest ethnic group in the world without a country. The turmoil in Syria and Iraq creates an opportunity to draw closer to that dream.

A Kurdish fighter planted a Kurdish flag on an earthen berm 20 miles southwest of Kirkuk, Iraq, in March, part of the war against Islamic State.

Briar Abdullah comes from a proud line of peshmerga fighters. But even in this time of war in northern Iraq between his fellow Kurds and the self-described Islamic State, Mr. Abdullah chose to study law rather than fight.

It was a tough decision, he says, but rooted in the belief that knowledge is the best foundation for an independent Kurdistan.

“I dream of holding a Kurdish passport and being able to travel freely across Greater Kurdistan,” says the young man studying in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. “Iraqi Kurdistan could be the starting point,” he says. “The Kurds are ready for independence.”

Rebaz Hassan, another young Iraqi Kurd, opted for a radically different kind of education. He trained in Qandil Mountain, the bastion of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, an insurgent movement that has long fought against the Turkish state and has powerful affiliates in Iran and Syria.

The details may differ, but his vision for the future falls within the same spectrum.

“My dream is to have a free Kurdistan” that is multiethnic, says Mr. Hassan, eating at a PKK cultural center. “I want to see the word Kurdistan – not Iraq – on my passport.”

Kurds are considered the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. They comprise significant minorities in Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Most Kurds – roughly 30 million people worldwide – dream of erasing those mountainous borders and forming what they call a “Greater Kurdistan.”

Sympathy for their cause

They’ve never had the power or international support necessary to achieve that goal. But the new generation hope that their role as key partners in the US-led war against Islamic State (IS), coupled with the possible collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi states, could herald a change in fortune.

Kurdish gains in Iraq and recently in Syria have resulted in growing territorial control. In Turkey, which has the largest concentration of Kurds, a pro-Kurdish party made it into parliament this summer for the first time in history. Despite the breakdown of a peace process between Turkey and the PKK that has resulted in a resurgence of violence, the pro-Kurdish party passed the threshold for representation in new elections this week. In Iran, Kurdish militants and activists still face execution.

But it was their role in recent dramatic chapters in the war with IS, including a tide-turning victory in the northern Syrian city of Kobane, that won Kurdish fighters accolades from the international community and stoked sympathy for their cause.

Each military victory fuels a sense of destiny. Just months ago, analysts were abuzz with talk of a “Kurdish moment,” noting that the international climate had never been more conducive to a Kurdish drive for independence.

But now most warn that internal feuds are getting in the way and could even escalate into internecine Kurdish violence. And, crucially, Turkey, Iran, and the United States oppose Kurdish independence.

“We can [still] talk about a Kurdish moment because the genie is out of the bottle,” says Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington analyst. “The Kurdish issue is now a regional, international issue. It needs to be addressed by the international powers sooner or later.”

So, who are the Kurds?

Despite facing very different realities in four nations, Kurds are bound by a common sense of belonging, Mr. Civiroglu says. When Kobane was under siege, Kurds in Iraq and Turkey rushed to join the fight. Those in Iran – persecuted for being Sunni as well as Kurds by the Shiite regime – also staged demonstrations of support.

Kurdish identity and history run deep.

“The Kurds predate Christ,” says Mesud Serfiraz, a historian and academic researcher at Mardin Artuklu University in the southeastern Turkish city of Mardin, with visible pride. “The ancient Greek general Xenophon and the Greek historian Strabo wrote about Courdoune. Many researchers, myself included, believe this region corresponds to modern Kurdistan.”

Kurds converted to Islam early and fought alongside Arabs in the Crusades. Salaheddin Eyubi, a Muslim Kurd known in the West as Saladin, was the first sultan of Egypt and Syria. Kurds were absorbed into the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, or modern-day Turkey and Iran, two dominant regional powers.

Kurdish nationalist movements first flourished as the Ottoman Empire faded, but the key treaties that carved out the present Middle East left Kurds stateless.

In the 20th century, Kurdish demands for autonomy and basic cultural and linguistic rights put them at odds or outright war with the countries they live in. One brief success – the declaration of the Republic of Kurdistan in the city of Mahabad in 1946 – was swiftly snuffed out by Iran.

Revolutionary songs

The personal journey of Saeed Gabari, an aging yet sprightly Kurdish singer born in Syria, captures a fraction of that struggle.

As his wife serves tea and nuts in their home on the outskirts of Erbil, Mr. Gabari recounts in vivid detail his glory days traveling as a peshmerga bard on horseback, but glosses over the years spent behind bars, where he was blinded.

The singer/activist experienced torture in the worst jails of the region: Diyarbakir in Turkey, Iraq’s Abu Ghraib, Iran’s Evin, and others in Syria. Chillingly precise memories linger despite his efforts to forget. Gabari says he was electroshocked 111 times during his detention in Turkey in 1965.

Of the nearly three dark years he spent in Abu Ghraib in the 1980s, he recalls a bright memory of defiance – the day prisoners burned blankets and jumped over the fire to celebrate the Kurdish New Year. It earned 400 people a beating, he says, but the torturers in charge finally gave up in fatigue.

Gabari says his crime was giving voice to Kurdish dreams. “They would say: If peshmerga shoot bullets in the mountains no one hears them, but revolutionary songs grow their ranks.”

Autonomy in Iraq

Gabari now lives in northern Iraq because this is where Kurds have come closest to achieving the elusive dream of independence. Iraqi Kurds asserted autonomy there after helping the US in 2003 topple the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader had massacred Kurds in the genocidal Anfal campaign of the late 1980s, including the March 1988 chemical attack in Halabja that killed thousands of civilians.

“I think the Americans have understood that neither Turks, nor Iranians, nor Arabs are their friends. Their only friends are the Kurd,” says the bard, noting that Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region since 2005, was a guest of the White House this year.

Mr. Barzani sees a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan as the first step toward independence. But other parties see more pressing priorities: an economic crisis that has sent young Kurds fleeing to Europe, oil and budget disputes with Baghdad, and more recently how to solve a succession crisis following the end of Barzani’s term in August, which recently spilled into violence.

“The most important challenge we are facing is the war against IS,” says Jafar Eminki, deputy parliament speaker. “Declaring independence is not a priority or pressing need today. The political forces are not focused on that.”

Territorial gains

But Kamal Kirkuki, a senior official in Barzani’s party and a military commander on the front line against IS, has no doubts: Independence is the end goal and increasingly within reach, whether the world agrees or not.

“If we were fighting [just] to stay in Iraq as a federation, I would not fight IS for one minute. I would not stay in this hell,” Mr. Kirkuki says.

The stately commander has spent months fighting on the outskirts of Kirkuk, a diverse and oil-rich city some 51 miles south of Erbil that lies outside the recognized borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds view it as their “Jerusalem” and took control when the Iraqi Army fled IS advances in 2014.

Kirkuki says his troops have killed more than 1,200 IS fighters. But his greatest source of pride is the liberation of all Kurdish and mixed villages within his sector, as well as 17 Arab hamlets.

Aid workers in Iraq, however, caution that the conquests come with forced displacement and land grabs designed to change demographic realities.

Experts say the territorial gains could shape the contours of a de facto Kurdish state if Iraq and Syria splinter apart.

“What is Iraq?” scoffs the commander. “This country does not control its skies, and it does not control its land or borders. It does not control its oil and water. Iraq failed.”

Opportunity in Syria

For Syrian Kurds, the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 likewise presented a golden opportunity. They quietly carved out three noncontiguous enclaves in the north of the country as President Bashar al-Assad largely turned a blind eye to their activities. In these areas, Syrian Kurds have tested the concept of democratic autonomy as theorized by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Mohammed Rasho, a representative of the dominant Kurdish faction in Syria who is based in Iraq, says they have an all-inclusive goal. “Our slogan is free Rojava and a Democratic Syria,” he says, using the Kurdish name for northern Syria. “There is no 100 percent Kurdish area in Syria. We are islands in an Arab sea.”

The Kurds in Syria have rolled out Kurdish education, enforced their version of gender equality, and created decisionmaking structures generally inclusive of Arabs and the other groups in the area. While Kurdish men and women fought heroically in Kobane, rights groups say the Syrian Kurdish militias have recruited child soldiers and destroyed Arab villages.

In both the Iraqi and Syrian contexts, internal rivalries, autocratic tendencies, and fraught relations with Arab neighbors have slowed progress toward independence.

“Regionally, the biggest challenges facing the Kurds is first internal division and fragmentation,” says Kawa Hassan, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the EastWest Institute in Brussels. “If the Kurdish house is not in order they cannot achieve independence.”

“Second is the opposition from neighboring countries and the United States against Kurdish independence. Third is the lack of economic infrastructure that could be the basis of economic independence.”

“Of course things change very quickly in the Middle East,” adds Mr. Hassan. “Syria is crumbling. Iraq is crumbling.... The most feasible scenario is federations or Kurdish confederations.”

Kurdish culture and language

Territory is not all the Kurds care about. In fact many – including the dominant political factions in Turkey and Syria – are pragmatists willing to find a solution for the Kurdish question that is short of an independent state.

But all Kurdish factions put cultural and linguistic rights at the top of their agenda.

“As Kurds make political gains across Kurdistan, likewise the Kurdish language is experiencing a revival,” says Ulku Bingol, editor of HIVA, a publishing house producing books for children in multiple Kurdish dialects out of the southeast Turkish city of Diyarbakir.

The first Kurdish-language newspaper was published in 1898 in Istanbul, but the harsh policies of assimilation ushered in by the Turkish Republic set the stage for a generation that speaks Kurdish poorly if at all. Even some of the staunchest separatists of Diyarbakir – which Turkey’s Kurds consider their regional capital – struggle to speak in their mother tongue.

Ibrahim Halil Baran, a separatist Kurdish nationalist who switches from Kurdish to Turkish when sleepy, sums up the stakes. “For us, when a Kurd loses his language, he has become a Turk. Kurdish language is Kurdish identity.”

Kurdish linguists are now able to teach at the university level thanks to an opening that began with an amendment to Turkey’s Constitution in 1992 and accelerated under the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But they fear the language will disappear unless Kurdish education is scaled up.

Dilvan, a Kurdology student, spent years answering to a Turkish name rather than her own at school. She hoped for progress when elections ushered a pro-Kurdish party into parliament.

But amid recent Turkish-PKK and IS violence, Dilvan is too afraid to speak Kurdish in Istanbul, saying it draws angry glares and comments. Instead, she discreetly tries to polish her mother tongue by telling bedtime stories to her youngest sibling.

“Sometimes I lose hope,” she says. “It’s been a massive struggle with only small results. But my father told me: If you study Kurdish, thousands will learn. This is the most important battle.”

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