Rarely have the Kurds received so much news attention. But since the rise and rage of the Islamic State and their capture of large swathes of Iraq, the Kurds have been identified as the most likely force to deter, or defeat IS. In Iraq, Kurdish forces replaced the role of the federal security forces who retreated south under pressure from IS, leaving the Kurds to protect Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, while in Syria, Kurds are the only barrier between IS, the embattled city of Kobane, and the Turkish border.
Historically nomads, the Kurds are spread across Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Armenia. When the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the First World War the winning Western powers outlined a Kurdish state, to be known as Kurdistan that never came to fruition. Since then Kurds have fought for autonomy or independence, and have been repressed in return. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein despised the Kurds, most notably attacking them with chemical weapons in Halabja in 1988. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has battled the government for some 30 years (although a fragile ceasefire is currently in place), and in Syria some 300,000 Kurds were stateless and banned from using their own language and culture.
The Kurds, who are estimated to number 20-30 million, are united not only by the fight for survival against Islamic State, but by their race, culture and language. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but Kurdish areas are known for their tolerance and the plurality of their sects. Thousands of Christians fled from other parts of Iraq to the northern Kurdish region during the violence of 2006-2007, while this year they were joined by many thousands more who fled their home areas under threat from Islamic State. Since 1991 Iraq’s Kurdish region has had semi-autonomy from Baghdad with Kurdish officially the regional language. In Syria the Kurds have largely ruled themselves since Bashar Assad withdrew the majority of his forces from Kurdish regions in 2012. These areas have oil and agriculture resources and present the opportunity for economic liberation from Syria and the potential for foreign direct investment in their region. Presently, Kurdish areas are some of the most stable and well-governed parts of Iraq.
This, and the central role Kurds are now playing in the international fight against Islamic State, may make it harder to ignore Kurdish pleas for greater autonomy, if not independence from Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Yet many obstacles remain. America has long said it believes independence for Iraqi Kurdistan would destabilise that country, and although Turkey has close relations with Iraq’s Kurds in Erbil, Ankara is worried that any further self-rule will might inspire their own Kurds, who make up 10-15% of the population, to secede.
Peace talks with the PKK that started in 2012 have been strained of late because Turkey has refused to assist the Kurds in the fight for Kobane, but the more the Kurds participate and sacrifice in the battle against the Islamic State and buffer their direct danger to Turkish sovereign territory, the more they will ask for in return.