Literally, Kurdistan means “land of the Kurds”. It’s a territory that crosses four states – Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria – plus parts of the former Soviet Union, with as many as 30 million Kurds, bound by an idea of distinct Kurdish ethnic identity. Non-Kurdish populations also live in the region and the largest Kurdish centres are outside ‘Kurdistan’, namely in Istanbul.
Some Kurds trace their unique history back thousands of years. But it was after WW1 when modern Middle Eastern states were created and began to define themselves ethnically – when being Iraqi or Syrian meant being Arab; Iranian, Persian; and Turkish, ethnically Turkish – that the distinct sense of Kurdish national identity became salient. Kurds share a sense of exclusion based on ethnicity and cultural identity which brings them together today.
The regions that Kurds populate are strategically important because they are part of geographically contiguous states, some of which have become weakened and destabilised, such as Syria, Iraq, and southeastern Turkey, and which create new threats to regional instability.
Different Kurdish groups have benefited from state breakdown by seeking to expand their borders and authority. Some in Iraq are calling for an independent state: most others are more realistic and seek different levels of autonomy within states. The Kurdish regions also have important hydrocarbons resources, fertile lands, and water, and have become transit zones for these resources to reach larger markets.
When talking about ‘Kurdistan’ it is important to remember that Kurdish regions and populations are diverse and fractured. Some Kurds identify as Muslim, some as Alevis, Kakais, Christians, Yezidis, Assyrians. Some have integrated into the states they live in, some have not. There are also two major dialects (although many Kurds understand both) and two main nationalist trends: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a radical leftist group fighting an insurgency against Turkey; and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, under Ma’sud Barzani in Iraq. There are different currents within these groups as well.
Kurdish populated regions are also landlocked; they have to maintain alliances with regional states to keep borders open. These alliances differ according to geography and political interests. Kurdish political parties have distinct agendas and priorities within and across borders. Iraqi Kurds, for example, have de-facto control of large swathes of northern Iraq and focus on asserting authority over these territories. The PKK is fighting against the Turkish state for greater Kurdish rights and territorial autonomy, and has extended operations into Syria, northern Iraq and Iran; and Syrian Kurds are trying to create their own autonomous regions.
The views expressed are Dr Natali’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.