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When the modern Middle East was carved out of the Ottoman Empire and mapped anew at the end of the First World War by the British and French, the mountainous Kurdish region was divided by the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.  The Kurds lost out on those nation-stakes. There is no Kurdistan on the map, and this is a continuing factor in Middle Eastern politics, as the Kurds have been rebelling against this  status now for nearly a century.

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Iraq, for instance, has seen multiple Kurdish revolts since Britain drew up that nation’s borders and imposed a king on it in 1921. Following the overthrow of their hated enemy Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Kurdish region north of the country became the most stable of Iraq’s three ethno-sectarian regions. That is, until the advent of ISL/ISIS. The famed Peshmerga (Kurdish for those who go “before death”) fighters turned out to be too lightly armed against forces equipped with the best, since ISL’s material was taken from that supplied to the Iraq military by the U.S.

Most recently, the allied effort against ISL has seen Turkish reluctance to aid Syrian Kurds for fear it will encourage Turkish Kurds, some of whom have long fought for independence within Turkey.  Indeed, instead of acting against ISL in Syria last month, as the allies hoped, Turkey bombed Kurds within its own borders on Monday, October 13th.

Given the Kurds’ pivotal place in modern history, it should be no surprise that JSTOR is full of articles on the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, especially, and the “fate of the Kurds,” and the prospects of a Kurdistan. An excellent place to start is Michael M. Gunter’s summary of the “Kurdish Question,” the problem of the “largest nation in the world without its own independent state.”

Gunter outlines the geographic, climatic, economic, and population characteristics of the Kurdish region. A distinct ethnic group unrelated to Turks or Arabs, Kurds have lived in the region for thousands of years. They are most closely related to the Iranians, but are Sunni Muslims, not Shia as the majority in Iran.  Like most categories of people, the 30 million Kurds in the world today are ideologically divided and far from united in their goals. But the main reason Gunter is not optimistic about a formal Kurdistan emerging is because of the fierce opposition of the bordering states.

Gunter’s article is a decade old, but his conclusion seems as timely as ever: “What is certain […] is the increasing importance of the Kurds for the future of both the Middle East and international politics.”



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World Affairs, Vol. 166, No. 4 (SPRING 2004), pp. 197-205
Sage Publications, Inc.