Today, however, with the collapse of Syria and continuing tumult in Iraq, the question is less whether there will be an autonomous Kurdistan, but how many Kurdistans will emerge from the regional crack-up — and who will run them?
As recently as two years ago, Kurds across the Middle East experienced an unprecedented sense of solidarity due to the existential threat posed by the Islamic State, which simultaneously menaced their communities in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
With the Islamic State at the gates of the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil, it was Kurdish fighters from Turkey and Syria who rushed to the rescue in the summer of 2014. A few months later, it was Kurdish fighters from Iraq, the famed peshmerga, who crossed over to Syria to reinforce their Kurdish brethren in the siege of Kobane. For a brief, dizzying moment, Kurds seemed to be uniting across the post-Ottoman borders that had long separated them.
But if the rise of the Islamic State brought the Kurds together, its impending fall now threatens to tear them apart.
This, sadly, is a familiar story for the Kurds. While statehood has long been the Kurdish dream, Kurdish reality has often been as much about internal rivalries and self-destructive factionalism as divisions imposed from outside. Now that old pattern is playing out again.
The most important dynamic among the Kurds today is a struggle for power between the Kurdistan Democratic Party or KDP — led by Masoud Barzani, dominant in Iraq — and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK — led by Abdullah Ocalan, and centered in Turkey, though with a powerful offshoot in Syria, known as the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
The rivalry between these groups is long-standing. They differ starkly in ideology. The Kurdish Iraqis are still deeply rooted in traditional tribal structures, while the PKK, despite various reforms, has never managed to shake its roots in revolutionary Marxist-Leninism. Each sees itself as the rightful leader of the Kurdish cause. These differences are now being exacerbated by the rollback of the Islamic State, which raises the question of who will control the territories in western Iraq and northern Syria being freed from the terrorists’ grip.
This can be seen in the Yazidi-majority city of Sinjar in western Iraq, where Syrian PYD militants dug in after beating back the Islamic State. They have since made it clear that they intend to rule this area as their own. The KDP in its turn has imposed a trade and travel ban on PYD-controlled northern Syria.
At the same time that Kurds across the Middle East are splintering, Kurdish factionalism inside Iraq is also intensifying. The collapse in global oil prices — and concomitant budget crisis — is destabilizing what was already a tenuous power-sharing arrangement among Kurdish political parties in Irbil. After more than a decade of moving towards greater political pluralism, the Iraqi Kurdish parliament has been shuttered for more than a year — the consequence of a toxic power struggle that threatens one of the region’s few democratic success stories.
The Kurdish unraveling is also being aggravated by rivalries among surrounding regional powers. As Iran, Turkey and the Arab states maneuver for dominance in Iraq and Syria, divisions among the Kurds are turning them into attractive proxies. Different factions are aligning with different outside sponsors, who in turn further fuel these internal rivalries.
Americans considering the byzantine world of Kurdish politics might understandably ask: How much does this matter to U.S. national security? The answer: a lot.
Kurdish military power — both in Iraq and Syria — has been critical to winning the war against the Islamic State. But it is Kurdish politics that will be critical to winning the post-Islamic State peace. If the Kurds continue to descend towards fragmentation and civil war, the Islamic State will have space to reconstitute. That would also give a stronger hand to Iran, which is already using the conflict with the Islamic State to expand and consolidate its sphere of influence.
The United States is in the unique position of being closer to almost every significant Kurdish faction than any of them are to each other. Washington is therefore also well-placed to moderate, if not resolve, their rivalries and help foster a consensus as to what the post-Islamic State Kurdish arrangement should look like.
Ultimately, a trans-regional Kurdish super-state is not in the cards. Such a prospect is anathema to every regional power, while the political fragmentation of the Kurds themselves makes this virtually impossible.
What is possible to envision — albeit still difficult to achieve — are two secure, successful, self-governing Kurdish enclaves, in Iraq and Syria, with stable borders and peaceful relations not only with their non-Kurdish neighbors, but, just as importantly, with each other. This will also require inclusive politics within the territories governed by the Kurds. Separation of powers, rule of law and democratic accountability are the necessary foundation for true stability and strength.
To assume that Kurds will somehow work out their political problems on their own, or that a solution can be postponed until after the defeat of the Islamic State (when U.S. leverage and influence will diminish accordingly), is a recipe for disaster. No one should doubt America’s military capacity to end the totalitarian regime established by the Islamic State on Iraqi and Syrian soil. But the true measure of American greatness will lie in Washington’s strategic capacity to fashion a decent and sustainable order out of the rubble. Getting Kurdish strategy right will be crucial to achieving success.