WASHINGTON — Had the course of history taken a modest swerve, the United States and Kurdistan might have celebrated their independence on the very same day. It was July 4, 1187 — 825 years ago — that Saladin, Islam’s greatest ruler, defeated 20,000 outmatched Crusaders at the bloody Battle of Hattin. The victory ultimately delivered Jerusalem into the hands of Saladin, the crown jewel of an Islamic caliphate stretching from the shores of Tunis through Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus.
If the Kurds’ most famous son had bothered to identify himself as such, it may well have been the beginning of a Kurdish empire to rival the Ottomans or the Persians. But Saladin fought for God and not for country, leaving his hapless compatriots at the mercy of Ottoman chieftains, British cartographers and malevolent Arab strongmen.
Today, the 25 million Kurds clustered at the contiguous corners of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria are the largest ethnic group on earth without a formal homeland. As the U.S. abandons Iraq to its own devices and Iran rattles uranium sabers, as Turkey cracks down on its Kurds and Saladin’s Damascus descends into the unrestrained slaughter of Bashar Assad’s, the millennium-long dream of an independent Kurdistan could be the answer to this unfolding Middle Eastern nightmare.
As with many conflicts in the region, the Kurdish dilemma has its roots in the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Guaranteed self-determination by the Allied powers, the Kurds signed the 1920 Treaty of Sévres, only to watch the Europeans stand passively by as the Ottoman army officer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk cobbled together a country of his own, forming what is now Turkey out of the Kurds’ promised land. In the years since, the Kurds have been massacred by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, gassed by Saddam Hussein and forgotten by the rest of the world. In Syria, their language is banned; in Turkey, a Member of Parliament with the temerity to pledge an oath “to the Turkish and Kurdish peoples” was released from a decade in jail — only to be re-sentenced this year.
With the Assad regime now crumbling, tensions between the Kurdish minority and their many tormentors, always tragic, are becoming a major geopolitical threat. Desperate to crush the Syrian revolution in its infancy, Assad has transferred troops away from the Kurdish provinces to the north, leaving a power vacuum into which two Kurdish political parties have stepped. If Assad falls, Syria will splinter into religiously or ethnically homogenous mini-states, one of which will almost certainly be under Kurdish control. Coupled with the recent emergence of a relatively independent Kurdish region in Iraq, this would create something of a league of semi-autonomous Kurdish states between the northeast regions of Syria and Iraq.
This combustible state of affairs greatly alarms Turkey, which has waged a bloody, three-decade civil war against its 14 million Kurds, claiming 40,000 lives. Although it has supported regime change in Syria, the Turkish government has “an almost pathological fear” of a greater Kurdistan, and can be expected to strenuously resist any attempt at Kurdish unification. Turkish tanks now patrol the shared border with Syria, intent on preventing any activity from spilling over into its borders.
Should that powder keg ignite, Turkey — a NATO ally — could very well drag the U.S. into a cross-border shooting war with Syria, with Russia quite possibly propping up its Syrian proxy. Meanwhile Iran, boasting an infamously brutal history with its own Kurds, remains a regional wildcard spinning nuclear centrifuges as fast as possible.
The dispossessed have become dangerously destabilizing. The overlooked can no longer be overlooked. And what was once a Middle Eastern flashpoint may yet become a safety valve for spiking regional tensions.
It will not be easy, but the uncertainty and plasticity in the region today offers an opportunity to secure a Kurdish homeland and remedy the capricious map-making of the early 20th century. Iraq is threatening to split into the pre-Iraq Sunni, Shia and Kurdish divisions of the Ottoman Empire, with the Kurds semi-independent and the Iran-allied Shiites ruling the Sunnis. Iran’s economy is in free-fall. Syria will soon have no central control and no choice. And while no country is eager to surrender a fifth of its population, Turkey would do well to get ahead of this issue — ending the vicious, ongoing war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), saving countless lives and positioning themselves to reap the benefits of a long-term strategic alliance to counterbalance Iranian influence. Not to mention, membership in the European Union will forever be out of reach for a Turkey at war with itself.
For proof of what’s possible, look no further than Iraqi Kurdistan, a pro-American, pro-Israel and semi-autonomous parliamentary democracy most Americans have never heard of. Nurtured by an American no-fly zone in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was established under the Iraqi Constitution in 2005, a stunning testament to the success of Muslim representative government. Of more than 4,800 American soldiers killed in the brutal battles for Iraq, not a single one has lost their life — and no foreigner has been kidnapped — within the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. Boasting two international airports, a booming oil industry and a dawning respect for the rights of women, this 15,000 square-mile territory of nearly four million Kurds is the one part of President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” that was actually accomplished.
Building on this unanticipated success, the U.S. should rethink its previous opposition to an independent greater Kurdistan and recognize that the advantages of a friendly, democratic and strategically-positioned ally far outweigh the outdated assumption that the Kurds’ national liberation would result in regional conflagration. At this point, inaction is far more likely to provoke continued regional conflict. Whether that means calling for U.S.-brokered talks with Turkey or a temporary UN peacekeeping force, sanctions or scaled up foreign investment, the U.S. should make every effort to incentivize the consolidation and emergence of a single, stable, secure Kurdish homeland.
After a thousand years of turning a thousand blind eyes, the world can’t keep kicking the Kurdish can down the road. Somewhere along that bloodstained road to Damascus, the region needs to experience this epiphany — and soon. The first major protests in Syria began outside the Ummayad Mosque, Islam’s fourth-holiest site and the location of Saladin’s tomb. Saladin’s descendants, it seems, are on the march once more. These Kurds want to be heard. Will the U.S. – – and the world — listen?