Morton Abramowitz and Jessica Sims: Unraveling the Kurdish Conundrum





Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council. Jessica Sims is a research associate at The Century Foundation.

For the last century, some 30 million Kurds in the Middle East and Turkey got the short end of the stick. They were the unacknowledged, often-persecuted minority in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. They had little ability to affect the politics of these countries. But that began to change after the first Gulf War, when the Kurds of northern Iraq gained significant autonomy. And now the Arab uprisings have awakened a Kurdish consciousness throughout the region.

While Kurds have started talking more to each other, there has been no coming together and no unified Kurdish area is remotely in the offing—but as the situations in Syria, Iraq and Iran change, a new status for the region’s Kurds is coming. To understand and protect its interests in the outcome, Washington must pay close attention to the dynamics at work.

The United States has a checkered history with the Kurds, but it has done at least one impressive thing. In 1991, it established a protected area for the Kurds in Iraq that allowed them to create a successful, quasi-independent state after decades of division and oppression. The unexpected result was something of a beacon for all Kurds.

Despite this new model, there is still disunity and disagreement among the various Kurdish groups. But the instability that reigns throughout the region will also transform the Kurdish situation in uncertain ways. Turkey’s continued struggle with its Kurdish population, Iraq’s fracturing political scene and the Syrian upheavals are opening new vistas for the Kurds.

Nobody can easily predict how today’s dust settles. But the United States wants the Kurds to emerge in better shape and not become an issue that further divides countries and the region. That is no easy job in an area that hardly plays to Washington’s strong suit... 



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