Book Review

The Kurds: A Modern History

Michael M. Gunter

Fall 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 3

Michael Gunter, a veteran of Kurdish studies, in The Kurds: A Modern History, revisits their continuing struggle for recognition and statehood. The Arab Spring, the ensuing civil war in Syria, and the sudden rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have made the Kurds and their plight more visible in the Western media. Kurds have gained unprecedented sympathy as a result of their fighting against ISIS, an entity that poses a serious threat to global security. The major argument in Professor Gunter's book is that the rise of the Kurds and ISIS clearly demonstrates the failure of the state system in the Middle East created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. This same state system turned the Kurds into the largest nation without their own nation-state. The Kurds' unrealized desire for independence since the end of World War I created the "Kurdish question" for Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Michael Gunter traces the history of this question and of the development of the Kurdish national movements from the nineteenth century to today, when Kurds seem closer than ever before to their dream of statehood and self-rule.

The book consists of an introduction and seven chapters. The first chapter, "Early History," is an overview of Kurdish history until the end of the Ottoman era. Gunter examines the theories regarding the origins of the Kurds that explain their role in Muslim history. He emphasizes the richness of literary tradition in different parts of Kurdistan but also explains the cultural disunity caused by the existence of mutually unintelligible dialects. Kurdistan was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and the dynasties that governed Persia from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. But autonomous Kurdish emirates ruled Ottoman Kurdistan until their suppression as a result of the Westernizing Ottoman reforms in the nineteenth century. The author explains how the suppression of the powerful Kurdish emirs like Bedir Khan of the Botan Emirate led to the rise of Sufi religious leaders. He mentions Shaykh Ubaydullah, who made use of the term "Kurdish nation" for the first time during his uprising in the 1880s. The author indicates, however, that, in addition to their tribal loyalties and linguistic disunity, the Kurds' religious connection with the Ottoman Turks prevented the rise of anything similar to the modern concept of nationalism until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

That war changed the whole Middle East. The new state system, first planned by the British and French in their Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, was put into practice after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Kurdish territories were divided among four states, namely Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Gunter examines the Kurdish experience in each state in separate chapters. Unlike the multiethnic and multireligious Ottoman Empire, the new nation-states would deny Kurdish identity as a threat to their territorial integrity. In Turkey, Kurds actually had supported the War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). Despite his emphasis on the religious fraternity of Kurds and Turks, Mustafa Kemal adopted a more secular and Turkish-nationalist approach after the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Gunter indicates that the new Turkish state denied Kurdish identity and identified the Kurds' struggle for recognition as a security issue. He explains the Kurdish revolts during the early decades of the republic and the founding of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 1978 as a reaction to the Turkish state's denial of Kurdish identity and rights. Since 1984, the PKK-led insurgency has cost about 40,000 lives.

Gunter then examines the attempts by two Turkish leaders to find a solution to the Kurdish question. President Turgut Özal's initiative in the late 1980s achieved cultural and linguistic rights for Kurds, but the military conflict resumed shortly afterward. A more recent attempt by former prime minister (2003-14) and current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is called the "Kurdish Opening." Though his governments initiated important reforms regarding Kurdish rights, hopes for a permanent cease-fire emerged only in 2013. However, the peace process came to an end after less than two years, and Erdogan has more recently adopted a security approach toward the PKK. Gunter believes the peace process failed because the Turkish government did not meet PKK expectations regarding Kurdish rights in Turkey or the fate of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader. The Syrian civil war and the PKK-affiliated PYD's gaining ground on the Turkish border are other factors. Erdogan turned toward Masud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, to marginalize the PKK and Ocalan. Gunter believes that Turkey's close relations with the KRG would not mean much for the Kurdish question in Turkey, since the main Kurdish party in Turkey is the PKK.

The next chapter presents the historical development of the Kurdish national movement in Iraq after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when the British mandate replaced Ottoman rule in the former provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. The Kurdish nationalist movement in Iraq revolved around two iconic leaders, Shaykh Mahmud Barzanji and Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Since independence in 1932, the Kurds had suffered from an Arab nationalism that viewed Iraq as an exclusively Arab country and Gunter indicates that Kurdish nationalism developed in reaction to it. Arab nationalism then evolved into Baathism, eventually represented by Saddam Hussein between 1979 and 2003. The first Gulf War in 1991 and the creation of a no-fly zone in 1992 paved the way for the creation of the KRG, which Gunter describes as the most successful Kurdish state-building effort in modern times.

Despite conflicts that have seriously threatened Kurdish unity in Iraq, Masoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) played major roles in building the KRG, which was officially recognized in the Iraqi Constitution in 2003. Gunter notes the dramatic improvement in relations between the KRG led by Masoud Barzani and Turkey under Erdogan's leadership — Turkey does not even oppose the idea of the KRG's independence from Iraq. Despite the fact that the KRG seems close to independence, the author also explains the material and institutional challenges the Iraqi Kurds need to overcome.

The next chapter focuses on the Syrian Kurds. Under the French mandate after World War I, Syria became an important center for Kurdish political and cultural activism until its independence in 1946. In addition to the Kurds in major urban centers and Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria, Kurdish refugees also arrived from Turkey. A Kurdish nationalist organization, Khoybun, operated in Syria and Lebanon and spearheaded the Ararat Rebellion (1928-31) against Turkey. Exiled Kurdish nationalists from Turkey played a major role in Syria and Lebanon. The Jaladet, Sureya and Kamuran brothers from the princely Bedirkhan family, for example, led a Kurdish cultural movement. The end of the French mandate and the eventual rise of the Baath regime in Syria created a serious backlash for the Kurds. Gunter indicates that the Baath regime came to view Kurds as a foreign threat to the Arab nation, and it repressed them after the early 1960s. Kurds in Syria, as a result, came to be less known in the West, as compared to their compatriots in Iraq, Turkey and Iran. Some Kurds were stripped of their citizenship in 1962 on the grounds that they supposedly all came from Turkey. Moreover, the state tried to Arabize the Kurdish territories in northern Syria. Gunter adds that the fractured Kurdish political-party system is another reason for the invisibility of the Syrian Kurds until the early 2000s.

It is important to note that, although Syrian Kurds were harshly treated, Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad hosted the PKK and its leader, Ocalan, until 1998 in order to gain leverage against Turkey. The beginning of the civil war in March 2011 made the Kurds of Syria visible to the international community. The most powerful Kurdish party in Syria is now the PKK-affiliated PYD, which intimidates other Kurdish parties in Syria with its military forces and cooperation with Bashar al-Assad's regime. The Kurds declared autonomy in July 2012, and the PYD's fight against ISIS has increased their legitimacy despite the fact that Turkey views them as a terrorist organization for their affiliation with the PKK. The author believes that "the longer the Syrian civil war takes, the more likely Kurdish autonomy will become regularized and institutionalized."

Finally, the author traces the development of Kurdish nationalism in Iran, an exceptional case due to the ethnic affinity between Persians and Kurds. Gunter indicates that the Iranian state, in fact, has used this affinity to moderate Kurdish national demands. Shaikh Ubaydullah and Simko emerged as prominent traditional Kurdish leaders, operating between Persia and the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The most significant Kurdish political experience in Iran was the creation of the Mahabad Republic of Kurdistan in 1946. It lasted for a year and ended with the Soviet withdrawal from northern Iran. Its founder, Qadi Muhammad, also the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), was executed by the Iranian state after the collapse of the Mahabad Republic. This short-lived state had pan-Kurdish tendencies; in fact, Mullah Mustafa Barzani from Iraqi Kurdistan served as the chief of its army. But Gunter indicates that the Islamic Revolution and the ensuing war between Iran and Iraq (1980-88) effectively internationalized the Kurdish question in Iran. The Islamic regime continued the Pahlavi Dynasty's stance toward the Kurdish national movement and assassinated the popular Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou during negotiations in Vienna in 1992. The creation of the PKK-affiliated PJAK in 2004 created a new challenge for Iran. Gunter indicates that, even though both Turkey and Iran try to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state, they have involved themselves in conflicts between the Kurdish parties to increase their own regional influence.

The chapter entitled "The United States and the Kurds" examines the evolution of American policy toward the Kurds, starting with President Woodrow Wilson's principle of national self-determination after World War I. The second "stage" of U.S.-Kurdish relations is also called the Mullah Mustafa Barzani stage, since the United States supported his rebellion against the Iraqi central government during the early 1970s. The third stage starts with the first Gulf War, which paved the way for the creation of the KRG in 1992. The fourth is the beginning of a de facto alliance with the KRG in 1993, when the Untied States decided to topple Saddam Hussein. The KRG gained official status in the new Iraqi constitution at this time. Gunter indicates that the United States is very popular among the Iraqi Kurds, since the KRG owes its very existence to the United States. He adds, however, that the Kurds are also very cautious; the United States has abandoned them twice — in 1975 and 1992 — after initially encouraging them to rise up against the central government. The fifth is the PKK stage. Gunter indicates that the Iraqi Kurds are the "good Kurds" from the point of view of American foreign policy, in contrast to "the bad Kurds" of the PKK, officially branded by Washington as a terrorist organization. This is not only because the PKK kills noncombatants and engages in illegal activities, but because it poses a threat to Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. strategic ally. The United States played a major role in the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1998.

The sixth stage of U.S. policy toward the Kurds starts with the Syrian civil war. The author believes the United States should not bomb Syria to bring down the Assad regime; this action would escalate the war and empower militant groups like ISIS. Instead, Gunter recommends that the United States resist Turkish pressure and refrain from denouncing the PKK-affiliated PYD, the strongest Kurdish party currently battling ISIS. This chapter demonstrates that "the United States has come to affect the Kurdish situation perhaps more than any other state" and that "the United States does not have a ground strategy toward the Kurds since they live in four separate states."

The last chapter is on ISIS and the Kurds, the two non-state actors that, the author believes, mark the end of the traditional state system in the Middle East. The rise of ISIS in Iraq and its sudden capture of Mosul in June 2014 has shown the weakness of the Iraqi government and revealed its lack of legitimacy. These events initially empowered the KRG vis-à-vis the Iraqi central government, but eventually created a major threat when ISIS attacked the KRG in August 2014 and drew perilously close to its capital. Ultimately, American military aid helped the KRG stop ISIS. Gunter lists strategic, historical and religious reasons why ISIS chose to attack the Kurds, but ISIS gained strength in Syria, too. As such, the author indicates that the PYD has proven itself to be the most unified and secular opposition group fighting against ISIS in Syria. Neighboring Turkey, however, favors other opposition groups and equates backing the PYD with supporting the PKK. Thus, the PYD has been excluded from the peace talks. The author believes that both Turkey and the United States have not been able to effectively adapt to the changing geopolitical realities in which Kurds play a prominent role. Instead, they remain committed to preserving "the former Iraq and Syria."

In The Kurds: A Modern History, Michael Gunter clarifies a complex web of relations among Kurdish political groups, Middle Eastern states, and Western powers. His active engagement in Kurdish issues for the last few decade includes meeting with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in Damascus in 1995, attending the Kurdish Democratic Party congress in 1993, and meeting with the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, Mostafa Hejri, in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2012. It is great reading for students, scholars and anyone else interested in understanding the Kurds' rising influence in the Middle East. The book might also be useful for policy makers in Washington, Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus.