Some 30 million Kurds live in an area that includes parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. A non-Arab, Sunni people, the Kurds have the distinction of being the world’s largest stateless minority. But that may be changing. The massive shifts occurring in the Middle East and the practiced moderation of Iraq’s Kurds have produced something almost unheard of in the region: The Kurds have developed the infrastructure of a state.
The effort has been a century in the making. At the end of World War I, the Allies called for an autonomous Kurdistan – just as they promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine – from land conquered from the defeated Ottoman Empire. The promise to the Kurds was part of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which the new Turkish Republic refused to ratify. The treaty Turkey did ratify made no mention of the Kurds, who became victims of discrimination and ethnic cleansing in the Middle East.
A poison gas attack on Iraqi Kurds by Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1988 killed thousands. But the no-fly zone that the Allies imposed in northern Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991 gave the Kurds some breathing space. Rather than carrying out terrorist attacks against Saddam’s regime, or turning against each other, the Kurds went to work on their own form of nation building. Post-Saddam Iraq formalized Kurdish autonomy. In the process, they let the international community get comfortable with what a Kurdish state would look like: moderate, stable, pro-Western and disinclined to be a rallying cry for Kurds in neighboring countries.
Now, with Sunni Islamists threatening the breakup of Iraq, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, has called for a referendum on independence. The United States is cool on the matter, favoring a continued federated Iraq as a more stable option. But Israel, which has had informal relations with the Kurds since the 1960s, is enthusiastically in favor of Kurdish independence. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and outgoing President Shimon Peres have voiced support for the Kurds.
What the Kurds have done is admirable. They have been careful to advance their national goals while remaining unified, even as the ground has shifted around them. They have succeeded by harnessing the power of paradox — much like David Ben-Gurion did when he said, “We shall fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper and fight the White Paper as if there was no Hitler.” The Kurds have stuck with Iraq even as they built their own infrastructure. In the process, what some saw as a contradiction, the Kurds saw as the height of wisdom.
Keep an eye on the Kurds. They are deliberate, careful and patient. They have a plan, and they are executing it. And they appear to be in the game for the long term.