A People Without a State: The Kurds From the Rise of Islam to the Dawn of Nationalism; The Kurds: A Modern History

In This Review

A People Without a State: The Kurds From the Rise of Islam to the Dawn of Nationalism
By Michael Eppel
University of Texas Press, 2016
188 pp.
The Kurds: A Modern History
By Michael Gunter
Markus Wiener, 2015
256 pp.

The Kurds enjoy a romantic reputation as doughty mountain fighters who have been denied their freedom and independence by the Arabs, Persians, and Turks who dwell in the cities and plains below. They number somewhere around 40 million, with the biggest populations in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Significantly, much of the territory where large concentrations of Kurds reside is rich in oil and gas reserves. 

Eppel and Gunter, both academics, demonstrate clear but guarded sympathy for the Kurds and their national aspirations. Neither sees Kurdish nationhood as immanent, and both view Kurdish national identity as a fairly recent notion developed by the Kurdish intelligentsia, rather than as a manifestation of a deep historical truth. Eppel notes that the Kurds lack an urban bourgeoisie of the kind that has historically played a critical role in successful ethnonationalist movements.

Eppel’s account mostly covers the Ottoman era. Gunter’s focuses on recent decades, paying close attention to the period since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and especially the Syrian civil war that began in 2011. Both authors depict the Kurds as living in a meat grinder. In centuries past, the Kurds suffered under the Persian, Russian, and Ottoman empires, engaging in a series of shifting alliances and betrayals that seemingly left everyone worse off. In more recent times, the oppressors have been different but the experience similar, as the fiercely nationalist Republic of Turkey, Islamic Republic of Iran, and Baathist Iraq and Syria became the main obstacles to Kurdish self-rule. More distant powers—the Americans, the British, and the French—have often joined in proxy wars that have engulfed the Kurds, who have seldom obtained a good deal. Kurdish fortunes seemed poised to improve with the emergence of the highly autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq in the wake of the Gulf War of 1990–91—as close to a state as the Kurds have ever come.

The story of Iraq’s Kurds is relatively well known; Gunter’s book sheds light on the less familiar Syrian Kurds, who number around 2.2 million and occupy three enclaves along the Turkish border. Syrian Kurdish militias have proved to be the most effective of Washington’s partners in the fight against the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Syria. But they are also closely aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a group that the United States has designated as a terrorist organization and that is anathema to Turkey, a member of NATO and a close U.S. ally.

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