The Kurds are one of the world’s largest stateless ethnic groups, but that may soon change. The Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS have allowed Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq to seize swaths of land historically claimed by the Kurds. The map below shows the current situation in Iraq and Syria.
The yellow area at the top of the map is the area controlled by the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds and it is pretty clear that a nascent state is emerging. Their borders are linked and their soldiers are fighting together, as in Kobani in 2014. Except for Turkish Kurdistan, the Kurds have indeed already achieved effective independence. Neither the Syrian nor Iraqi governments are able to prevent the Kurds from declaring independence, at least not by force. Which brings us back to Turkey and Turkish Kurdistan.
Of the four Kurdistans (Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, and Turkish), Turkish Kurdistan is the largest and most heavily populated. According to the CIA World Factbook, Kurds make up around 18 percent of Turkey’s population, giving the Turkish government a major stake in the future of Kurdistan. The Turks have fought a long-running war against their Kurdish population, running for about 40 years. The Turkish government is adamantly opposed to the creation of any independent Kurdish state and seem prepared to use force to prevent it. I do believe that if the Kurds were to make more overt moves towards independence, the Turks would respond with ground troops, at least in Syria. The Turks are more wary about invading Iraqi Kurdistan.
Another factor in the future of Kurdistan is the increasing support from the rest of the world. Both the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have emerged as the most effective forces fighting ISIS. As such, they have both received ample support from the US coalition, mainly in the form of airstrikes. The US is essentially acting as the Kurds’ air force at the moment, with the US even building a new airfield to facilitate support for the Kurds, who have also received equipment and training necessary to effectively call in air support. The Kurds, particularly the Iraqi Peshmerga, are also receiving significant amounts of equipment from Western countries. Now admittedly, those links are quite outdated, but since then the amount of support the Kurds are receiving has only increased. But, most important to the Kurdish cause is the recognition they are receiving. Their fight against ISIS has made them popular both with Western governments and Western populations. This is important as international recognition is what the Kurds need most to achieve independence. As the map posted above showed, the Kurds have already seized most of their claimed areas by force. What they need is for the international community to allow them to keep their gains. Turkey’s opposition is heavy and potentially backed up by force, but the US and its European allies have significant leverage over Turkey. Will it be enough to restrain the Turks remains to be seen.
On a final note, I do believe the Kurds are going to achieve independence, at least in Iraq and Syria. They have a historically unique opportunity to do so right now. The effect of the Turkish wildcard remains to be seen, however. First, whether or not the Turks use force to prevent Kurdish ambitions. Second, whether or not the Turks are successful in defeating the Syrian Kurds or if their intervention unites the Kurds against Turkey.