THE KURDS are sometimes called the world’s largest nation without its own independent state. Some 30m or them are scattered mostly across Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. They share a culture and language, and most are Sunni Muslim. But since the end of the first world war, all four countries have tried to suppress the Kurds’ culture and restricted the use of the Kurdish language. At times they have resorted to horrifying violence, such as when Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s then dictator, used nerve gas against them in 1988. Thirty years ago, in response to Saddam’s attempt to crush another uprising, America, Britain and other countries imposed a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan and airlifted humanitarian aid to the region. The supplies exceeded the Allies’ deliveries to West Berlin after the second world war. Many Kurds saw the protected enclave as the embryo of a Kurdish state. More recently the Kurds have been at the forefront of the successful fight against the jihadists of Islamic State, not just in Iraq but also in Syria. Yet the hopes of independence are fading. Why?

After the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire in the first world war, the victorious Western powers made provision for a Kurdish state in the treaty of Sèvres in 1920. But three years later, in the treaty of Lausanne that defined the borders of modern Turkey, the idea of a Kurdish homeland was abandoned; Kurdish areas were to be divided up among the modern states that emerged from the war. The dream of uniting all Kurds in a single homeland endured. At different times and in different ways, the suppression of Kurdish nationalism would lead to instability and violence in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. But the established states have usually mustered the force to crush the rebels; Kurdish factions have often been at odds with each other; and even sympathetic outsiders have worried about the turmoil that Kurdish statehood would create.

In 2017 Iraqi Kurds proposed something less ambitious than a pan-Kurdish state: independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. Most Iraqi Kurds voted in favour in a non-binding referendum. They thought they had the upper hand: they had helped defeat IS, had funds from the sale of oil, and arms and sympathy from the West. Kurdish leaders said the referendum was meant to serve as a starting point for negotiations on sovereignty. Iraq’s government, though, took it as a full-fledged declaration of independence. It blocked the airspace above Iraqi Kurdistan and, in a military counter-punch, captured a third of the territory that the Kurds then held, including the disputed city of Kirkuk and big oilfields.

In Syria, too, the Kurds (who had teamed up with America to defeat IS) were put on the defensive. Turkey invaded parts of northern Syria controlled by Kurdish militias in 2019. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, aimed to prevent the creation of anything resembling a Kurdish state, for fear that it might embolden Kurdish separatists in Turkey (The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant Kurdish faction in Syria, is closely related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the main Kurdish militant group in Turkey). Having once wooed the Kurds and held peace talks with the PKK, Mr Erdogan has treated the Kurds with increasing harshness. He has sought to ban the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a hitherto-legal Kurdish party; Kurdish politicians are frequently arrested.

But the Kurds have made gains as well. In Iraq, Kurdistan remains far safer than the rest of the country. The region’s leaders are mending fences with the central government, allowing oil to flow and resources to be shared. Reconstruction in Iraqi Kurdistan has far outpaced that taking place in the rest of the country. The part of Syria controlled by Kurds is also better off than the area controlled by Bashar al-Assad, the country’s dictator. In Turkey, for now, the Kurds still have significant political influence. The HDP won over 10% of the seats in parliament in the last election (in 2018). If it and the opposition continue to make gains, they might end Mr Erdogan’s rule.

In Turkey the Kurds are seeking to preserve their political rights. In Iraq and Syria they seem to have decided that pushing too hard for independence is dangerous. For now they have settled for varying degrees of autonomy. In Syria, for example, they say they want a Kurdish region within a federal state (the Assad regime angrily resists this idea though it has at times been in alliance with the Kurds). But the Kurds must also put their own houses in order. In Iraq and Syria there is too much infighting and corruption at the top, and democracy has faltered. The Kurds like to say that they have “no friends but the mountains”. But internal division has been one of their worst enemies.

Dig deeper:
The Kurdish spring did not happen, but there have been gains as well as setbacks (Briefing)