Why has the West been so supportive of Palestinian nationalism, yet so reluctant to support the Kurds, the largest nation in the world without a state?
The Kurds have been instrumental in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS); have generously accepted millions of refugees fleeing ISIS to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG); and embrace Western values such as gender equality, religious freedom, and human rights. They are also an ancient people with an ethnic and linguistic identity stretching back millennia and have faced decades of brutal oppression as a minority. Yet they cannot seem to get sufficient support from the West for their political aspirations.
The Palestinians, by contrast, claimed a distinct national identity relatively recently, are less than one-third fewer in number (in 2013, the global Palestinian population was estimated by the Palestinian Authority to reach 11.6 million), control land that is less than 1/15th the size of the KRG territory, and have not developed their civil society or economy with nearly as much success as the Kurds. Yet the United Nations, the European Union, the Arab League, and other international bodies have all but ignored Kurdish statehood dreams while regularly prioritizing Palestinian ambitions over countless other global crises.
Indeed, in 2014 the UK and Sweden joined much of the rest of the world in recognizing a Palestinian state. There has been no similar global support for a Kurdish homeland. Moreover, Kurdish statehood has been hobbled by U.S. reluctance to see the Iraqi state dismantled and by regional powers like Turkey, which worries that a Kurdish state will stir up separatist feelings among Turkish Kurds.
With an estimated worldwide population of about 35 million (including about 28 million in the KRG or adjacent areas), the Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East (after the Arabs, Persians, and Turks), and have faced decades of persecution as a minority in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.
The 1988 "Anfal" attacks, which included the use of chemical weapons, destroyed about 2,000 villages and killed at least 50,000 Kurds, according to human rights groups (Kurds put the number at nearly 200,000). Several international bodies have recognized those atrocities as a genocide.
The Kurds in Turkey have also suffered oppression dating back to Ottoman times, when the Turkish army killed tens of thousands of Kurds in the Dersim and Zilan massacres. By the mid-1990s, more than 3,000 villages had been destroyed and 378,335 Kurdish villagers had been displaced and left homeless, according to Human Rights Watch.
The drive for Kurdish rights and separatism in Iran extends back to 1918, and — during its most violent chapter — cost the lives of over 30,000 Kurds, starting with the 1979 rebellion and the consequent KDPI insurgency.
A 2007 study notes that 300,000 Kurdish lives were lost just in the 1980s and 1990s. The same study states that 51,000 Jews and Arabs were killed in the Arab-Israeli conflict from 1950 until 2007 (and, because that total includes wars with Israel's Arab neighbors, Palestinians are a small fraction of the Arab death toll).
Perhaps because of the Kurds' own painful history, the KRG is exceptionally tolerant towards religious minorities and refugees. The KRG has embraced its tiny community of Jews, and in 2014, the Kurds rescued about 5,000 Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar after fleeing attempted genocide by ISIS. Last November, the Kurds recaptured the Sinjar area from ISIS, liberating hundreds more Yazidis from vicious oppression.
The KRG absorbed 1.8 million refugees as of December, representing a population increase of about 30 percent. The KRG reportedly needs $1.4 to 2.4 billion to stabilize the internally displaced people in its territory.
"Most of the refugees [in the KRG] are Arab Sunnis and Shia, Iranians, Christians, and others," Nahro Zagros, Soran University vice president and adviser to the KRG's Ministry of Higher Education, told the IPT. "Yet there is no public backlash from the Kurds. And of course, we have been helping the Yazidi, who are fellow Kurds."