Details about the U.S. withdrawal from Syria remain sketchy. But whatever Washington ultimately decides to do, Trump’s announcement marked a cruel turn for Kurds across the Middle East. Back in mid-2017, the Kurds had been enjoying a renaissance. Syrian Kurds, allied with the world’s only superpower, had played the central role in largely defeating ISIS on the battlefield and had seized the group’s capital, Raqqa. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia, controlled large swaths of Syrian territory and looked set to become a significant actor in negotiations to end the country’s civil war. Turkish Kurds, although besieged at home, were basking in the glow of the accomplishments of their Syrian counterparts, with whom they are closely aligned. And in Iraq, the body that rules the country’s Kurdish region—the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG—was at the height of its powers, preparing for a September 2017 referendum on independence.
By the end of 2018, many of the Kurds’ dreams appeared to be in tatters. After the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in the KRG’s referendum, the Iraqi government, backed by Iran and Turkey, invaded Iraqi Kurdistan and conquered some 40 percent of its territory. Overnight, the KRG lost not only nearly half of its land but much of its international influence, too. The Turkish Kurds, despite gaining seats in parliament in the June 2018 elections, had endured relentless assaults from Erdogan and his government throughout the year, including a renewed military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a left-wing separatist group. In Syria, Turkey invaded the Kurdish-controlled town of Afrin in March 2018, displacing the YPG and some 200,000 local Kurds. Then, in December, the Syrian Kurds learned that their American protectors might soon abandon them altogether.
These setbacks, however, belie a larger trend—one that will shape the Middle East in the years ahead. Across the region, Kurds are gaining self-confidence, pushing for long-denied rights, and, most important, collaborating with one another across national boundaries and throughout the diaspora. To a greater extent than at any previous point in history, Kurds in the four traditionally distinct parts of Kurdistan—in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—are starting down the road of becoming a single Kurdish nation. Significant barriers to unity remain, including linguistic divisions and the presence of at least two strong states, Iran and Turkey, with an overriding interest in thwarting any form of pan-Kurdism. Yet recent events have initiated a process of Kurdish nation building that will, in the long run, prove difficult to contain. Even if there is never a single, unified, independent Kurdistan, the Kurdish national awakening has begun. The Middle East’s states may fear the Kurdish awakening, but it is beyond their power to stop it.