A century ago, as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated foreign powers divided up the Middle East and split the Kurdish people between four undemocratic nation-states. The resulting conflict, often called the “Kurdish question,” is the central conflict of the Middle East today.
This conflict impacts not only Kurds, but nearly every major ethnic and religious community in the region. It unfolds across four strategically located states—Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria— with a combined population of over 200 million. It determines the domestic and foreign policies of these states and has shaped the outcomes of era-defining international crises like the Syrian Civil War.
Attempts to resolve this conflict by military means have cost governments trillions of dollars in a region already struggling with poverty and underdevelopment. They have made the Middle East less democratic, less pluralist, and less free. And, as war and authoritarianism always do, this status quo has had an immeasurable impact on civilians.
Kurds and their allies have responded to these challenges by putting forward a new vision of regional order. They have turned their historic disadvantage into an asset by questioning whether centralization, nationalism, and religious fundamentalism can ever be a solution in a place where they are the cause of so many problems.
These ideas and the people who believe in them are major players in regional politics. In a time where great power competition shapes the calculations of policymakers and every square inch on the map is part of the global chessboard, the Kurds, their homeland, and their political proposals simply cannot be ignored.
In North and East Syria, for example, a multiethnic administration that prioritizes women’s empowerment, religious freedom, and other pluralist values has defeated ISIS and built Syria’s most functional and stable government. They did so by implementing a political model developed by Kurds opposing ultra-nationalism and religious fundamentalism in Turkey—the very same Kurds who may shift the balance of Turkey’s decisive 2023 elections.
All the while the Kurds in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have proven to be resilient in the face of pressure from every direction possible and continue to be a focal point for regional powers that wish it never existed in the first place.
Turkey’s far-right government sees all of this as a threat, and has based its most destabilizing domestic and foreign policy moves on countering it. Some have argued that every action Erdogan’s government has taken—up to and including Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, which has severely strained its relations with the U.S.—can be traced back to Turkey’s Kurdish question.
If this is all true, and we believe it is, then a deeper understanding of and a direct engagement with the efforts and aspirations of the Kurdish people is a must for anyone with a stake in the region.
Until now, the United States has not been equipped to recognize the importance of this conflict or the proposals that Kurdish political actors have put forward to address it. American perspectives on Kurdish aspirations are often derivative of the nationalist or sectarian viewpoints of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. This puts the United States at a disadvantage— and, all too often, has made it complicit in real humanitarian and security disasters.
We aim to change this.
The Kurdish Peace Institute will provide unique insight and analysis on this conflict. We will share perspectives on Kurdish political and military actors that analyze and engage with these entities in their own right, and explain how the Kurdish question impacts challenges of regional and global importance. We will bring together academics, practitioners, and other experts from Kurdistan and around the world in order to build this new understanding, setting the stage for a dialogue that has not yet been had in Washington.
We look forward to filling an important space with this project, and to contributing to key discussions on pressing issues at an important time for the United States and the region alike.