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Reviews of The Kurds: A Modern History

“Injustice is part of human history. Morality plays no part; only interests do. The US is in the Middle East to protect and extend the life of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Kurds were its victims. The Kurds will not get their independence unless that changes. Most acknowledge the Kurdish sense of nationalism, but it is so fragmented that it is going to take decades of political unity and massive investments to achieve. Gunter (Tennessee Technical Univ.) explains that very well and is skeptical given the endemic corruption of Kurdish leaders. In the meantime, the West will follow its interests. There have been other such secessions but only when the interests of the West were served. Will Kurdish secession and political unification serve the West? Will that antagonize the many states in the region? Gunter’s well-researched book clearly delineates the forest from the trees. There is no emotionalism or subjectivity. The best parts are the last two chapters, which bring much into focus, including the region-wide mayhem and the lack of a clear US policy, as well as the author’s personal trips to the region.” –CHOCE 2016

“The Kurds enjoy a romantic reputation as doughty mountain fighters who have been denied their freedom and independence by the Arabs, Persians, and Turks who dwell in the cities and plains below. They number somewhere around 40 million, with the biggest populations in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Significantly, much of the territory where large concentrations of Kurds reside is rich in oil and gas reserves.

“Eppel and Gunter, both academics, demonstrate clear but guarded sympathy for the Kurds and their national aspirations. Neither sees Kurdish nationhood as immanent, and both view Kurdish national identity as a fairly recent notion developed by the Kurdish intelligentsia, rather than as a manifestation of a deep historical truth. Eppel notes that the Kurds lack an urban bourgeoisie of the kind that has historically played a critical role in successful ethnonationalist movements.

“Eppel’s account mostly covers the Ottoman era. Gunter’s focuses on recent decades, paying close attention to the period since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and especially the Syrian civil war that began in 2011. Both authors depict the Kurds as living in a meat grinder. In centuries past, the Kurds suffered under the Persian, Russian, and Ottoman empires, engaging in a series of shifting alliances and betrayals that seemingly left everyone worse off. In more recent times, the oppressors have been different but the experience similar, as the fiercely nationalist Republic of Turkey, Islamic Republic of Iran, and Baathist Iraq and Syria became the main obstacles to Kurdish self-rule. More distant powers—the Americans, the British, and the French—have often joined in proxy wars that have engulfed the Kurds, who have seldom obtained a good deal. Kurdish fortunes seemed poised to improve with the emergence of the highly autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq in the wake of the Gulf War of 1990–91—as close to a state as the Kurds have ever come.

“The story of Iraq’s Kurds is relatively well known; Gunter’s book sheds light on the less familiar Syrian Kurds, who number around 2.2 million and occupy three enclaves along the Turkish border. Syrian Kurdish militias have proved to be the most effective of Washington’s partners in the fight against the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Syria. But they are also closely aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a group that the United States has designated as a terrorist organization and that is anathema to Turkey, a member of NATO and a close U.S. ally.” -Foreign Affairs

“Michael Gunter, a veteran of Kurdish studies, in The Kurds; A Modern History, revis­its their continuing struggle for recognition and statehood. The Arab Spring, the ensuing civil war in Syria, and the sudden rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have made the Kurds and their plight more visible in the Western media. Kurds have gained unprecedented sympathy as a result of their fighting against ISIS, an entity that poses a serious threat to global security. The major argument in Professor Gunter’s book is that the rise of the Kurds and ISIS clearly demonstrates the failure of the state system in the Middle East created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. This same state system turned the Kurds into the largest nation without their own nation-state. The Kurds’ unreal­ized desire for independence since the end of World War I created the “Kurdish question” for Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Michael Gunter traces the history of this question and of the development of the Kurdish national movements from the nineteenth century to today, when Kurds seem closer than ever before to their dream of statehood and self-rule.

“The book consists of an introduction and seven chapters. The first chapter, “Early History,” is an overview of Kurdish history until the end of the Ottoman era. Gunter examines the theories regarding the origins of the Kurds that explain their role in Muslim history. He emphasizes the richness of literary tradition in different parts of Kurdistan but also explains the cultural disunity caused by the existence of mutually unintelligible dia­lects. Kurdistan was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and the dynasties that governed Persia from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. But autonomous Kurdish emirates ruled Otto­man Kurdistan until their suppression as a result of the Westernizing Ottoman reforms in the nineteenth century. The author explains how the suppression of the powerful Kurdish emirs like Bedir Khan of the Botan Emirate led to the rise of Sufi religious leaders. He mentions Shaykh Ubaydullah, who made use of the term “Kurdish nation” for the first time during his uprising in the 1880s. The author indicates, however, that, in addition to their tribal loyalties and linguistic disunity, the Kurds’ religious connection with the Ot­toman Turks prevented the rise of anything similar to the modern concept of nationalism until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

“That war changed the whole Middle East. The new state system, first planned by the British and French in their Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, was put into practice after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Kurdish territories were divided among four states, namely Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Gunter examines the Kurdish experience in each state in separate chapters. Unlike the multiethnic and multireligious Ottoman Empire, the new nation-states would deny Kurdish identity as a threat to their territorial integrity. In Turkey, Kurds actually had supported the War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk). Despite his emphasis on the religious fraternity of Kurds and Turks, Mustafa Kemal adopted a more secular and Turkish-nationalist approach after the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Gunter indicates that the new Turkish state denied Kurdish identity and identified the Kurds’ struggle for recognition as a security issue. He explains the Kurdish revolts during the early decades of the republic and the founding of the Kurd­istan Workers Party (PKK) in 1978 as a reaction to the Turkish state’s denial of Kurdish identity and rights. Since 1984, the PKK-led insurgency has cost about 40,000 lives.

“Gunter then examines the attempts by two Turkish leaders to find a solution to the Kurdish question. President Turgut Ozal’s initiative in the late 1980s achieved cultural and linguistic rights for Kurds, but the military conflict resumed shortly afterward. A more recent attempt by former prime minister (2003-14) and current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is called the “Kurdish Opening.” Though his governments initiated important reforms regarding Kurdish rights, hopes for a permanent cease-fire emerged only in 2013. However, the peace process came to an end after less than two years, and Erdogan has more recently adopted a security approach toward the PKK. Gunter believes the peace process failed because the Turkish government did not meet PKK expecta¬tions regarding Kurdish rights in Turkey or the fate of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned PKK leader. The Syrian civil war and the PKK-affiliated PYD’s gaining ground on the Turkish border are other factors. Erdogan turned toward Masud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, to marginalize the PKK and Ocalan. Gunter believes that Turkey’s close relations with the KRG would not mean much for the Kurdish question in Turkey, since the main Kurdish party in Turkey is the PKK.

“The next chapter presents the historical development of the Kurdish national move­ment in Iraq after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when the British mandate replaced Ottoman rule in the former provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. The Kurdish nation­alist movement in Iraq revolved around two iconic leaders, Shaykh Mahmud Barzanji and Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Since independence in 1932, the Kurds had suffered from an Arab nationalism that viewed Iraq as an exclusive Arab country country and Gunter indicates that Kurdish nationalism developed in reaction to it.Arab nationalism then envolved into Baathism,eventually represented by Saddam Hussein between 1979 and 2003. The first Gulf War in 1991 and the creation of a no-fly zone in 1992 paved the way for the creation of the KRG, which Gunter describes as the most successful Kurdish state-build­ing effort in modern times.

“Despite conflicts that have seriously threatened Kurdish unity in Iraq, Masoud Bar-zani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) played major roles in building the KRG, which was officially recognized in the Iraqi Constitution in 2003. Gunter notes the dramatic improvement in relations between the KRG led by Masoud Barzani and Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership — Turkey does not even oppose the idea of the KRG’s independence from Iraq. Despite the fact that the KRG seems close to independence, the author also explains the material and institutional challenges the Iraqi Kurds need to overcome.

“The next chapter focuses on the Syrian Kurds. Under the French mandate after World War I, Syria became an important center for Kurdish political and cultural activism until its independence in 1946. In addition to the Kurds in major urban centers and Kurdish en­claves in northern Syria, Kurdish refugees also arrived from Turkey. A Kurdish national­ist organization, Khoybun, operated in Syria and Lebanon and spearheaded the Ararat Re­bellion (1928-31) against Turkey. Exiled Kurdish nationalists from Turkey played a major role in Syria and Lebanon. The Jaladet, Sureya and Kamuran brothers from the princely Bedirkhan family, for example, led a Kurdish cultural movement. The end of the French mandate and the eventual rise of the Baath regime in Syria created a serious backlash for the Kurds. Gunter indicates that the Baath regime came to view Kurds as a foreign threat to the Arab nation, and it repressed them after the early 1960s. Kurds in Syria, as a result, came to be less known in the West, as compared to their compatriots in Iraq, Turkey and Iran. Some Kurds were stripped of their citizenship in 1962 on the grounds that they sup­posedly all came from Turkey. Moreover, the state tried to Arabize the Kurdish territories in northern Syria. Gunter adds that the fractured Kurdish political-party system is another reason for the invisibility of the Syrian Kurds until the early 2000s.

“It is important to note that, although Syrian Kurds were harshly treated, Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad hosted the PKK and its leader, Ocalan, until 1998 in order to gain leverage against Turkey. The beginning of the civil war in March 2011 made the Kurds of Syria visible to the international community. The most powerful Kurdish parry in Syria is now the PKK-affiliated PYD, which intimidates other Kurdish parties in Syria with its military forces and cooperation with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Kurds declared autonomy in July 2012, and the PYD’s fight against ISIS has increased their legitimacy despite the fact that Turkey views them as a terrorist organization for their affiliation with the PKK. The author believes that “the longer the Syrian civil war takes, the more likely Kurdish autonomy will become regularized and institutionalized.”

“Finally, the author traces the development of Kurdish nationalism in Iran, an excep­tional case due to the ethnic affinity between Persians and Kurds. Gunter indicates that the Iranian state, in fact, has used this affinity to moderate Kurdish national demands. Shaikh UbayduIIah and Simko emerged as prominent traditional Kurdish leaders, oper­ating between Persia and the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The most significant Kurdish political experience in Iran was the creation of the Mahabad Republic of Kurdistan in 1946. It lasted for a year and ended with the Soviet withdrawal from northern Iran. Its founder, Qadi Muhammad, also the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), was executed by the Iranian state after the collapse of the Mahabad Republic. This short-lived state had pan-Kurdish tendencies; in fact, Mullah Mustafa Barzani from Iraqi Kurdistan served as the chief of its army. But Gunter indicates that the Islamic Revolution and the ensuing war between Iran and Iraq (1980-88) effectively internationalized the Kurdish question in Iran. The Islamic regime continued the Pahlavi Dynasty’s stance toward the Kurdish national movement and as­sassinated the popular Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou during negotiations in Vienna in 1992. The creation of the PKK-affiliated PJAK in 2004 created a new challenge for Iran. Gunter indicates that, even though both Turkey and Iran try to prevent the cre­ation of a Kurdish state, they have involved themselves in conflicts between the Kurdish parties to increase their own regional influence.

“The chapter entitled “The United States and the Kurds” examines the evolution of American policy toward the Kurds, starting with President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of national self-determination after World War I. The second “stage” of U.S.-Kurdish relations is also called the Mullah Mustafa Barzani stage, since the United States sup­ported his rebellion against the Iraqi central government during the early 1970s. The third stage starts with the first Gulf War, which paved the way for the creation of the KRG in 1992. The fourth is the beginning of a de facto alliance with the KRG in 1993, when the Untied States decided to topple Saddam Hussein. The KRG gained official status in the new Iraqi constitution at this time. Gunter indicates that the United States is very popular among the Iraqi Kurds, since the KRG owes its very existence to the United States. He adds, however, that the Kurds are also very cautious; the United States has abandoned them twice — in 1975 and 1992 — after initially encouraging them to rise up against the central government. The fifth is the PKK stage. Gunter indicates that the Iraqi Kurds are the “good Kurds” from the point of view of American foreign policy, in contrast to “the bad Kurds” of the PKK, officially branded by Washington as a terrorist organization. This is not only because the PKK kills noncombatants and engages in illegal activities, but because it poses a threat to Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. strategic ally. The United States played a major role in the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1998.

“The sixth stage of U.S. policy toward the Kurds starts with the Syrian civil war. The author believes the United States should not bomb Syria to bring down the Assad regime; this action would escalate the war and empower militant groups like ISIS. Instead, Gunter recommends that the United States resist Turkish pressure and refrain from denouncing the PKK-affiliated PYD, the strongest Kurdish party currently battling ISIS. This chapter demonstrates that “the United States has come to affect the Kurdish situation perhaps more than any other state” and that “the United States does not have a ground strategy toward the Kurds since they live in four separate states.”

“The last chapter is on ISIS and the Kurds, the two non-state actors that, the author believes, mark the end of the traditional state system in the Middle East. The rise of ISIS in Iraq and its sudden capture of Mosul in June 2014 has shown the weakness of the Iraqi government and revealed its lack of legitimacy. These events initially empowered the KRG vis-a-vis the Iraqi central government, but eventually created a major threat when ISIS attacked the KRG in August 2014 and drew perilously close to its capital. Ulti­mately, American military aid helped the KRG stop ISIS. Gunter lists strategic, historical and religious reasons why ISIS chose to attack the Kurds, but ISIS gained strength in Syria, too. As such, the author indicates that the PYD has proven itself to be the most unified and secular opposition group fighting against ISIS in Syria. Neighboring Turkey, however, favors other opposition groups and equates backing the PYD with supporting the PKK. Thus, the PYD has been excluded from the peace talks. The author believes that both Turkey and the United States have not been able to effectively adapt to the changing geopolitical realities in which Kurds play a prominent role. Instead, they remain commit­ted to preserving “the former Iraq and Syria.”

“In The Kurds; A Modern History, Michael Gunter clarifies a complex web of relations among Kurdish political groups, Middle Eastern states, and Western powers. His active engagement in Kurdish issues for the last few decade includes meeting with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in Damascus in 1995, attending the Kurdish Democratic Party congress in 1993, and meeting with the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, Mostafa Hejri, in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2012. It is great reading for students, scholars and anyone else interested in understanding the Kurds’ rising influence in the Middle East. The book might also be useful for policy makers in Washington, Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus.” –Middle East Policy  Vol.XXIII 3, Fall 2016

“Michael Gunter’s well-structured monograph is an exceptionally accessible study of the Kurds and should be considered a mandatory read for undergraduate students with an interest in international relations. A general readership will also benefit, gaining a deeper understanding of regional intricacies that contributed to the rise of the Kurds as political actors in the region. Gunter’s study offers seven self-contained and very manageable chapters that range from insights into the early history of the Kurds to the United States’ current relationship with the Kurds and the Kurdish struggle against ISIS (“Islamic State”). In addition, the monograph offers several maps that provide an indispensable geographic context. Gunter also added a number of fascinating personal vignettes about his experiences in the region during the past 30 years. He integrates, for example, personal accounts including his meeting with the now imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan back in 1998 (p. 47-49). Later, he shares his personal observations of the situation in Irbil in 2014 after ISIS’s failed attempts to take the city. He finds life in Irbil almost back to normal despite the harrowing threat, just 50 miles away. Walking through Ankawa, the Christian section of the city, he observes that “modern day religious fanatics would literally like to crucify these very Christians living peacefully with the Kurds!” (p. 85).

“Gunter’s newest monograph focuses on providing an updated and frank analysis of Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran for readers who may be familiar with his 2014 monograph Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War. In The Kurds: A Modern History, Gunter further develops major themes he initially explored in his earlier work–themes that turned out to have been too fluid to fully explore in 2014. In particular, he investigates the US government’s relationship with the Kurds and the experiences of Kurdish fighters in an imploding Syria. One can only assume that Gunter is already in the process of composing yet another monograph that will be available by next year to update the mercurial developments. Among the issues that will need to be addressed, of course, are the dramatically deteriorating situation inside Turkey, which could result in a full blown civil war by the middle of 2016, and a further assessment of the increasingly gruesome sectarian battle in Syria following Russian and Iranian interventions of behalf of the Assad regime.

“Several chapters are of particular importance to readers keen on gaining a clearer understanding of the significance of Kurds in the region. Chapter two chronicles the contentious rise of the PKK, talks of peace, and the blunt assessment that “heavy fighting between Turkey and the PKK had resumed” (p. 60). Nearly six months after Gunter wrote his last remarks foreshadowing the deteriorating conditions for Kurdish communities in Turkey it is hard to even recall the general optimism supporters of the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) expressed following the successful June7, 2015 election. The chapter reminds readers that the basic parameters for peace negotiations between the Turkish state and the Kurds had not been agreed upon despite much rhetoric to the contrary. The tragedy for the Kurds of Turkey is that in 2016 they face a hyper-nationalist Turkish public and a hardened military, which is once again determined to crush Kurdish resistance to state control.

“Chapter four examines the marginalizing experiences of Syrian Kurds. This section is of particular interest to students striving to understand the Syrian complexities. Gunter integrates a detailed examination of the treatment of Kurds as ajanib (foreigners) in Syria starting in 1962 based on the proclamation of Decree 93, which resulted in the denial of civil rights to Kurds and their loss of property rights, and also excluded them from accessing a range of employment options. He then discusses the impact of Arabization policies and the rise of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the Peoples Defence Units (YPG), the PKK’s sister organization across the border. This chapter also offers sobering remarks about the Syrian civil war’s human toll by focusing on both the appallingly high numbers of casualties, internally displaced populations, and refugees in neighboring countries. Fascinating are Gunter’s observations that the Assad regime was soon expected to collapse, which of course turned out to have been premature as both Iranian and Russian interventions provided essential lifelines for the dictator and his inner circle.

“In Chapter six Gunter observes that the United States pursued a number of clear priorities in Syria that failed to intersect with Kurdish interests. He emphasizes that the US focuses on curbing the influence of ISIS and other jihadi extremists, but also aims to keep Iran from partitioning the Syrian state. His final chapter frames the regional rise of ISIS and the group’s keen interest in destroying Kurdish influences. Gunter’s most recent monograph faces an inevitable challenge for authors who analyze ongoing crises: the monograph was completed in April 2015, which means that Turkey’s attacks on Syrian Kurds are not addressed and a further evaluation of the potential for hostile acts and clashes between Russia and Turkey are not included. His analysis up to this point, however, elucidates key nuances of a constantly shifting set of complex regional factors.

“Gunter’s The Kurds: A Modern History, just as his prior contributions in the field, adds an enormously valuable and readable study. He reaches an audience that struggles to keep up with the dramatic changes throughout the region. Gunter convincingly concludes that both Turkey and the United States have been too slow to grasp the profound geopolitical shifts underway by insisting on maintaining the existing artificial boundaries of Iraq and Syria. In essence, Gunter suggests concentrating on the question of self-determination that was raised but inadequately addressed some 100 years earlier during the final years of WWI.” –Kurdish Studies, October 2016


“Kurdish history is a fast-moving, tough-to-tackle topic in these first two decades of the 21st century. Cross-bedded loyalties, the fitful roles of outside observers and international players, and the oft-contradictory needs of reconstructing artificially drawn nation states in the aftermath of uprisings and invasions all greatly complicate the subject. Gunter offers a survey of what might be called the Kurdish Questions — note the much-needed plural! — of today, with chapters on the Kurds of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, as well as analyses of their contested relations with the US and non-Kurdish insurgencies. His most helpful contribution is twofold: a synopsis of Kurdish literary and linguistic identity, and his noted parallel between Kurdish nationalism, as it emerged from the Ottoman and Persian empires, and various European nationalist movements born from similar crumblings of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires.” Aramcoworld, May/June 2018