The Kurdish people are often described as the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation-state; nevertheless, they have greatly influenced regional events—most recently in combating the Islamic State (IS), which now controls large swaths of territory within Iraq and Syria. Historically a nomadic people, the Kurds (today numbering about 20–30 million) inhabit a mountainous region along the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Armenia.
Under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdish people of northern Iraq (accused of supporting Iran) were targeted in a chemical weapons attack by the Baathist regime, which killed at least 5,000 people in the city of Halabja during the late 1980s. Perhaps, somewhat unsurprisingly, Kurdish fighters—known as Peshmerga (meaning “those who confront death”)—would later assist U.S. forces in the Iraq War. Despite long-held aspirations for an independent “Kurdistan,” most community leaders accepted the principle of a unified Iraq—albeit with enhanced Kurdish autonomy. Under the newly created Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Peshmerga forces, likewise, assumed responsibility for the security of northern Iraq and its people.
In June, IS militants—building upon their success inside Syria—attacked northern Iraq, forcing an estimated 50,000 people (mostly Yazidis) to seek refuge on Mount Sinjar. Although poorly equipped, local fighters were able to keep IS from advancing; however, they soon found themselves trapped on the mountain with little food or water. Initially overwhelmed with IS pushing towards the Kurdish capital of Erbil, the KRG quickly reorganized itself and Peshmerga forces (along with other allies) were able to rescue thousands by establishing a safe passage into Iraqi Kurdistan. Supported by U.S. airstrikes, Peshmerga forces also recaptured the Mosul Dam—on the Tigris River—from IS militants in mid-August.
IS continued to seize territory inside both Iraq and Syria, causing an estimated 200,000 people to flee across the border into Turkey. Hundreds of Kurds have, likewise, died fighting IS, which has besieged the city of Kobane in northeastern Syria for nearly two months. Although the Peshmerga has received supplies from the United States and other Western countries, President Massoud Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan said—during a recent interview with France 24—that requests “for more heavy weapons…have not been fully met.”
For its part, the U.S. has continued air drops to embattled Peshmerga forces in northern Syria, despite Turkey expressing its disapproval—fearing those supplies will be used by its long-time foe, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Nevertheless, James Carafano and Steven Bucci of The Heritage Foundation argue the U.S. should keep Kurdistan in the fight. While coalition airstrikes have forced IS to change its tactics, the Kurds have served as “boots on the ground” in combating the infamous terrorist organization, while also contributing to regional stability before the conflict in Iraq and Syria. Thus, providing material support for the Peshmerga (and other forces opposing IS) would serve the interests of both the U.S. and Kurdish people.
Patrick Kelly is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.