No Friends but the Mountains: The Fate of the Kurds

Kurdish PKK militant

It is out of the Middle East’s current nightmare that the old dream of a united Kurdistan is drawing new breath. Kurdish independence, if not in whole then at least in some combination of its disconnected parts, may well be the one thing worth salvaging from the region’s killing fields. A firmer alignment on the part of the US with Kurdish interests would certainly salvage something from the shambles of American foreign policy in the Middle East, too.

But if the Kurds’ time has at long last arrived, their own pragmatism and a distinctly utopian strain of politics are combining to confound even their most fervent overseas champions. It’s not at all certain that anything like statehood is what the Kurds immediately want or need, and in any case, President Obama’s opaque and haphazard approach to the Middle East, having already cost him the confidence of so many of his key administration officials, has also cost him the trust of the Kurds.

Numbering perhaps twenty-five million people throughout their homelands in the mountainous region that lies astride the borders of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, the Kurds are arguably the most populous people on earth without a nation-state to call their own. It is also of interest, given the detachment of US policy toward them, that they have been far more favorably disposed to the United States than any people in the region outside of Israel.

Still, their old expression “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains” has regained such value among them lately that it is worth noticing where it comes from, why it persists, and why the Kurds now have Americans foremost in mind when they say it…



The last time the Middle East was in a disarray comparable to the current bedlam was during the chaotic aftermath of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which was to establish the borders of Syria and Iraq, the Kurds were offered their own country. The promise of a sovereign and democratic Kurdistan was then broken by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which circumscribed the territorial sovereignty of Turkey…