Among the many ways in which the Syrian civil war could radically reshape the Middle East, there is one that had, until recently, received little attention. Amid the chaos, Syria’s long-oppressed Kurds have decided to move toward autonomy. In addition, the intensifying fighting between Syrian Kurds and the Islamist militants of the Syrian opposition have prompted Kurdish leaders in neighboring Iraq to suggest they might intervene to help their brethren in Syria.
The two developments are stoking fear among countries that are home to large Kurdish populations. These governments have always viewed the notion of an independent Kurdish state not only as thoroughly unacceptable, but also as a dangerous threat.
The Kurds are an ethnic group of non-Arab Muslims who have long aspired to having their own country. They are commonly believed to be the largest nationality without a state. The artificially drawn post-Ottoman Empire borders left some roughly 30 million Kurds living in adjacent areas across four countries—Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria—with several million more spread along a wider radius.