Submitted by: Amanda Jarrett

The region of the Middle East is sprinkled with various religious and ethnic groups that transcend the traditional borders of the state. A prime example of a community that cannot be restricted by the normal bounds of a state are the Kurds. During their recent history, the Kurds have experienced multiple setbacks in their quest for independence, but nevertheless they continue to pursue autonomy from the states they currently occupy. The history of the Kurds present situation as well as their modern circumstances can be observed by the theories of constructivism and complex realism. From Barkey’s article, there will be a discussion of pan-Kurdism from the constructivist perspective while comparing this concept to Mandaville’s examination of pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism. Additionally, the concept of complex realism from Hinnebusch and Ehteshami will interrogate the importance of the level of state formation. Though in order to comprehend the theoretical outlook of the Kurdish awakening, one must first grasp the history of the Kurds.

Barkey’s article suggests that the origins of the Kurdish battle for independence dates back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Due to the disregard to the Kurdish community through the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, the Kurds executed multiple revolts throughout the twentieth century, which were often backed by rival states. For example, the Soviet Union supported the Kurds in the 1940s which allowed for them to become independent. Unfortunately, as soon as the Soviets withdrew their support, the Kurdish state collapsed. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, the Kurds attained backing from Iran and fought two wars in Baghdad. Though, once again, their backing fell short when the Iranian Shah struck up a deal with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In the late 2010s, the Kurds were exerting their autonomy in Syria to establish a deal with Turkey, allowing them to use their location and resources to build an oil pipeline which increased economic flow and profit. In addition, the Kurds found themselves allied with the United States, combating ISIS and gaining land. Through these two alliances, the Kurds were becoming more of an international influence. Then when the United States began bombing a Kurdish Syrian town in the name of defeating ISIS in 2017, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) found itself vulnerable. In this state of defenselessness, the Iraqi government and others seized 40 percent of their land.

There seems to be a trend throughout history of the Kurds being used as a pawn and being roped in by the hopes of achieving independence through their assistance. Other than abusing the Kurds, states such as Turkey and Iran exercised their power over the Kurds to ban the use of Kurdish dialects and the teaching of Kurdish in schools due to interpreting their population as a threat to their sovereignty. Even with the continued attempts to disenfranchise the Kurds of unifying their culture and identity, the Kurds have discovered a newfound drive behind their efforts of nation building that can be referred to as the Kurdish awakening.

The Kurdish awakening can be more specifically attributed to the growing sense of Kurdish nationalism that has been on the rise with “the increasing fluidity of physical boundaries between Kurds, the creation of Kurdish-run governments such as the KRG, the emergence of strong diaspora communities (especially in Europe), and the rise of Kurdish-language social media and cultural products” (Barkey, 116). This sense of Kurdish nationalism can also be referred to as pan-Kurdism, though this is not the first time observing a pan identity in the Middle East. One example would be Pan-Arabism, which can be described as a supra-state that would dismantle the borders between states and allow for one nation to exist based on a unified Arab identity (Hinnebusch and Ehteshami, 240). As for pan-Islamism, it is considered a movement that encourages anti-colonialist rhetoric and reestablishing the umma and thus establishing a nation (Mandaville, 180). The differences between the two are that pan-Islamism dissolves borders figuratively while pan-Arabism does so literally. With these two ideas of pan identity in mind, pan-Kurdism feeds off of both. There is a desire to feel connected to other Kurds throughout the region–with the Kurds occupying southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, and northeastern Syria. Therefore, classifying oneself as a Kurd allows for the imagined community of the Kurdish people to span across multiple states and ignoring traditional borders. At the same time, there is a yearning to become fully autonomous from the states the Kurds occupy, which is where the rhetoric of pan-Arabism comes into play. The Kurds want a more tangible community, not one that is only imagined. With a unified sense of identity, constructivism helps to explain this aspect of the Kurdish awakening.

Apart from Kurdish identity, there is role of other actors, state or non-state, that manipulate the usage of the Kurdish population. This can be understood through Hinnebusch and Ehteshami’s description of the Middle East environment. There is an inherent hierarchy of states within the region that establish the status quo and control the autonomy of others. To obtain such as status, a state must demonstrate a high level of state formation which means that “internal threats are manageable, the domestic environment becomes a source of support/resources, […] and foreign policy deals with external threats and ambitions” (Hinnebusch and Ehteshami, 240). In the case of the states in which the Kurdish people occupy, there seems to be an opposite effect to what has been described above. There are low levels of state formation in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Their foreign policies seem to be geared towards oppressing the rights of the Kurds within their own states by taking away their citizenship, banning their dialects, and limiting their ability to own land (Barkey, 110). By doing so, these states are focusing their energies inwards, attempting to manage the threat of the Kurds. Additionally, as long as these states continue their marginalization of this ethnic group, they will not be able to reach a higher level of state formation because they will be unable to have full inclusion of social forces within their institutions (Hinnebusch and Ehteshami, 241). Thus, complex realism illustrates how states can constrain a population’s capacity to consolidate based on identity.

In conclusion, the constructivist concept of pan-Kurdism and complex realism’s application of state level formation contribute to the understanding the current situation of the Kurds as well as the Kurdish awakening. Instead of thinking that the only way for the Kurds to succeed in achieving independence is by the failure of a state, there should be further discussion of a treaty that would provide the Kurds with their own land and borders much like the effect of the Balfour Declaration, though without the result of furthering regional tensions.


Barkey, Henry J. “The Kurdish Awakening: Unity, Betrayal, and the Future of the Middle East,” ​​Foreign Affairs, vol. 98, no. 2, April 2019, pp. 107-118.

Ehteshami, Anoushivavan and Raymond Hinnebusch. “Foreign Policymaking in the Middle​​ East: Complex Realism,” International Relations of the Middle East, Oxford University​​ Press, 2016, pp. 239-258.

Mandaville, Peter. “Islam and International Relations in the Middle East,” International ​​​Relations of the Middle East, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 177-195.