MIDDLE EAST Policy, VoL. XXII, No. 1, SPRING 2015 – Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War, by Michael M. Gunter. Oxford University Press, 2014. x + 169 pages. $50, paperback.

Yaniv Voller, University of Edinburgh

Describing Michael Gunter’s book on the Kurds of Syria as timely will not do it justice. As Kurdish fighters are now the “boots on ground” in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL or Daesh), Gunter ‘s book is a necessity. The title, Out of Nowhere, summarises the state of general knowledge on the subject, especially beyond the narrow circles of students of Kurdish affairs and Kurdish nationalist intellectuals. The research for the book was completed before the surprising ISIS ascent to prominence in the region. Hence the battle over Kobani, now a symbol of Syrian Kurdish steadfastness and a source of pan-Kurdish activism, is not discussed in the book. This notwithstanding, Gunter covers the first years of the Syrian civil war in a manner that makes it relevant for under­ standing later developments.

Writing a book on unfolding events is difficult. It requires vast background knowl edge on the subject, access to key sources and individuals, and ability to contextualize the events within a wide historical and geopolitical framework. When it comes to Kurdish affairs, Gunter is the person for the task. One of the most prolific authors on Kurdish history and politics for decades, Gunter has established himself as an authority in the field. He narrates the history of Kurds in Syria (or Western Kurdistan) and their part in the civil war drawing on vast knowledge and experience.

Despite his impressive background and reputation, however, it becomes evident that Gunter had to struggle to overcome the problems inherent in such a project, especially that of securing sources. The ongoing war prevents scholars from much access to the region. In addition, the ethnocentric Baath regime long oppressed and marginalised the Kurds, even denying their existence in Syria, as Gunter discusses (pp. 19-28). This is in stark   contrast to the case of the Iraqi Kurds, for instance, where the capture of Baath documents by Kurdish and coalition forces has allowed us a look into the Baathist oppression machine.

Gunter diverges from traditional chronological organization, structuring thematically: women, transnational actors, the KRG model, the PKK model, the United States and au­ tonomy. This approach facilitates understanding the role of the liberation struggle of the Syrian Kurds. The focus on the role of women fills a gap in the field, due to their central role in the history of the Kurdish liberation movement.

Nevertheless, Gunter’s method accentuates the difficulties of writing on current events. Many chapters do not discuss the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has led the Syrian Kurds in recent years. Rather, the Kurdistan Regional Government   (KRG), the de facto independent government of lraqi Kurdistan, and the Turkish-based Kurdis tan Workers’ Party (PKK) are the focus. The first chapter, “The Forgotten,” does deal in detail with the history of Kurdish persecution and oppression in Syria. This chapter also examines the potential explanations as to why the Syrian Kurds have been less prone to uprisings and armed clashes with the central government in Damascus than their   compatriots in Iraq, Iran and Turkey.