06/16/2014 06:45 pm ET Updated Aug 16, 2014

The Reality of Kurdistan

ERBIL -- Chaotic Mosul is just 60 miles away, but people here in Erbil have little concern that the fighting will spread this way. This is the home of the Kurdish Regional Government and its own army, the pesh merga, which over generations has built a reputation for fierce courage. These troops would never throw down their guns and run, as the Iraqi army did in Mosul and elsewhere. The jihadist fighters rampaging through other parts of Iraq know that, and so Kurdistan is secure.

In the past, the Kurds usually came to the world's attention only as victims: in 1988, when Saddam Hussein gassed them; in 1991, when after the Gulf War the United States created a no-fly zone to protect them from Saddam's gunships; and after the 2003 U.S. invasion when Iraq was tearing itself apart.

Recently and quietly, however, Iraqi Kurdistan has become a solid presence in a region of continuing upheaval. Kurdistan is oil rich, and will soon be producing a million barrels a day. The two biggest cities, Erbil and Sulaimani, look like construction zones as office buildings, luxury hotels, and residential developments spring up -- less ostentatious versions of Dubai and other nearby boomtowns. Most of all, the Kurdistan Regional Government is offering its citizens stability, an attribute beyond value when surrounded by war zones and hostile neighbors.
Despite all this and thousands of years of history, Kurds know that much of the world considers them to be stateless. In addition to Iraq's Kurdish region, there are many millions of Kurds living nearby in Turkey, Syria, and Iran, as well as in a worldwide Kurdish diaspora. But as a matter of international law, there is no "Kurdistan" -- no nation with defined borders and a recognized central government.

A case can be made, however, that a "virtual Kurdistan" exists, held together by new communication tools ranging from satellite television to social media. This connectivity makes physical borders far less important. Turkey, understandably, jealously protects its territorial integrity and would not even consider ceding land to a Kurdish nation. But Turkey's roughly 20 million Kurds (Iraq has about 6 million) can retain ties to Kurdish culture and politics through media, regardless of traditional frontiers. Similarly, the far-flung diaspora can connect to other Kurds and play an active role in building the Kurdish "nation." Facebook succeeds where diplomacy has so far failed.

The virtual state is not a panacea for the difficulties facing Kurdistan. Kurds in different places speak different dialects and languages, and some have adopted as their homeland wherever they happen to be. There is, however, still a strong commitment to Kurdishness, for themselves and future generations. For now, they must be satisfied with being part of a virtual community that relies on Twitter's #twitterkurds and various Facebook pages.

As the current eruption of warfare in Iraq brings yet another wave of misery to this sad country, Kurdish leaders are quietly taking pride in their response. There is no panic such as is evident in Baghdad. Kurdish pesh merga have crossed into Iraq proper to protect the city of Kirkuk and its largely Kurdish population from the marauding insurgents. Work on Kurdistan's many construction sites continues. Every day, the implicit case for Kurdish independence grows stronger. Above all among Kurds, hope prevails.

Kurdistan may be a virtual state, but in this era of increasingly sophisticated and pervasive communication technologies, the distance between "virtual" and "real" continues to narrow. Other nations should recognize that Kurdistan truly exists.