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 understanding later developments.
Writing a book on unfolding events is difficult. It requires vast background knowledge 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 autonomy. 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 Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Turkish-based Kurdistan 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. The chapter on women, however, makes very little mention of Syrian Kurds, instead focusing on the integration of Kurdish women in the KRG and the PKK. Only the last two pages of the chapter (pp. 32-33) examine the impact of government oppression on Syrian Kurdish women. In the following chapter, "Transnational Actors," Gunter writes mainly about regional geopolitics and the interactions among the KRG, the PKK, Turkey and the United States. The following chapters, "The KRG Model" and "The PKK Model," present different future liberation scenarios for the day after the war in Syria ends. Nonetheless, here as well, Gunter offers relatively little about Syrian Kurds. These two chapters are analysis branches of the Kurdish liberation movement. It is only in the last chapter, which deals with the future of the Kurdish struggle in Syria, that Gunter makes some link between these models and the Syrian Kurdish struggle.
Finally, on page 93, Gunter moves to discuss the Kurds of Syria and their experience in greater detail, although even here much of the chapter deals with regional geopolitics. And it is mainly in Chapter 9, "Autonomy," that he presents the evolution and policies of the PYD under the leadership of Salih Muslim, who has now become a prominent political figure in the region. Here Gunter exhibits his great knowledge and understanding of Kurdish history, skillfully placing the development of the Syrian Kurdish struggle into Syrian and regional history. The chapter describes in great detail the PYD's ascent to supremacy among the other Kurdish parties in Syria, the fierce power struggle among the different Kurdish factions, and the ways in which Salih Muslim and the PYD have maneuvred among the different parties and adversaries in the region. Gunter then uses this to explain the PYD's integration into the Syrian civil war, contrasting the PYD's hesitance to engage in direct conflict with Bashar al-Assad's regime with their eagerness to fight the Salafist militias such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Although it leaves more room for further investigation, Gunter's is indeed one of the more detailed analyses of the Syrian Kurds in recent years. It relies on a combination of direct interaction between Gunter and the Kurdish leadership — including Salih Muslim — news reports and a critical survey of secondary sources. Gunter is excellent at tracing the nuances of PYD discourse and actions. Someone less knowledgeable might not have noticed them. This book is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the contours of the ongoing Kurdish battle for self-determination.