The timing of the referendum was intentional. It exploited both the region’s chaos and its dependence on the Kurds to fight isis. The Kurdish Peshmerga, long famed for their skills as warriors, even when vastly outmanned and outgunned, have been the most pivotal force in the U.S.-backed campaigns in both Iraq and Syria. The Peshmerga stopped the isis blitz in 2014, which was headed for Baghdad. They were pivotal in retaking huge chunks of the Islamic State and, this spring, in retaking Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. In Syria, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces have been the most reliable and effective party in the current campaign to retake Raqqa, the Islamic State’s pseudo-capital.

But the Kurds also have their own problems in forging a new state. They are not, in fact, one united people. They have rival political parties and competing ideologies. They have different tribal affiliations and diverse world views. Some are steeped in traditional clans, politics, and ways of life, reflected in their trademark baggy trousers, wide sashes, and unique turbans; others have adapted Western ways, wardrobes, and ideas. Kurds don’t all speak the same dialect.

Kurds have even fought each other, notably in Iraq, when the rival Peshmerga militias loyal to the two main parties fought a mini-civil war in the mid-nineteen-nineties.