The Kurds’ struggle for freedom
The recent turmoil in the Middle East has seen the resurgence of Kurdish dreams of nationhood
Have the Kurds ever been a nation?
No. The estimated 30 million Kurdish people living in adjacent mountainous areas of northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran and northern Syria – a region referred to as Kurdistan – remain the world’s biggest ethnic group without a state of their own. Kurdish tribes seem to have inhabited the region for millennia; and certainly from the time of their conversion to Islam, in the seventh century AD. Most are Sunni Muslims, but they are not Arabs. They speak local dialects of Kurdish, an Indo-Iranian language. There are also communities of Kurds in, for instance, Armenia, Georgia, Istanbul, Lebanon and Western Europe.
Is independence a new ambition?
Modern Kurdish nationalism began in the 1880s, when a rebellion designed to hack out a Kurdish state between the Ottoman Empire and imperial Iran failed. After WWI, the Treaty of Sèvres, which partitioned the Ottoman Empire, including mainland Turkey, provided for a Kurdish state under British control. However, Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk drove out the foreign armies aiming to enforce its terms, and Sèvres was replaced by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which created modern Turkey and made no mention of Kurdistan. Since then, Kurdish aspirations to autonomy have been repressed in each modern nation, with varying levels of brutality.
What happened to the Kurds in Turkey?
As the largest minority group in Turkey, today numbering perhaps 15 million and accounting for up to 20% of the population, they form a grave threat to the official image of modern Turkey as a homogenous nation. Under Atatürk, their identity was denied – they were designated “Mountain Turks” – and their language and dress banned; the words “Kurd” and “Kurdistan” were forbidden. A number of Kurdish revolts were put down in the 1920s and 1930s; many thousands of civilians were killed, and populations deported. The separatist conflict flared again in the 1970s, when the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), led by Abdullah Öcalan, demanded an independent Kurdish state. A full-scale Kurdish insurgency erupted in 1984, which has since cost more than 40,000 lives. By the mid-1990s, 3,000 Kurdish villages had been destroyed by the Turkish military, and 378,000 people displaced. Extrajudicial killings and “disappearances” were common.
Has that conflict ended?
It was slowed by Öcalan’s capture in 1999, and then by Turkey’s current leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, after taking office in 2003, offered some autonomy for Kurdish areas and loosened restrictions on the Kurdish language and culture. An official ceasefire was agreed in March 2013, which mostly held until it was destabilised by the Syrian civil war – when Turkey, concerned at the prospect of Syrian Kurds forming their own homeland, tried to prevent Turkish and Iraqi Kurds crossing the border to help fight Daesh. This triggered the renewal of the PKK’s bloody war.
How have the Syrian Kurds fared?
There are some two million Kurds in Syria, making up about 10% of its population, concentrated in three northern enclaves. After Syrian independence in 1946, they were denied basic rights: their political parties were outlawed, their land confiscated and redistributed to Arabs. In mid-2012, as civil war raged, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), took control of the Kurdish enclaves. Two years later, they repelled an Daesh attack on the city of Kobane; and then – with US military support, but to Turkey’s dismay – extended their control over a swathe of northern Syria. In 2016, they declared the establishment of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava (see box). The YPG also forms the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which have driven Daesh back to the Islamists’ de facto capital, Raqqa.
And what about the Kurds in Iraq?
Iraq’s six million Kurds have faced the most brutal repression of all. Armed rebellions in the Kurdish-dominated north were put down in the 1930s, 1940s, 1960s and 1970s. Between 1986 and 1989, Saddam Hussein’s regime launched a genocidal campaign, killing up to 182,000 Kurdish civilians, and destroying 2,000 villages; in the town of Halabja in 1988, about 5,000 Kurds were killed with mustard gas and nerve agents. Yet this didn’t stop another rebellion in 1991, after the first Gulf War. This too was put down. However, the US imposition of a no-fly zone allowed the creation of a “safe haven” that in turn enabled the forming of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
And has the KRG been a success?
Since the invasion of 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan – pro-Western, partially democratic, and guarded by its fearsome peshmerga (meaning “those who face death”) – has prospered, relative to the rest of Iraq. And after being driven back by Daesh’s advance on Mosul in 2014, the KRG counter-attacked and claimed areas previously not under its control, such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. It has continually tussled with Iraq’s Shia-dominated central government, and in June announced that an independence referendum would be held on 25 September.
How are Kurds treated in Iran?
Events there have followed a similar pattern: after WWII, a short-lived Soviet-backed republic based in the largely Kurdish city of Mahabad was declared, then collapsed. There were rebellions, harshly suppressed, in 1967 and 1979. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Kurds, being mostly Sunni, were discriminated against by Iran’s Shia government: Ayatollah Khomeini declared war against Kurdish separatism. Things improved in the late 1990s, but the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan recently renewed its commitment to armed struggle. It is not demanding independence, but federal autonomy within Iran.