The Kurds’ strug­gle for free­dom

The re­cent tur­moil in the Mid­dle East has seen the resur­gence of Kur­dish dreams of na­tion­hood

The Week Middle East - - Front Page -

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.

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