The Kurds and their struggle have suffered because of geographical and cultural fragmentation first and, later, their political and cultural disparities.
The Kurds have become all too aware that the international community remains hostile to their independence project. It would take nothing short of a total reversal of the borders inherited from the colonial order to achieve progress – and even then, Iran would object. The PKK in Turkey has paid the highest price. It emerged during the 1980s and pushed the notion that armed struggle would lead to the fulfillment of a greater Kurdistan.
But, since then, the only experiment that has yielded any viable autonomy has been Iraq. But, even there it took Saddam Hussein’s gross strategic miscalculations, the First Gulf War of 1991 and the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 to bring it about. The chances of anything diverging from the autonomy pattern in the post-ISIS Middle East are as slim as ever.
There an estimated 30-35 million Kurds and they live in the mountains that join present day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia. They have Indo-European origins and speak a language related to Persian, now making up the fourth most populous nation/ethnic group in the Middle East. Yet, despite a sense of Kurdish nationalism, they have never had a State of their own. Thus, their nationalism has been repressed. It has also been divided as Nation States have consolidated their borders, carving up what would have been the Kurdish nation under various areas of influence and control.
Kurdish history is characterized by nomadism. The Kurds wondered the plains of Mesopotamia, practicing sheepherding in the plateaus ranging from present day southeastern Turkey to southwestern Armenia. In a sense, they ‘clashed’ with the urban settlers and farmers and occasionally with the Arab nomads who lived to their south. They were the Indo-European equivalent to the Semitic Bedouin. Some say the Kurds are the ‘Bedouin’ of Persia. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims and they can count one of the greatest heroes of Islam, Salah al-Din (Saladin). Born in Tikrit, Iraq, he founded the Fatimid Dynasty in 1171 and defeated the Crusaders in the Holy Land in 1180.
There is no unified Kurdish language or writing. But there are two main dialects, which are similar to each other. Kurmandji, is the main dialect and it’s the one that Syrian and Turkish Kurds speak. It is also spoken in some areas of northern Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan. But in the southern areas, the prevailing dialect is Sorani, which uses the Arabic alphabet.
Some trace the concept of a ‘Kurdistan’ to the tenth century, when the first independent Kurdish principalities appeared as the Abbasid empire suffered one of its periods of decline. It’s important to recognize that the Kurds have the feeling of belonging to a distinct people, who consider themselves the descendants of the Medes (close to the Persians). In 1596, the Sharafnama, ‘The Book of Honor’, written in Persian, consecrated the concept of a Kurdish nation pursuing unity.
The problem of Kurdish territorial sovereignty starts when the Ottoman Empire breaks up at the end of WW1. The Treaty of Sevres of August 1920 envisaged a small but independent and sovereign Kurdish within the borders of the Anatolian peninsula, to be delineated by the League of Nations (precursor of the United Nations). The Ottoman Parliament refused to ratify the agreement and while the outgoing Sultan Mehmet VI may have accepted the Sevres provisions, Turkey’s rising star, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rejected the agreement. By 1923, the Kurds lost all hopes for a State as the land allotted to them on the Sevres map would now be split between the new states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and even Iran.
Ataturk’s Turkey had managed to, more or less, integrate the Kurds within the State despite some important rebellions early on. Meanwhile, in Iran, Qazi Muhammad formed the Kurdish democratic party with the support of the Soviet Union. On January 22, 1946, Qazi proclaimed the formation of a Kurdish people’s republic, putting its capital at Mahabad in present-day northwestern Iran. But as the USSR retreated from Iran, Imperial Iranian troops reconquered the area and the Shah ordered the Kurdish rebels’ political leaders, including President Qazi Muhammad. Since the 1960’s, there have been successive Kurdish rebellions or wars in Iran, Iraq and Turkey. But, in Syria, apart from a rebellion in the northern city of Qamishli in 2004, the Kurds took up arms against the regime only in 2012, when they formed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), better known as Rojava, a veritable autonomous Kurdish region.
But, Kurdish nationalism, supressed in Iraq, Iran and Syria burst on the scene in the early 1980’s after brewing in the previous decades. The Soviets decided to destabilize Turkey, a NATO country, by leveraging their influence over the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) led and founded by Abdullah Ocalan. In 1984, the PKK began a campaign of armed conflict, which may be seen as a precursor to their campaign against the Syrian government since 2011. In the early 1980’s, the PKK attacked government and civilians Turkey, but also in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, aiming to establish an independent Kurdish state.
Clashes between Kurdish guerrilla and Turkish government forces killed as many as 30,000 people between 1984 and 1993. Alarmed by the fact that Kurds in Iraq have gained autonomy, they fear autonomy for Syria’s Kurds and fear that Turkish Kurds will be won over.
In general, Kurds have resided in countries that have both refused to give up the parts of their territory and have also denied the very existence of a Kurdish national identity, blocking political processes to this effect. Thus, the Kurds have often felt compelled to take up arms against the State. Perhaps the episode that cemented the Kurdish question in the collective imagination, especially in the West, occurred in 1988, the Iraqi army attacked the civilian population of the Kurdish city of Halabja, in Sulaimaniya province from March 16 to 19, 1988, killing some 5,000.
The attack occurred in the context of the Iran-Iraq war, after the city fell to the control of the now famous peshmerga led by Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Talabani was the President of Iraq from 2005 to 2014. After Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, the Kurds were among the few to benefit and have enjoyed more autonomy in the context of the Regional Government of Kurdistan, which administers the three provinces of Dohuk, Irbil and Sulaimaniya.
Reflecting their different ‘host’ States where Kurds and respective ideological/political orientation, there are five main Kurdish entities contributing to the struggle for sovereignty. In Iraq, there are the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (PDK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In Iran, there are the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and the Party for the Freedom of Kurdistan (PJAK) in Iran. In Syria, there is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which also was one of the main contributors to the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which fought against ISIS in the past few years.
As for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, it’s the one Kurdish party that still pursues an armed struggle and Marxism. Given its role in challenging the Turkish Republic, the West has opposed the PKK, which has been accused of supporting terrorism.
The clear majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims (80%). The remainder of the Muslim Kurds profess Shiism and Alevism in Turkey. Some two thirds of the Kurds in Iran are Sunni, making them a ‘double-minority’, they are ethnically and religiously different than the rest of the population, making them vulnerable targets for recurrent persecution in the Islamic Republic. There are also Christian Kurds, including Catholics, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs. In Iraqi Kurdistan, Christians are estimated to number 150,000. (A.B.)