The Kurds and the Kurdish Issue
Nearly all major problems in the Middle East are somehow connected to the Kurdish issue. We face this problem everywhere, be it in Syria, Iraq, Iran or Turkey. “The Kurdish issue” is a term that refers to the struggle for attaining statehood. This is a result of the non-titular status of the Kurds and their ethnic rise. All the Kurds or, at least most of them seek for attaining independent statehood. But before enlightening the modern processes, we’ll try to give an idea about who the Kurds are and what history they have.
The Kurds are an integrity of Iranian speaking tribes and tribal groups. They live mostly in the southern and central parts of the Zagros Mountains, the Armenian Highlands and Northern Mesopotamia. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but there are also Shias, Alevis, Yazidis and Christians. The Kurds aren’t aliens in the region: they are natives here and come from the Kurdish tribe of Media. These tribes inhabited the Iranian Plateau, Armenian Highlands, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia through history. The name “Kurd” didn’t refer to an ethnic group till the end of the Middle Ages: the name “Kurd” stood for a social group of nomadic graziers. Moreover, many historians have used this term as a synonym to “bandit”. Till the 17th century, the term “Kurd” involved tribes of Iranian speaking nomadic graziers who inhabited the western parts of the Iranian Plateau, Armenian Highlands and other regions. The Kurds do not have a common language. There are a lot of dialects that aren’t often alike at all, e.g. Kurmanji, Sorani, Laki, Kelhuri, Gorany, Hawrami, Pahli, Zaza and so on. Kurdish tribes inhabiting different parts of the region speak one of these dialects. In general, all of them are much more similar to the Western Iranian languages. After the Arab conquests, the term “Kurds” referred to the graziers inhabiting mountains who emerged from Iranian, Semitic and Armenian interactions. So, the Kurds are a mixture of numerous tribes. Even today the tribal belonging is very important for every single Kurd (this is often a result of eponyms). In the 16th century, the historian Sharaf Khan Bidlisi divided the Kurds in groups. With some changes this division is applicable even today.
Kurmanji– the primary group of the Kurds whose self-consciousness level is upper-tribal and that is quite similar to the social-classic sense of the term “Kurd”. They live mostly on the land of present Turkey. It’s the biggest of all Kurdish tribes and due to the expansion of the Armenian Highlands and Eastern Anatolia, it has the biggest inhabited area.
Sorani – an upper-tribal unit of the Kurds inhabiting the Iranian Plateau and the land of present Iran.
Kelhuri– an upper-tribal unit of some Kurds inhabiting the land of present Iraq.
Zazas – the Kurds inhabiting the land of present Syria (Western Kurdistan). Many observers think that about 25% of this upper-tribal unit are latent Armenians that are the generations of the Genocide survivors. This is the reason why the Zaza dialect is more similar to Armenian.
In modern scientific scopes, “Kurdish” is the general term used to describe the language of all the Kurds. This includes quite different tribal dialects that aren’t often alike at all, not a single united language system. The Kurds are genetically more connected to the Armenians, Georgians, Jews and population of the land of present Azerbaijan.
The present number of the Kurds is about 30-38 million. Most of them live on the land of the so-called “Greater Kurdistan”: 13-18 million in Turkey, 6.5 million in Iraq, 3.35 million in Iran, 1.7 million in Syria, 37.470 in Armenia and so on.
Greater Kurdistan is a geographical region wherein the Kurds form the majority in population. The Ottoman Sultan Selim 1 was the first to use the term that referred to the Diyarbakir region. By the way, at this time the region was mostly inhabited by Armenians, so this innovation had political purposes, i.e. it aimed at dividing and enervating the regions inhabited by Armenians. It’s remarkable that after the Armenian Genocide, under the reign of Ataturk, this definition completely stopped being used. By modern definition, the term “Greater Kurdistan” refers to a territory of about 450.000 square kilometers that includes some parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia with general 40-43 million population (besides the Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Persians and Turks, others also live here). The struggle of the compact Kurdish community for gaining autonomy is the most complicated inter-political issue for the 3 of these 5 countries. Moreover, if the Jewish and Assyrian population living here has chiefly assimilated with the Kurds, the Armenian population that formed the majority till the end of the 15th century, has mostly been eliminated. Yet, a completely established Kurdish autonomy exists only in Iraqi Kurdistan today. It’s remarkable that the self-proclaimed Kurdish Republic of Ararat existing in the 1920s has been the highest autonomous state-formation of the Kurds so far. The concept of the establishment of Greater Kurdistan that will include all the Kurdish-inhabited regions is too popular within the Kurdish society. Attaining independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan is regarded as the first step for realizing this plan. Eventually, other regions inhabited by Kurds will also unite with it. For almost a century, independence or broader autonomy has been the most important aim for the Kurds, but it hasn’t come true yet. As we’ve stated before, greater Kurdistan consists of 4 main parts: Turkish Kurdistan (Northern), Iraqi (Southern), Syrian (Western) and Iranian (Eastern) Kurdistans. Let’s briefly describe the situations in each of them.
It’s the biggest part by area and by the Kurdish dense population living here. It includes the eastern regions of Turkey, especially the neighborhood of Lake Van and Diyarbakir where the Kurds form the absolute majority in the population. Some researchers state that 20% of the population of Turkey are Kurds belonging to different ethnic groups. The Kurds are the most illiterate, undeveloped and problematic ethnic group in Turkey. It’s remarkable that the Turks and the Kurds belong to different language families, even to different races. In the 1880s, about 1.5 million Kurds inhabited Turkey that was twice larger than the Armenian population. The Kurds inhabiting Turkey are characterized by destruction of tribal relations and turning to capitalism, but these processes aren’t over yet. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) established in 1978, declared war to the Turkish government in 1984. The war is going on even today. The PKK demands are rather changeable and at times even contradictory: sometimes they want autonomy within Turkey, sometimes they want to create their totally independent and united Kurdistan. This proves that the movement isn’t conceptually developed and the ethnic group carrying out this movement isn’t systematized. The Turkish government has adopted a policy of continuous repression of the Kurdish population. In this scope, the Kurdish language was forbidden, the word “Kurd” was abolished from textbooks and was replaced by the word “mountain Turks”, books and literature in Kurdish were set fire to. As a result of this policy, about half a million Kurds have left Kurdistan. This brought about international criticism: the EU considers the changes in the Turkish position regarding the Kurdish issue essential for Turkey’s further integration. The view that the Kurdish movement is sponsored and supported by the West and the issue is bogus, is very popular among the Turkish society. In 2011, the Kurdish NGO unity “Democratic Society Party” declared about the establishment of Kurdish autonomy within Turkey. Neither the International public, nor Turkey paid much attention to this step. Even today Turkey continues oppressing the Kurds. These oppressions have just entered into another, more civilized and covert stage.
Northern districts of Syria are compactly inhabited by the Kurds. About 15% of the population of Syria are Kurds and they are the second largest ethnic group. Like Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds inhabiting Syria also seek for gaining political autonomy. There are also some groups that demand complete independence. The Syrian government considers them aliens and refuses to recognize their civil or property rights. The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria established in 1957, aimed at protecting the ethnic rights of the Kurds. But the government never recognized the party and it remains an underground organization. Moreover, its leaders were arrested and sent to prison in 1960. The Arabic Cordon, riots and their suppression in 1986, civil unrest in 2004 and finally the establishment of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria with the support of the USA and EU are evidences of the Arab-Kurdish tense relations in Syria. In the scope of the Arab Spring, the Kurds were the first to actively participate in the riots. The Syrian government’s reply to this was the organization of murders of Kurdish political leaders and fusillades at riots. Famous international humanitarian organizations, such as the “Amnesty International” and “Human Rights Watch” have stated numerous times that Syria violates basic and civil elementary rights of the Kurdish population. In 2011, Assad tried to implement a reformation project, but it was only a formal step. As a result, the Kurds in Syria not only became one of the anti-Assad forces, but they also have been managing it since June, 2012 (AbdulbasetSieda, a Kurd, was appointed the president of the Syrian National Council, the major Syrian opposition body). As a result of the Syrian civil war, the government troops have left the Kurdish-inhabited regions which contributed to the increase of the demands for autonomy. On July 12, 2012, the two leading forces of the Kurdish opposition, the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdish National Council have signed an agreement about the establishment of the Kurdish Supreme Committee. The latter is the temporary governing body of Syrian Kurdistan. This happened as a result of the active cooperation with the Iraqi Kurdistan government. In a short period of time, the self-defense forces of the Syrian Kurdistan have taken under control almost all territories inhabited by Kurds. As a matter of fact, Syria is the second autonomous home of the Kurds (the first is in Iraq). It’s remarkable that the USA finances the Syrian Moderate Opposition and especially the Kurdish movement.
Iranian or Eastern Kurdistan includes the parts of northwestern Iran inhabited by the Kurds that border Iraq and Turkey. This is perhaps the only district compactly inhabited by the Kurds where there is no political or military tension. The self-consciousness and social-consciousness of the Kurds are relatively less developed here. Iranian Kurdistan is the smallest one both by area and population. There is no serious liberation movement or struggle here.
The Kurds occupy the parts of northern and northeastern Iraq. Most parts of the regions inhabited by the Kurds are involved in the Iraqi Kurdistan autonomous region with the capital Erbil. According to the Iraqi constitution, Kurdistan has broad autonomy, but it isn’t an independent state. The Iraqi autonomy was established in 1970 due to an agreement between the Iraqi government and Kurdish opposition that was a result of long and bloody fights. But this agreement didn’t come true either. So, new conflicts ensued followed by ethnic purifications of the Kurds in the course of the Iran-Iraq war (the Iraqi government extensively used forbidden chemical weapon especially against the Kurdish population). This was followed by the operation “Anfal”. The latter was a purifying campaign planned beforehand and carried out by the Iraqi government. Almost 200.000 Kurds were massacred as a result of this, about 700.000 Kurds were banished, 4500 Kurdish villages out of 5000were destroyed and the territory was artificially made uninhabitable due to explosions and other technical means. After the war with Iran, Saddam Hussein started attacks on Peshmerga, the Kurdish military forces. As a result of these attacks, Peshmerga was completely drown out of the territory of Iraq in 1988. But only three years later, a great rebellion against Saddam Hussein emerged among the Shias inhabiting the south of Iraq. The Kurds joined the rebellion. The Persian Gulf War started in the same year where Iraq was heavily defeated. Using these facts, the Peshmerga squads not only returned to Iraq, but they also defeated and evicted the government troops from the north with the support of the USA. Iraq wasn’t able to continue military operations anymore and the Kurds gained actual autonomy in the north. The USA played a key role in this: the biggest part of the foreign investments in education, military, infrastructure and economy belongs to the USA. As a result of the American invasion and the end of the Hussein regime in 2003, the force and political arrangement in the country greatly changed. The constitution adopted in 2005 verified the Kurdish autonomy existing since the 1990s. Kurdish was recognized as the state language of Iraq along with Arabic. Despite these successes, there are still a number of problems. Perhaps, the problem of regional conflicts is the primary issue. Since 2003, Kurds have taken under control the Kurdish-inhabited regions that are abundant in oil, especially Kirkuk, and that are situated south to the Kurdish autonomy. In July, 2014, the ISIS attackers occupied Kirkuk and its neighborhood, but some days later Peshmerga took it and gave back to Iraqi Kurdistan.
The history of Iraqi Kurdistan is also remarkable for being the home of the development of the whole Kurdish ethnicity or at least, a part of it. In this very area, the Kurdish tribes separated from other Iranian and Median tribes. The first written record in Kurdish was found in the Iraqi Sulaymaniyah. These territories have always came under the control of different tribes and states: the Persians, Arabs, Ottomans, British, again Arabs. All these dominations were accompanied by oppressions of the Kurdish population. But it should be mentioned that the Kurds have almost always had certain autonomy here.
- Mackey, The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam, 2002.
- Romano, The Kurdish Nationalist Movement, 2006.
- Barth,Principles of Social Organization in Southern Kurdistan, 1953.
- McKiernan, The Kurds, a People in Search of Their Homeland, 2006.
- Human Rights Watch, 2005 Vol. 17, No. 2(D)
Author: Areg Kochinyan: © All rights are reserved.
Translated by: Yeranuhi Antonyan