This backgrounder will inform you who are the Kurds and a brief history of the Kurds.
If you have listened to my podcast series on the History of the Middle East then you are familiar with the concept of nationalism being relatively new to the world. Prior to the 19th century, most people did not think of themselves in terms of nations. They thought of themselves in terms of religions, classes, maybe even kingdoms. The rule of the Ottoman Empire over the lands we know today as the modern Middle East prevented many of the ideas of nationalism from taking effect there like it was doing in Europe during this time period. As a result, the Middle East was running behind much of the world at the time of World War I. As Europe and other developed nations began to define itself in the form of nations, the decaying Ottoman Empire tried to hold on to old ideas and identities.
This dilemma helps explain the background of the Kurdish people in the Middle East. They are not a religious group. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but not all of them. They clash with other areas of the Middle East because they see themselves as neither Arabic nor Persian (Iranian). Their official language is Kurdish. They are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East.
The Kurdish people along with their unique language and ethnic identity date all the way back to the Middle Ages. Among the most famous Kurds in history is Saladin. Saladin faced off with Richard the Lionheart during the Crusades. Anyone who studies this period of history will soon discover that Saladin is far more worthy of the honorable legacy that is frequently attributed to the more sinister and dishonest Richard.
(If you are interested in a good book on the Crusades, I recommend Holy War – The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World by Karen Armstrong.)
The Kurdish people were spread across the central area of the Middle East making their home in the lands known today as Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Today there are between 15 to 20 million Kurdish peoples in these lands. Approximately 8 million make their home in what is today southeastern Turkey.
A treaty with the Ottomans, at the height of that empire’s dominance in the 16th century, granted them relative peace in these regions where they lived as a nomadic people. They frequently served the Ottomans and were influential within the Empire until the end in the early 20th century.
After World War I the Middle East was divided into nations by the Great Powers of Europe. This division was mostly to service the aims of the Europeans and as my podcast series details the decisions made here planted the seedbeds for many of the issues dealt with today in the Middle East.
The Kurds, like many ethnic groups at the time, were promised their own nation and homeland by the Great Powers. In 1920 this was made official in the Treaty of Sevres but shortly thereafter the new strongman in Turkey, Kemal Ataturk rejected the treaty and the idea of a Kurdish homeland that would impede on Turkish soil. The Great Powers legitimized Ataturk’s rejection of the Kurdish homeland in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The Kurds have been seeking their own homeland ever since this time.
Several Kurdish uprisings took shape throughout the 1920s and 30s but were unsuccessful. For many decades after this the tensions between the Kurds and the masters of the new nations they were living within subsided. This caused unique political identities to take shape among the different Kurdish populations living in the different nations.
History of the Kurds in Iraq
In Iraq the Kurds make up an estimated 15-20% of the population. This group has faced highs and lows in their modern history and frequently fell victim to the misfortune of Iraq’s leaders. Mustafa Barzani formed the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and launched an armed struggle in 1961.
In the 1970s the Iraqi government began resettling Arabs in the regions historically populated by the Kurds of Iraq. The intent was to forcibly relocate the Kurds away from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk that was now vital to the Iraqi economy.
To counter Iraqi oppression the Kurds sided with the Iranians in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, gaining them the ire and even more ruthless punishment from Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein. The most infamous of these crackdowns was the 1988 campaign that included the chemical weapons attack on the Kurds in Halabja.
After the US defeated Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf War of 1991 signals were given that the Kurds should finish the job and topple Hussein. The heir to Mustafa Barzani, his son Massoud, acting as the new leader of the KDP joined forces with a rival Kurdish political organization in Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to rebel against Hussein. The rebellion failed and Hussein’s forced struck back with terrible ferocity. This resulted in the United States setting up a no-fly zone in northern Iraq where the Kurds could live in relative safety.
In this area of the no-fly zone in the second of the 1990s and up until the 2003 US invasion of Iraq the Kurds had a relative degree of independence. Unfortunately, tensions arose between the KDP and PUK and a small civil war erupted between the two political groups.
The KDP and the PUK reunited in partnership to support the United State’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. After toppling Hussein a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was set up over several of the Iraqi provinces. Barzani, leader of the KDP became the region’s president and Jalal Talabani, leader of the PUK became Iraq’s first non-Arab head of state.
History of the Kurds in Syria
The Kurds made up approximately 7-10% of Syria’s population before the Syrian Civil War in 2011. Most of these were located in population centers in the northwest and northeast close to the borders of Turkey.
Their life in Syria since the time of Assad’s reign beginning in the 1970s was fraught with danger. The Kurds were denied citizenship. Their lands were frequently confiscated and re-distributed in an effort to Arabize the Kurdish regions of Syria.
When the Syrian Civil War erupted the Kurds initially tried to avoid taking sides. As the Syrian government teetered on the brink of collapse forces were withdrawn from the Kurdish areas of the country. In their absence, a Kurdish authority was set up to rule the lands of the Kurdish people in Syria.
These Kurds became premier fighters against ISIS in Syria during these years. In 2016 they announced the establishment of a “federal system” that included the lands of Syria and Turkmen which they had retaken from ISIS. This announcement was rejected by Syria, Turkey, and the United States.
History of the Kurds in Turkey
Hostilities between the Turks and the Kurds has been present since the end of World War I. The Kurds make up 15-20% of Turkey’s population, the largest ethnic minority in the country. After Ataturk rejected the establishment of a Kurdish homeland multiple uprisings against his government and policies on the part of the Kurds helped entrench these hostilities. The Turks tried to eliminate Kurdish culture. Kurdish dress was outlawed. Kurdish language was restricted. Even the name “Kurds” was replaced in official Turkish language. They began to refer to the Kurds as “Mountain Turks.”
In the late 1970s, the PKK was established by Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK called for an independent state within the lands of Turkey. In a few short years, an armed struggle was launched between the PKK and Turkey. More than 40,000 people have been killed in this ongoing conflict along with hundreds of thousands of people displaced. The majority of these victims are Kurds.
Ocalan fled Turkey to Syria where he worked to recruit fighters for the PKK cause. This link is part of the reason why Turkey sees Kurdish political groups in Syria as mere extensions of the PKK.
The PKK moderated their demands for independence in the 1990s and determined their new aim would be greater cultural autonomy for the Kurds living in Turkey. A ceasefire between the two sides was agreed to in 2013 but collapsed within two years. Today the Turkish government sees their war on terror as having two fronts. One front is aimed at ISIS and the other front at the PKK.
History of the Kurds in Iran
The Kurds are the third largest ethnic minority in Iran making up an estimated 10% of the country’s population. In the 1940s a short-lived Kurdish republic was established and secured with Soviet backing. The Iranian government soon squashed this effort after its first year in existence.
Once again, in 1979 after Iran’s Islamic Revolution a short-lived Kurdish republic was established.
The Kurds and the Complexities of the Middle East Wars
As already noted, the Kurds of Syria filled a vacuum left by the retreating Syrian government in several parts of the country after 2011. Many of these areas were near Syria’s border with Turkey. Turkey sees the political organizations of the Kurds in Syria to be extensions of the PKK, a Kurdish political organization in Turkey that is deemed a terrorist organization.
Turkey has maintained troops in northern Syria since 2016 to defend its border from ISIS and the PKK. These troops have frequently allied with the Syrians to remove Kurdish forces from key strategic locations in the area.
Turkey’s leader, Erdogan, has called the presence of the PKK in northern Syria a “terrorist corridor” which he will not allow at his country’s border. The United States, as part of its war on ISIS, established a safe zone for the Kurds in northern Syria which prevented Turkey from significant attacks upon the PKK forces there. This safe zone collapsed with the US withdrawal from the area in October 2019. Many see this move as a US betrayal of the Kurds who were key fighters against ISIS.
Even among the Kurdish political organizations there are levels of conflict. The civil war between the KDP and the PUK in the 1990s has already been discussed. In recent years the KDP of Iraq has resisted the PKK for its efforts in launching attacks upon Turkey from safe zones in Iraq.
Meanwhile, in Iraq in September 2017 a referendum was held to push for an independent Kurdish state there. This vote was opposed by both the US and Iraqi governments. More than 90% of the 3.3 million voters voiced support for the referendum. Kurdish leaders of the KDP used this as evidence of their mandate to gain Kurdish independence. The Iraqi government refused and annulled the vote. The next month the Iraqi government took back disputed territory in the area that had been ruled by the Kurds after the US invasion.
The rise of ISIS in 2013-14 and the decline of the Syrian government in the ongoing civil war there created a rare opportunity and risk for many among the Kurdish communities. While ISIS did not target Kurdish people to the extent it did other minorities in the Middle East, Kurdish political organizations were frequently seizing upon regional instability to grow their power and organizational bases. This put them at odds with ISIS. As a result, Kurdish fighting groups became a key ally in the fight against ISIS in the region. An estimated 11,000 Kurds were killed fighting ISIS in recent years.