From DFN: “The tension between Turks and Kurds is one of those terrible problems that history poses without providing a solution – other than tolerance, which generally is in short supply.”
The Kurds are an Indo-European people divisionally located – primarily speaking – across Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Numbering roughly 26 million, they have historically suffered severe human rights abuses and have collectively struggled to garner international attention and help for recognition of their situation – politically, economically, and socially.
Kurds originally come from the “land of Karda,” or the area around the Zygos Mountains. The first known historical records of their existence come from the second millennium B.C. Geographically isolated from warring empires and armies, the Kurds largely kept to themselves living in virtual tribal isolation for centuries until the Arabs conquered them in the 7th Century A.D. and converted them to Islam.
The modern “Kurdistan” is largely a product of pseudo-colonialism in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans gained strength and size in the 13th and 15th centuries in the area that is now considered the border between Iran and Iraq. Post World War I, that area was approximately 75 percent Ottoman and 25 percent Persian. Under both empires, the Kurds enjoyed considerable autonomy, but particularly under the Ottomans: Kurdish princes would align with the Ottoman Sultan and would be rewarded by being established as Ottoman vassals.
After World War I, however, the Ottoman and Persian Empires devolved into direct nationalities like Iran and Turkey. In the process, the Kurds were marginalized, given no nation of their own. What is worse, in the British takeover of the newly created Iraq in 1925, the Kurds were given absolutely no say as to the designation of the borders or who controlled territory.
In 1960, the Iraqi government made a concerted attempt to bring “Arabization” of Kurdish-dominated territories. Methods to achieve this goal included armed warfare, village razing, deportation of Kurds (and likewise importation of Arabs), and various other measures.
After the complete takeover of Saddam Hussein of the government of Iraq, the worst abuses of the Kurds began.
Hussein launched the Iran-Iraq War on neighboring Iran in 1980. Iraqi Kurds, mostly Shiite Muslims, supported their fellow Iranian Shiites in their efforts to thwart Hussein. By the end of the war, Hussein sought to punish the Kurds as extensively and brutally as possible. During the period of February to August 1988, hundreds of Kurdish villages were destroyed, as many as 20,000 Kurds were murdered, a significant portion of which were horrifically killed with the chemical weapons.
After the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War on March 2, 1991, the Kurds followed the lead of the Shiites in the south of Iraq and rebelled against the central Iraqi government. To counter the Kurds, Hussein deployed his Republican Guard units and within a week recaptured the territory.
Over a million Kurds fled to the Turkish and Iranian borders as the Republican Guard descended onto Kurdish towns. Iran accepted the tremendous inflow of refugees, but the Turks did not, stopping them at the border. Kurdish refugees were stranded in the adjoining mountains, thereby disabling food and medical supply trucks from reaching them. With foreign journalists on site, the world simply watched as thousands of Kurds died from starvation and inhabitable conditions.
To atone for this negligence, the U.S. and their Gulf War Allies instituted Operation Provide Comfort, which provided a safe haven for the Kurds. As part of that operation, a no-fly zone above the 36th parallel was created. This essentially permitted the Kurds to live and function semi-autonomously.
Unfortunately, the persecution currently continues. In Turkey, the 13 million Kurds who inhabit the country are not allowed to identify themselves as such. It was not until 1991 that the low forbidding the use of spoken Kurdish (Kamel Ataturk’s new Turkey in 1918 stressed nationality over religion and ethnicity, hence the discrimination) was lifted (however, it is still illegal to use Kurdish in publications, politics or education).
Prof. Noah Feldman of New York University says this of the Turkish treatment of its Kurdish citizens:
The Turkish government, for its part, has sought to make the Kurdish problem go away, harassing individual Kurds whom it suspects of sympathy to the independence movement, jailing and torturing leaders, and mounting military action against Kurdish rebels when it can find them. For years, the Turkish government called the Kurds ‘mountain Turks’ and banned their languages.
In Iran, for example, under the Pahlevi Shahs (1919-1979), all Kurdish nationalism was brutally crushed.
Why such universally minimal concern for the Kurds?
Unlike the Palestinians or Israelis (who receive the lion’s share of international attention), Kurds have very little vocal support. Palestinians, for example, receive much attention from their struggles against Israel, but they also get enormous support from other Arab states, Arab-Americans and other activists. Similarly, Israel receives much attention from strong lobbyists and concerned citizens in America as well. Kurds have no such representation.
Additionally, the Kurdish situation does not “hang in the balance,” so to speak. With Israel-Palestine, much of Middle Eastern peace and stability is at stake. The marginalization of the Kurds, on the other hand, does not seem to have those corresponding wider implications.
The likelihood of a modern united Kurdistan ever emerging makes the urgency of their cause evaporate. If there is no chance of success for a Kurdistan, both the U.S. and international community will not bother.
What is more, the Kurds have been divided and somewhat conquered. The Kurds are spread over the Middle East and Indo-Europe. The U.S. relationship with most of those countries is extraordinarily limited (particularly with Iran and with the new exception of Iraq). Consequently, the U.S. has little need to be interested in their cause. Compound geostrategy with absolutely minimal domestic U.S. presence, and the case becomes even clearer. This dissipation also makes a collective effort on their part all but impossible.
Kurds, however, will be a useful ally in America’s future in the Middle East. One, as aforementioned, they are located across a large and important geographical expanse and could serve mutual interests in many of those countries.
Two, they are far more moderate Muslims than many of their Arab counterparts. Kurdish women, for example, do not veil themselves. They also work outside the home and receive regular education.
Three, Kurds have had relative success with democracy. As a result of the no-fly zone in northern Iraq, the Kurds were able to hold elections (though there was some violence) and hold representative governments. Recently, the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have combined their efforts to move the cause of democracy forward in the new Iraq. There relative success could serve as a guideline for others in the Middle East to follow.
Unfortunately for the Kurds, they will likely never see a Kurdistan. While a national homeland is important, it is, however, not the only consideration. The U.S. has recently done its part in helping the Kurds by giving them a direct and powerful voice in Iraq’s new government. Both the U.S. and the international communities should likewise press for change to legitimize the Kurds existence and causes in neighboring countries both on moral and pragmatic grounds.
Feldman, Noah. “After Jihad.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books. 2003. First Edition. Page 102.