The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in West Asia, after Arabs, Turks and Persians. Their number is usually estimated at up to 35 million, but the figure is very uncertain. The term “Kurd” is often a question of definition. The Kurds have never had their own state.
Most Kurds have their roots in the border area between Turkey, Iraq and Iran, countries located in Middle East according to allcountrylist.com. None of these states want to relinquish any part of their territory, but in Iraq the Kurds have far-reaching autonomy. The possibility of Iraq collapsing as a state is causing concern in the outside world, and under pressure from the Islamist extremist movement IS, the Baghdad government and the Kurds began some cooperation, which came to an abrupt end when the Kurds tried to declare an independent state after IS was defeated.
During the civil war in Syria since 2011, Kurdish movements have used the country’s collapse to take control of large areas in the north and northeast, along the border with Turkey, where they have begun to build their own administration and governing bodies. But the Syrian Kurds have to some extent become a pawn in a major political game. And Turkey, which considers Kurdish forces to be terrorists, has during the war years carried out three military offensives aimed at Kurds in Syrian territory.
A Kurdish state is hardly the highest goal for all Kurds. Turkey’s Kurds have never voted unanimously for the Kurdish parties, and most distance themselves from the banned actions of the banned Kurdish party PKK. A slow peace process began in 2012, and Parliament passed a series of laws on increased rights for the Kurds. But eventually it became clear that the conciliatory initiatives were mostly an attempt by the government to win political support among the Kurds. The process came to a halt in 2014 and the following year the state resumed the war against the PKK by both military and political means. Since 2016, the state’s reprisals against the Kurds have been tougher than in decades, and even democratically elected Kurdish politicians have been arrested.
The Kurds have long lived in the interior of West Asia. Especially in the border mountains between Turkey, Iraq and Iran, but also in Syria and the Caucasus. The Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without their own state.
The larger, reasonably cohesive area where the majority of the population is Kurdish is usually called Kurdistan. But Kurdistan is not a precisely defined area, and people other than Kurds also live there. On the other hand, many Kurds today live outside Kurdistan. In Turkey, so many have moved from the provinces in the southeast – Turkish Kurdistan – that two thirds of Turkey’s Kurds are now in the western part of the country.
The Kurds are ethnically and linguistically related to the Persians in Iran and the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. The term Kurdish is certainly known from the 6th century, when Kurdish clans converted to Islam.
The fact that the Kurds did not form their own state in previous centuries may have something to do with the fact that they lived in the mountains as herding nomads. Like most nomadic peoples, they did not primarily feel connected to the state to which they happened to belong, but to their own clan. Most Kurdish clans were ruled with a firm hand by a so-called sheik or aga.
Nomadic life in decline
The ancestors of the Kurds who today live in Turkey, Iraq and Syria were under Ottoman Turkey for several centuries. Other Kurds lived in the Persian Empire. The Kurds in the Caucasus were also formerly under Iran (then called Persia), but in the 19th century they would end up under Russian rule and be incorporated into the Soviet Union in the 20th century.
In the Ottoman Empire, all Muslim peoples were in principle equal. The Kurds had their own, fairly independent emirates within the empire. In the 19th century, however, tensions arose between the Kurdish aristocracy and the Ottoman central power, as the sultans in Istanbul wanted to appoint their own rulers in the Kurdish emirate. The Ottoman Empire was at this time in decline and had begun to fall apart.
Over time, some Kurds had become urban dwellers, especially in Persia. Others had continued to live as cattle nomads, sometimes with agriculture as a sideline. Many men enlisted in armies where they were wanted for their skill in combat.
After the First World War, new borders were drawn that hindered the nomads’ traditional grazing migrations. Even Kurds who have long stuck to nomadic life were forced to settle. The old clan structure still survived as a form of feudalism. The agoras became landowners, with great power over the peasants in their subordinate villages.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire
World War I ended the Ottoman Empire. In the Peace of Sèvres in 1920, the victorious powers prescribed how what was left of the empire was to be broken up. There was vague talk of forming an independent Armenia and south of it an “autonomous” Kurdistan.
But Republican Turkish nationalists refused to accept the terms of the peace and resumed the struggle with the victorious forces of the war. After expelling all the occupiers, the Turkish nationalists under Kemal Atatürk were able to proclaim the Republic of Turkey in 1923.
The Kurds did not mention the Kurds in the new Lausanne Peace. What we here call Turkish Kurdistan was now part of the Republic of Turkey. But other Kurdish areas that belonged to the Ottoman Empire had been lost to Turkey. Instead, they had fallen under British and French mandates, respectively. These areas are now part of Iraq and Syria.
The Republic of Turkey was intended to become a modern nation-state according to the European ideals of the time: “a country, a people”. Turkish nationalists were dissatisfied with all groups in Turkey who wanted some form of special status. Turkish residents were urged to recognize themselves as Turks or leave the country.
The interwar period
Kurdish uprisings occurred in Turkey several times during the 1920s and 1930s. The insurgents in particular wanted to protest against President Ataturk’s policy of secularization. Atatürk responded by banning the Kurds from using their language in public. The Turks went so far as to deny the existence of a Kurdish minority; until 1990, the Kurds in Turkey were officially called “mountain Turks”. However, Kurds who recognized themselves as Turks enjoyed full civil rights, and many assimilated Kurds participated in the Turkish nation-building.
Iraq became independent in 1932, Syria 1941. In Iraq in the 1940s, the Kurds formed the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP (from which the Kurdistan Patriotic Union, PUK, later broke out).
At about the same time, Iran’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDPI) was formed in Iran. In 1946, with the help of the Soviet Union, an independent Kurdish state was established in Iran, the Republic of Mahabad, but it lasted less than a year.