Who are the Kurds?
In the Middle East, scattered amongst Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, lives the fourth-largest ethnic group in the region: the Kurds. Inhabiting the mountainous regions along the borders corresponding roughly to the Zagros and Taurus ranges, they are united by race, culture and language, but despite their strong ethnic character and large numbers, they has never been a Kurdish nation state.
There are between 30 and 40 million Kurds worldwide, 2 million of which are outside of the Greater Kurdistan due to a recent Kurdish diaspora. So why isn’t there a state for such an important ethnic group?
Why isn’t there a Kurdistan?
Under the Ottomans, the entire region was unified as part of the Ottoman Empire. As such, there was no border between the countries which are now Turkey, Syria or Iraq. With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire after World War One, and according to the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, there would be created an independent Kurdish state, with the remaining non-Turkish territories ceded to France or Great Britain. However, the Turks did not accept the treaty and ignited the Turkish War of Independence. Three years later, the Treaty of Lausanne would establish the current borders of the Republic of Turkey, ignoring the Kurds, who were left as a minority in their countries.
Split between four countries, its people are often oppressed by their governments, one example being the abusive treatment of Kurds by Syrian authorities under the Assad regime, where they were denied citizenship, relocating them away from the northern regions associated with Kurdish identity, like the border with Turkey, and even striping them of their basic civil liberties – 10% of Syrian Kurdish refugees are stateless, says the UNHCR, detailing the various obstacles presented by the Syrian government to the country’s largest minority. In Syria, the Kurds are not as significant as in Iraq, for instance, where Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous entity within Iraq’s Federal Republic, but they still amount to 1.7 million people.
There are between 14.3 and 20 million Kurds in Turkey and 8.2 to 12 million in Iran. In both these states, they have no autonomy and successive governments, in particular in Turkey, have gone to great lengths to insure that no autonomy, let alone independence, is granted to the Kurds.
Iraq is the most friendly of the four regarding the Kurdish matter: the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, populated by over 5 million people, is an autonomous, self-governing region. It has its own regional Parliament and government, encompassing four governorates (Duhok, Erbil, Silemani, and Halabja). The region was founded after several conflicts. In 1970, an autonomy agreement established Iraqi Kurdistan, but it was not implemented, leading to the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War in 1974. The Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 further devastated the region and, in 1991, an uprising led Kurdistan’s military, known as the Peshmerga, to push out Iraqi forces from the North. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a new Iraqi constitution was ratified, which finally granted autonomy to Iraqi Kurdistan. The Peshmerga also took over some of the disputed territories of Northern Iraq, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, in 2014, making the entire population in the region under the control of the Regional Government about 8 million people.
In September 2017, a referendum was held on whether on not should the Kurdistan Region gain independence, with over 90% of the 3.3 million voters supporting succession. The Iraqi government claimed the referendum was illegal, and that demanded its annulment. The following month, Iraqi government forces retook much of the disputed land previously under Kurdish control since 2014, including Kirkuk. The loss of the city and its oil revenue was a harsh blow to the dream of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
In March 2004, and after decades of oppression, the Syrian Kurds organised their first large-scale demonstrations, in what was such a massive protest that the Syrian government detained over 2000 Kurds, with 160 injured and 36 dead. This manifestation, combined with the emergence of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which supported autonomy and independence movements elsewhere in the Greater Kurdistan area, constituted a major turning point for the Kurdish population in Syria. More and more protests were held, while people openly celebrated their heritage. In response, the authorities increased their repression against the country’s largest minority.
When the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, the area roughly corresponding to Syrian Kurdistan (also known as Western Kurdistan or, its most frequently used name, Rojava) effectively seceded, originating the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. This autonomous region, despite not being recognised by any other nation nor by the Syrian government, is a de facto state, who controls 27,6% of Syrian territory, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Even though the Kurds are the predominant ethnic group in the DFNS, there are also Arab, Syriac-Assyrians and Turkmen present. As such, the DFNS is not a movement for Kurdish independence, although most of its population is Kurdish. The ideological movement behind the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria is not about an ethnic Kurdish region, but a secular, poly-ethnic, democratic and decentralised Syria, and it aims to implement such a federation for all of Syria.
The DFNS official armed forces, according to its December 2016 constitution, are the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the mainly-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Their principal enemy is ISIS, and in 2017 they managed to capture its de facto capital, Raqqa. This allowed the Kurds to push even more into the Islamist territory, thus posing a threat to the last jihadist stronghold in Syria, the province of Deir al-Zour.
Until now, the SDF has seldom faced Syrian government forces, with some tacit cooperation against ISIS on some campaigns. However, with the Islamist out of the picture, the DFNS is on a collision course with the Syrian government. Furthermore, now that their common enemy is gone, tensions are resurfacing regarding the relationship between this Kurdish-backed region and Turkish rebels.
There is a hostility between the Turkish government and the country’s Kurdish population, due to the long history of Kurdish uprisings and Turkish repression.
In the early 20th century, the Turkish government cracked down on Kurdish identity and culture, banning Kurdish names and costumes, restricting their language, resettling many Kurds away from their homeland and even denying them their ethnic identity, naming them “Mountain Turks”.
When the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was founded in 1978, with the goal of creating an independent Kurdish state, armed conflict soon followed. Since 1984 there has been an armed struggle in Turkish Kurdistan, which has led to over 40,000 dead. Despite changing their goals from an entirely independent state to more cultural and political autonomy and equal rights, the conflict has only stopped during a two year cease-fire in 2013-15.
The Turkish government considers the PKK a terrorist organisation, and has followed a policy of “synchronised war on terror” against the PKK and ISIS. It also considers the YPG and, by extension, the SDF, a terrorist entity, thus supporting its own actions against the DFNS. In fact, Turkey has not helped the SDF and has launched attacks of its own, trying to seize key territories before the SDF.
So, what fate awaits the Kurds?
For now, it might be too early to tell. In Syria, President Assad, despite vowing to take back all of Syria, has been said to be open to negociations with the Kurds.
In Iraq, however, the recent offensive against Kurdish-held disputed territory, along with intentions to limit the region’s autonomy might prove themselves a threat against the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Such efforts will certainly be backed by Turkey, and so will DFNS’ opposition in Syria. Turkey has made it clear that it does not wish for the birth of an independent Kurdistan, mainly out of fear that its own secessionist movement, helped by such a state, catches on and leads to the independence of regions in south-east Turkey.
For now, Turkey remains the Kurdistan’s greatest enemy. Combine this with a Democratic Federation of Northern Syria who is, in spite of its Kurdish majority, deeply poly-ethnic, and an increasingly aggressive Iraqi government, and the chances for a united, independent Kurdistan are slim at best. So, unless Turkey or some of the other regional players change their position on the subject, the Kurds will remain stateless and Kurdistan will remain the state that doesn’t exist, the Middle-East’s largest nonexistent country.