The Kurds are one of the most ancient peoples of the Middle East. They are of Indo-European origin and occupy a huge land area currently divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Numbering close to 30 million people, they represent one of the largest Middle Eastern nationalities. Yet, they do not have their own country.
By Nicholas Dima | November 4, 2014
Turkish tanks along the Syrian border overlooking Kobani
The American media frequently mentions the problem of the Kurds and their struggle for survival. Their plea is even more urgent, since this past June when a new jihadist force launched a brutal campaign to conquer Syria and Iraq. These days, the struggle is taking place primarily in Syria and especially on the outskirts of Kobani, a mostly Kurdish town of some 50,000 people located near the Turkish border. The war, however, raises additional problems in a region of already incompatible claims, aspirations and interests.
The Kurds have put up a heroic fight against the superior forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but the media claims that they need urgent help in order to prevail. According to Associated Press of October 14, the Kurds are hanging on to their lands against all expectations because “they have a cause and are preparing to die fighting for it.” But, what is their cause?
The Kurds are loyal allies of the United States and the only ‘boots on the ground’ fighting alongside the Western coalition against the self-declared Islamic State caliphate. From Washington’s point of view, at stake in the near future is the very existence of Iraq as a unified country. If ISIS prevails, the order and stability of the whole Middle East would be greatly endangered. However, if the Kurds endure, sooner or later they will demand a country of their own. With the exception of Israel, no one would willingly accept an independent Kurdistan in the center of the Middle East. Either way, the region is in more trouble now than ever before and a return to the status quo ante no longer appears to be a viable choice.
Most of the fighting at the end of October was taking place in Syria near the Turkish border. Turkey, a NATO member and traditionally an American ally, concentrated its troops across Kobani, but refused to step in and help the Syrian Kurds. Only lately and reluctantly Ankara allowed some Turkish and Iraqi Kurds to aid their Syrian brothers. On the other hand, the Iraqi Army, which practically deserted instead of fighting ISIS, agreed, albeit reluctantly, to fight along with the Kurds against the newly self-proclaimed caliphate. Why this reluctance to side with the Kurds? Who are the Kurds and what threats do they pose to the current order in the Middle East?
Kurdistan spanning Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey
The Kurds are one of the most ancient peoples of the Middle East. They are of Indo-European origin and occupy a huge land area currently divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Numbering close to 30 million people, they represent one of the largest Middle Eastern nationalities. Yet, they do not have their own country. Their closest relatives in the region would be the Iranians, but while Iranians are Shia, the Kurds are Sunni Muslims.
Throughout their history the Kurds served as mercenaries for the great powers of the region and failed to organize and maintain their own state. Without an educated elite and lacking representation, at the end of the First World War their area was divided among the newly formed countries. Consequently, the Kurds became the largest minority in the Middle East. Nonetheless, the idea of independence survived with them, but it took different paths in the countries that divided them. Thus, instead of asking for independence, they settled for local autonomy.
According to the CIA fact book, there are currently about 14 million Kurds in Turkey, making up 18-to-20 percent of Turkey’s population; 7-to-8 million in Iran representing 8-to-10 percent of the population of that country; 4-to-5 million in Iraq making up 15-to-20 percent of the Iraqi population; and 1.6 million in Syria making up close to 10 percent of Syria’s population. Apparently, the Kurds have integrated themselves better in Iran and Syria, but have rejected bitterly the assimilation efforts pursued by Iraq and Turkey, where they sought national recognition. However, an independent Kurdistan would carve out big chunks of territory from the aforementioned nations, which is strongly rejected by the respective countries. This is why Turkey is reluctant to help the Kurds in Syria, and this is why Washington has to walk a very fine line when it encourages the Kurds, who have proven to be strong allies.
During the recent decades the Kurds organized themselves separately in each of the four countries and tried to fight for their rights. In Turkey, for example, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fought fiercely against the government until recently, when the former prime minister and current Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, agreed to grant them increased minority rights. The Iraqi Kurds also bitterly opposed Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship and as a result they suffered incredibly at his murderous hand. When the United States fought the first Iraqi war, the Kurds became natural allies of America. Then, the United Nations and Washington established a safe zone in northern Iraq, which became an autonomous Kurdish region. The very existence of this region is feared now by the governments in Damascus, Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad as the seed for a potentially independent Kurdistan. This would be an unacceptable threat to their territorial integrity.
Could America and the West help the Kurds without alienating the other countries and without risking an all-out war in the Middle East? And how long can the world ignore the Kurdish issue? And what will America do, if events get out of hand?
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.