What You Need to Know About the Kurds

History Q & A

Dr. Sullivan is a professor of economics at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. The views expressed here are his own.

HNN FUND RAISING DRIVE Please make a donation today!

Q: Do you think the Kurds will achieve their aim of having their own and unified state?

Answer: The Kurds are an ethnic group of about 35 million people who have their own language, culture and history. They had an independent state for about 3 weeks soon after World War I. In the Treaty of Sevres (1920) the victors of the War, including the United States, agreed to give them a state. The U.S. was very much behind this back then. However, the Ottoman Caliph, not Mustafa Kamel Ataturk, the then leader of the new Republic of Turkey, signed this Treaty. It was deemed null and void. A new treaty was negotiated, and in this one no Kurdish state existed. Bringing this up to date, there seems to be little short or medium term chance that the Kurds will have a unified state. The 35 million persons mentioned stretch from Turkey to Azerbaijan and through Iraq and Iran. It is unlikely that any of these states will allow a Kurdish state to be carved out of their territories. Nevertheless, the Kurds have had their first real experience with autonomy since 1991 and in northern Iraq. There is a large group of young Kurdish children who speak nothing but Kurdish. The two Kurdish regional governments are run by Kurds. The police and the military are populated and managed by Kurds. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to get the Kurds in northern Iraq to give up their autonomy. On the other hand the Turks have stated very clearly that if the Kurds try to carve out an independent state in northern Iraq they will invade. One of the best solutions to the problem of the multi-ethnic nature of Iraq may be something based on the Swiss system of federation, giving each group a certain amount of autonomy, but each group is still connected as a whole in a nation-state. However, even that carries with it significant political landmines and other serious potential troubles in a country like Iraq. There may be significant interethnic bloodshed and vendettas in Iraq in a post-Saddam environment. There are huge uncertainties and complications involved in any significant political and strategic changes in Iraq. These uncertainties could bring dangers and violence to the groups in Iraq, and in the region surrounding Iraq. Iraq is in many ways a pivotal country in the region. Groups in Iraq, including the Kurds, the Shia and the Sunni have strong connections on many levels to other countries in the region.

Q: Kurds live under repression in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Where do they suffer more repression?

Answer: The Kurds in Iraq have seen hundreds of thousands murdered and well over a million displaced over the last couple of decades. After the Iran-Iraq War, for example, Saddam Hussein engaged in the "Anfal" (purification) campaign. This campaign cleared out hundreds of villages near the borders of Iraq, and forced more than a million to flee their homes. Iraq also used poisonous gasses on the Kurds on occasion. Saddam Hussein has brutalized them. But the some of the Kurdish leaders have also brutalized and oppressed (often economically more than militarily) their own people - but not anywhere near to what Saddam Hussein has done. Kurdish leaders are also sometimes at odd with each other. In 1996 one group of Kurds invited the Iraqi army into the north in order to harm another group of Kurds. The Kurds may stop future repression and brutality if they unify. So far they do not seem to be fully unified. In Turkey well over 30,000 Turks and Kurds have died in rebellions, responses to those rebellions, and other activities. This situation has calmed down considerably over the last few years. But the Turks are wary that if the Kurds get an independent state in the north of Iraq that this may spur their own Kurds toward their own rebellions for independence. Turkey has also responded with some economic development in the southeast, where most of the Kurds live in Turkey. They have been developing the massive GAP, or Southern Anatolia Project, that is harnessing the significant river waters in that area of Turkey to produce electricity and then economic development. Factories have been, and will be, developed in the area to bring more jobs and some prosperity to the region. The Turks will, in any case, produce a violent reaction with their powerful military to any attempts at independence. The Kurdish-Turkish conflict may be far from over, although it may seem less violent now.

Q: How does the UN treat the problems of the Kurds?

A : Usually through developing no-fly zones, making sure that the appropriate amount of money from the oil-for-food deal between the UN and Iraq gets to the Kurds, helping in the administration of those monies, and allowing and facilitating the work of various NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in the north. The UN seems to very much want Iraq to stay as a unified country. Therefore no serious efforts have been put forth to develop an independent state of Kurdistan. The UN will have its hands full with the redevelopment and patching together of a post-Saddam Iraq, whatever might happen.

Q: Is there today any organization or leader that could negotiate their problems?

A: As I stated above the Kurds are not unified under one leader, or even one group of leaders. They are not as politically fractured as they used to be. But one could guess that Saddam Hussein and others will try psychological and other operations to split them even further by playing upon the many complex differences, and even similarities amongst the Kurdish groups. The Iraqi Opposition that has been having meetings in London and elsewhere recently seem also to be not exactly unified, except on paper. Many of their members also do not have much credibility or following in Iraq, especially those who have spent most of the last 11+ years out of the country. One could hope upon hope that a new and democratic Iraq could spring up quickly and start solving finally the Kurdish problems, but that hope seems a distant one given the underlying fractured nature of politics in Iraq - outside of the iron hand of Saddam Hussein. It is a harsh reality that brutality has kept this country together in fear and massive repression. Iraq truly is a republic of fear. It really is very much unpredictable how the people of Iraq might respond to being freed form the yoke of Saddam's oppression. For any reasonable person freedom from oppression and fear is much preferred to the alternatives. They will certainly be happy at first, but then some will begin thinking of settling some old scores. Then, if the country is not developed quickly and jobs are not produced quickly, we will all have a heavy price to pay - including the Kurds, who may be in a strong position now, but one wonders what might happen to them during and after the war.

Q: Are they really involved in terrorism?

Answer: According to the Turkish and US governments there are certain Kurdish groups involved in terrorism. One could be certain that many Kurds will call those activities "freedom fighting". Terrorism is sometimes hard to define across various political and ethnic groups. Differences of opinion will almost always arise in such tense conflicts. The Turks will have very different definitions than the Kurds. There are many Turkish, Kurdish, Iraqi, Iranian and other families in the region who lost their loved-ones to violence over the years.

Q: What do you think will happen to the Kurds living in Iraq and Turkey if there is a war?

Answer: First off, it is not certain that there even will be a war. But if a war does erupt one could be sure that the Turkish government will be watching the Kurds in Turkey closely. There may be more legal and other restrictions enforced in the southeast of the country. However, the Turkish government will likely not incite violence with violence of its own, except in response to something else. There is a chance, unfortunately, that the situation could get ugly in the north of Iraq and that this could have reverberations in Turkey for a while. Also, Saddam Hussein may attack the Kurds for their support of his overthrow. He has never been much of a friend to the Kurds (or anyone else excepting his inner circle and his military elite). The powerful Turkish army may send many troops into northern Iraq. The Kurds state that they will respond. In the fog of war, especially in a war involving such uncertainties and complexities at many levels, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict all of the potential scenarios.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Josh Greenland - 5/27/2003

I agree with the rest of your message, but have to ask, by what measure does Israel have the 4th most powerful military in the world? It's a country of only 3 million people or so.

Carrie R. - 3/26/2003

Personally, I tend to focus on Israel because the U.S. gives SO MUCH aid to Israel, $3 billion plus per year. Israel also has the fourth most powerful military in the world. I would like to see my govt. end aid to Israel and other countries that oppress certain groups of people--Turkey included. I would also like for them to stop sending aid to brutal dictatorships, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But Israel gets by far the most military and financial aid, with no restrictions on how the money is spent. It also gets the most press coverage.

Gus Moner - 3/12/2003

The writer poses a good query. The aspirations of so many people are ignored or relegated to insignificance by the existence of a super-national order of states that reduce minorities to separation and subjugation for the territorial integrity and all that of their nations. Moreover within these 200 states, there is another, the UN, to uphold the territorial boundaries. There are countless examples, Africa being the worst by solar systems. Every African boundary reflects a previous colonial partition entirely divorced of the coherence of race, culture, language, origin or prior history amongst the inhabitants. Countless examples can be found in Eurasia.

Chechnya, Asian Russia, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Hungary, Rumania, Slovakia and practically the entire Balkans region have populations inside or outside their borders, alien in either place. Within established nations there are separatist movements not associated with other states, for cultural, religious or ethnic reasons.

Once we start changing one or two, all hell breaks loose. The fear of re-opening the drawing the boundaries, which in Europe was a colossal, three-thousand year struggle of waste, devastation, death, famine, disease and destruction with untellable cruelty, is simply not an option again.

We rightfully fear the backlash from our past conquests, by opening a Pandora’s Box of grievances.

The specific case mentioned of Palestine having Israel carved out of it is easily framed within this context. Both are artificial creations of the western states arranging the region as they saw fit. With the best intentions for the people there, mind you. Moreover, it fell within the confines of United Nations action and t he entire process is framed within a series of UN resolutions delineating boundaries, rights and so forth. Thus, it has more ‘legitimacy’ despite Israeli efforts to obviate it.

To give the Kurds a proper state, three nations would have to change their boundaries and renounce centuries of history and geography, much of it rich in resources. Would you tear one of your arms off?

To paraphrase, a Kurdish state is a mighty hill for Mohammed to climb, or to have it come to Mohammed.

Marc Bacharach - 3/12/2003

Why does the world (the UN) spend all of its time and energy condemning Israel at every turn while they ignore the national aspirations of the Kurds? (or the Chechnyans, or the Southern Sudanese, etc.) What is it about the Palestinians that make them so deserving of international attention? It is because their oppressors are Jews?

The Kurds should get their own state but more importantly, they should be given the same recognition as the Palestinians or else the world gives the message that only acts of violent terrorism against innocent civilians will provoke support for your cause.

Dan Tschirgi - 3/12/2003

An informative and useful piece.