In the battle against so-called Islamic State in the Middle East, the Kurds of Syria and Iraq are currently on the front line. But who are the Kurds and what is their history?
Why are we talking about the Kurds?
They are in the news because they are a major player in the complicated conflict in the Middle East. This now comprises the Syrian civil war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the battle against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.
Kurdish fighters are now fiercely defending the Syrian town of Kobane against the assault of IS. The town has nearly fallen before, but they are encouraged by the support of US air strikes.
Although IS has had great success in Iraq and Syria over the summer, they have found tough opponents in the Syrian Kurds. They have stubbornly held onto three enclaves on the Syria-Turkey border.
IS has therefore concentrated its forces on one of them, Kobane, which is an important piece of territory. It lies close to a route from Turkey used by foreign jihadis coming to fight for IS. IS has already captured hundreds of villages in the area and forced over 400,000 Kurdish refugees to flee into Turkey.
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds are an ethnic group in the Middle East. There are around 30 million of them, mostly living in a largely mountainous region called Kurdistan which covers adjoining parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They are the fourth largest ethnicity in the Middle East after Arabs, Persians and Turks. The majority are followers of Sunni Islam. They speak Kurdish, a language related to Persian, and have a rich culture of music, dance and folklore.
Their history goes back at least a thousand years and their most famous historical figure is Saladin, the celebrated opponent of the Crusaders.
Why don’t they have their own state?
For much of their history most Kurds were part of the enormous multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire (though those in Persia were not). When that collapsed at the end of the First World War, many Kurds had hopes of self-determination. When the Allies dismantled the Ottoman Empire in the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 a Kurdish state was planned. However Kemal Attaturk, the new ruler of Turkey, carved out new borders of his country by force. When these were ratified in 1927, the intended Kurdish territory was swallowed up.
Other Kurds were divided between the new states of Iraq and Syria.
Do the Kurds still want their own state?
Nearly all Kurds certainly want greater autonomy. One consequence of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the creation a Kurdish federal region. Iraqi Kurdistan is now has over eight million people and control of considerable oil resources. In the Peshmerga, it has a fighting force superior to that of the Iraqi state, and it has proved its worth against IS.
The situation is different in Turkey. Although Kurds probably make up 18 per cent of its population, around 14 million people, they have been treated as second-class citizens with, until recently, official suppression their language and culture.
Since 1984 the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which fights for Kurdish self-government, has been engaged in a guerilla war with the Turkish government in the east of the country. The PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, although there have been negotiations between them and there has been a truce since 2013. A settlement had seemed possible, but recent events make that now very unlikely.
What has happened?
Turkish Kurds are outraged that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is preventing them from helping the Syrian Kurds in IS-besieged Kobane, just over the border. They suspect Erdogan fears Kurdish nationalism more than IS. So another Kurdish insurrection seems likely.
- Kurds believe that President Erdogan of Turkey would rather see these small areas overrun by IS than that they remain independent Kurdish-run statelets on his border.
- He was the first Sultan of Egypt. He defeated the Crusaders at the battle of Hattin in 1187 and recaptured Jerusalem.
- The rights of nations to determine their own future and form of government. The principle was first expressed by US President Woodrow Wilson in 1918, outlining his hopes for a postwar settlement.
- Self-government, the ability to run one’s own affairs.
- The official name of the armed forces of Iraqi Kurdistan.