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Who are the Kurds and what do they want?

Who are the Kurds and what do they want?

28.11.2012 • Middle East •

Everyone has heard of this ‘nation without a state’. Spread across four countries (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria), this population remains largely unknown.

At the heart of the Middle East, distributed across at least four countries (Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria), forming a large diaspora in Europe, the Kurds constitute the largest nation without a state.
The Kurds will certainly have a say in the regional reshuffle which the Arab uprisings could bring about.
An opportunity to ask what the Kurds represent today, and what they want, in the company of Sandrine Alexie, a writer and translator from the Kurdish Institute in Paris who since 2000 writes a blog on the Kurds and their world.

We do not know the exact number of Kurdish people.
Estimates vary between 20 and 40 millions. None of the countries which house Kurdish people have done an ethnic census. It benefits these governments for it remain uncertain.
The most plausible estimates number 15 million in Turkey and 7-8 million in Iran. In these two countries, the authorities steer clear of a census to avoid reinforcing ethnical idiosyncrasies. There would be 1-2 million Kurds in Syria among which approximately 800.000 are deprived of the Syrian nationality, and thus, a legal existence.
In Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) evaluates the number of inhabitants to 5,3 million, and Iraq only recognizes 4,3 because it allows them to cut the budget attributed to Kurdish provinces which is calculated according to the population size.
Taking into account the other Kurdish regions outside the KRG, including Kirkuk, we can consider there are 6 to 6,5 million Kurds in Iraq.
Finally, according to the estimates of the Council of Europe, we can gauge the size of the diaspora: those living in Germany, around 800.000, mostly from Syria and Turkey; in Sweden 100.000, coming from Iran and Iraq; in Great Britain 90.000 from Iraq; in France 120-150 000, the majority from Turkey. However, these numbers are not necessarily reliable because of the amount of illegal immigrants in the diaspora. It is also impossible to tally the Kurds from the ex-USSR. In Israel, there would be 130.000 of them.
A total of 35 million Kurds living in the world would not be entirely unrealistic.

The ‘Kurdish people’ do not exist
The Kurdish tribes and families are spread over several borders. Some political parties have an influence that transcends these limits.
In fact, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, the PKK (Turkey), listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union has a branch in each country: in Syria (PYD), in Iran (PJAK) and a small party in Iraq (PÇKD). The Syrian Kurdish parties other than the PYD-PKK have often had sympathies for one of the two principal Iraqi parties, Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s PUK.
The Kurds have two main dialects, separate but understandable to each other: Kurmanji used in Syria, in Turkey, in Iraq’s Northern Kurdistan and in Iranian Kurdistan, in all the ex-USSR countries and in the Iranian Khurasan; Sorani spoken for its part in the Southern Kurdistan of Iran and Iraq. In the Turkish Kurdistan, another similar language, Zazaki, is mostly spoken at Dersim-Tunceli.
Sandrine Alexie explains:
‘With everything they have suffered since the end of the First World War (assimilation polities even genocide like in Iraq, being forbidden from teaching their language, etc.), if the Kurds did not constitute a nation they would have disappeared, and there would no longer be a ‘Kurdish question’. The Kurds’ national sentiment has been strengthened by the persecutions.’

Among the Kurds there are Muslims, Christians, and Jews
The great majority of Kurds are Sunnite Muslims (70%).
In Iraq, a small Shiite Kurdish population was massacred or deported by Saddam Hussein in 1987-88. Some of these Shiite Kurds from Iraq live in refugee camps in Iran. Since the fall of the Baath party, they are starting to come back to Iraq, but their number does not exceed 20.000.
In Iran itself, there is a concentration of Shiite Kurds in the south of the country. Among the Kurds, Pre-Islamic Soufi-Shiite syncretism is influential (Alevi in Turkey, Yezidi in northern Iraq, Shabak around Mosul, Yârsân in Iran).
The Kurdish Christians are divided between Catholics and autocephalous churches: Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriacs. They use Aramaic.
Many Christians took part in the Kurdish uprisings starting in 1967 because they were threatened by forced exodus, the destruction of their villages and Arabization, and today Islamism.
There would currently be more than 100.000 Kurdish Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are not considered a religious or ethnical minority in Turkey where the 1990s war has driven them out of the Kurdish regions (they are often caught in the cross-fire of the Kurds fighting the central government).
In the Kurdistan of Syria, their relations with the Kurdish Muslims are quite good, and the Christians in Kurdish cities generally support the Kurdish political movements or do not suffer from it, unlike what is happening in the rest of Syria.
Since 1949-1950, all the Jewish Kurds have left for Israel, Australia, or the United States.
Iraq does not have diplomatic links with Israel, but in 2006 the president of the KDP, Barzani, pronounced himself in favor of opening an Israeli consulate at Irbil. Nonetheless, Jewish Kurds can come visit their village of origin with other passports. Kurdish Muslims do not seem to be hostile to them.
Mustafa Barzanî (father of the current president of the KDP) had very good relations with Israel which supported him from the beginning of the 60s, and also in 1975, and the Kurds have never tried to hide it. The Barzanî’s tribe had close ties with the Jews of Aqra including the Israeli ex-Minister of Defense, Ytzakh Mordechai. There are also numerous Israeli ‘Barzanis’ (from Barzan).

Kurdistan has never existed
Kurdistan – a forbidden word in Turkey – has never existed as a twentieth-century nation state, but from the Middle Ages there were independent or semi-independent provinces controlled by Kurdish princes.
The Sultan of Persia, Sandjar, a Turkish Seljuk, created (in 1150) a province bearing the name of Kurdistan. Coincidently, an Ottoman Kurdistan whose shape fluctuated according to the movement of the Turco-Persian borders came about after that.
‘Among their titles, the Ottoman sultans were addressed as “Padişah-i Kurdistan” (Emperor of Kurdistan) as can be seen in the administrative archives of the Ottomans. Yet, the Turkish authorities do not seem to remember this’, recalls Sandrine Alexie.
After that a province called Kurdistan lived on in Persia, and then, in modern Iran.
At the end of the First World War, new borders distribute the Kurds across four countries. The first maps of Kurdistan are drawn in 1919 by a Kurdish envoy at the request of the League of Nations – the articles 62 and 64 of the Treaty of Sèvres signed in 1920 by the sultan and the Powers foresaw an autonomous Kurdistan, or even an independent one, and an independent Armenia. In it, Kurdistan has the shape of a camel whose head drinks in the sea; its area equal to that of France.

The Kurds want their own state
The majority of Kurds want their independence. They underline that they fulfill all the criteria (territorial continuity, language, culture, history), and that they have a right to it.
However, they know it would be political suicide. It would lead the Americans to drop their support of the Kurds of Iraq. At its start, end of the 80s – beginning of the 90s, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK, Turkey) demanded independence, a claim it abandoned afterwards.
From the 60s, another solution was outlined according to which each of the four parts of Kurdistan would obtain its autonomy to then unite in a sort of Benelux, an entity with flexible borders.
This idea was first mentioned in 1963 by Dana Adams Schmidt, a journalist for the New York Times, who spent 46 days in the mountains with Mustafa Barzanî, and who wrote a story: Journey Among Brave Men.
This project of a union is once again being debated vigorously, and enjoys a certain consensus. The events in the Kurdistan of Iraq since 2003 have restored the self-confidence of Kurds from other countries.
Particularly in Turkey where, since 2009, the Group of Communities of Kurdistan (KCK) using Iraqi Kurdistan as a model has multiplied political initiatives towards political autonomy and self-determination which explains the current policy of increased repression (arrests, lawsuits, bans, etc.) adopted by the Turkish state.

The Kurds do not get along
Very independent, they have never lived under a centralized government.
It is a mountainous population and a previously nomadic people which does not predispose them for unification. Furthermore, organization remains mainly tribal and often opposes the chiefs of the tribes. Sandrine Alexie clarifies:
‘The Kurds are not fascinated by the cult of the great dictator; they are rather undisciplined. Each Kurd is king of his own mountain so they bicker, and rivalry is frequent and easy.’
In Northern Iraq, the Kurds went through a civil war from 1992 to 1996. The leading powers in the region supported one side or the other in turn. The eternal rivals, the KDP and the PUK, finally united in 2003. Nonetheless, this war which almost cost them their dream of independence remains a traumatic memory for the Kurds.

It is in Turkey that the Kurds’ situation is the worst
Despite legal harassment, the arrests and imprisonment to which they are exposed, the Kurds of Turkey no longer live the dark years (deportations, brunt villages, mass torture, disappearance of militants, operations of the Turkish Hezbollah) which they faced in the 80s and 90s before the rise to power of the Islamic Conservatives of the JDP.
In Iran, the treatment of the Kurds is far worse (ban of all minority languages including Arabic, ban of Kurdish newspapers, of societies for the defense of human rights, of feminist societies, of Kurdish unions, persecutions, suppression of any hint of civil society).
Arrests, imprisonment, torture are widespread when it comes to militants or to fighters of the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) which could be backed by the CIA. Death sentences as well since the Kurds of the PJAK sometimes define themselves as atheists and mostly Marxists (the political line of the PKK-PJAK is very difficult to follow, but they are against Islam).
There are also the Sunnite Kurds who are frowned upon by the mullahs. All of them can be condemned (and often are) as ‘enemies of God’ by the high revolutionary courts of Iran which is liable of death.

The war in Syria is an opportunity for the Kurds
Either democracy is established and the Kurds gain at least a greater local autonomy and a constitutional recognition of their people and their language; or, chaos ensues with several zones of influence, and they can also profit from this because they can recreate what happened in Iraq in 1992 (autonomy) when Saddam Hussein drew out of the north of the country.
In this case, they will prevent the return of Arab soldiers in the areas which the regime of Bachar al-Assad left them. Neither will they let the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in because they fear the influence of the jihadists who are fighting side by side with the FSA (clashes between militia from the FSA and those from the PYD-PKK have already started).
The strategy of the PYD-PKK could be the following: let the Sunnite and Shiite Syrians fight it out among themselves, we protect our minorities, our population and secure our area.
‘However, one cannot exclude the possibility of civil war between the Kurds from the PYD-PKK and the Kurds from the new revolutionary coalition’, explains Sandrine Alexie. If the Syrian Peshmergas (volunteers, deserters from the Syrian army who took refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan) have not yet come back massively to the north of Syria, it is probably because everyone fears clashes among the Kurds.
Ariane Bonzon
Translation: Suzanne Compagnon
Photo: DR

Original French version:
Qui sont les Kurdes et que veulent-ils ?

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