Friday, October 25, 2019

Who are the Kurds, and why does everyone seem to hate them?

Since Donald Trump summarily pulled American forces out of Syria, we are seeing more and more pictures of downtrodden Kurdish families trekking into Iraq as refugees as Turkey declares open war on the whole Kurdish people. But why, and who are the Kurds anyway?
The Kurds are one of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East. In fact, with a population of some where between 25 and 35 million, they make up the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East (after the Arabs, Persians and Turks), and one of the world's largest peoples without a state. Their ancestry in the region stretches back to at least the 3rd millennium BC, although their ethnographic origins are heterogeneous, incorporating several different predecessor ethnic groups in the region. Their homeland straddles the mountainous regions of a whole bunch of countries, with the main populations living in southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, northern Syria, and southwestern Armenia, an area usually referred to as Kurdistan (land of the Kurds), although such a name is not to be found on any official map.
That's because the Kurds don't have an official homeland. After World War 1 and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies did in fact make provision for an independent Kurdish state as part of the 1920 Treaty of Sevre. However, just three years later, at the Treaty of Lausanne, when the boundaries of Turkey and its neighbouring states were finally set, there was, inexplicably, absolutely no mention of a Kurdistan, and the Kurds were split up and isolated as minority groups in the various countries where they still find themselves today. They have been suppressed and denied basic rights in almost all of the countries in which they have a presence.
Since then, various attempts have been made to establish a Kurdish state. For example, in 1978, Abdullah Ocalan established the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to fight for a Kurdish homeland within Turkey, and an armed struggle has been raging there ever since, with an estimated 40,000 casualties and hundred of thousands displaced. The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey and by the USA. The nearest thing there is to an autonomous Kurdish state is the Kurdistan Regional Government within Iraq, which was established in 1991 and has long had it's own military force, the Peshmerga, which played a prominent role in the Iraq War of 2003-9, and was instrumental in bringing down both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
More recently, beginning in 2013, Islamic State targeted Kurdish areas in northern Syria, and the Kurds were drawn into the war that has roiled the Middle East ever since. Fighting independently, as well as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces and as a partner with the US-led Western coalition, they distinuished themselves as fierce and reliable fighters, and they helped drive the IS "caliphate" out of the region almost completely.
Since the US pull-out in October 2019, though, Turkey's huge military has moved into the region, and the Kurdish inhabitants have been forced to flee for their lives. Trump's actions and rhetoric have all but sanctioned a move by Turkey against the Kurdish minority, and the ultra-nationalist Turkish President Erdogan needs a little encouragement to pursue such a course.
The Kurds speak their own language (albeit with several different dialects that almost constitute separate languages), and have many distinctive traditions, although many different tribal affiliations and political interests mean that they have never had a unifying national allegiance. There has been, and continues to be, a lot of political infighting within and between different  Kurdish interests. The Kurdish regions of both Iraq and Syria have significant oil deposits, which further complicates the political situation, and maps have been drawn and redrawn many times over the last decades as a result.
Kurds are mainly Sunni Muslims, with a sizeable minority of Shias, Yazidis, Yarsans, Zoroastians and Christians. Physically, they are indistinguishable from the other populations in which they live. But, despite making up 15-20% of countries like Turkey, Iraq and Syria, they have never been accepted into mainstream life there. Except for the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq, most Kurds are essentially refugees in their own land, and the driving force behind all this appears to be nothing more than the racism of the majority against the minority. Turkish ultra-nationalisn and "Arabization" policies in other countries have resulted in a backlash against Kurds verging in genocide in some cases. The latest Turkish incursions are being called ethnic cleansing by some; at the very least least, Ergogan's reckless and destabilizing move is a fully-fledged invasion, complete with brazen attacks on civilians and allegation of war crimes.
And all this could have been avoided by a little more forethought by the conquering western forces back in 1923.

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