By Alan Caruba
As this is being written there is a battle going on between the Kurds in a Syrian town on the border with Turkey, Kobani, and the Islamic State (ISIS) militants that have seized a large area of northern Syria and Iraq. ISIS is also moving south toward Baghdad. The only area they have not been able to seize has been Iraq’s Kurdish region which has been virtually autonomous from what is left of the Iraqi government.
While the U.S., Britain and France, along with several Arab states have joined to wage an air battle against the forces of the Islamic State, the success of that effort is limited. Meanwhile, in Kobani, the Kurds are wondering where is the rest of the world is as they fight to defend themselves. It is an old, oft-asked question as they have a long history of fighting Arabs, Iranians, and Turks who have frequently oppressed them.
So who are the Kurds we have been hearing about as the Islamic State continues its war to conquer the whole of Syria and Iraq?
Some good answers are provided in Reese Erlich’s book, “Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect” ($25.00 Prometheus Books). “Kurds make up an estimated 10% to 15% of Syria’s 22.5 million people. The Kurdish language, culture, and historic territory make them a group distinct from Arabs, but they have become part of multinational Syrian society.” This is a description as well of the Kurds in Iraq and elsewhere.
The Kurds are an ethnic group who live in a sizeable area, though not a national one that borders Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. It is referred to as Kurdistan. They have roots in Iran and currently are estimated to number about 30 million people. They are the fourth largest ethnicity in Western Asia after the Arabs, Persians, and Turks. In Iran they are the second largest group. About 55% live in Turkey, 18% each in Iran and Iraq, and a bit over 5% in Syria.
The Kurds are fighting to protect where they live, not for Iraq or Syria, but that has benefited those two nations. They have their own fighting force known as the Peshmerga and reportedly the U.S. has provided arms to assist them. In Iraq, they live in an oil-rich area with what could be considered their capitol city, Kirkuk. In Syria, too, they reside where virtually all of its limited oil is found. The rest is fertile with abundant water.
Given their long history of oppression in the region, it is no surprise that, as Erlich notes, “At the time of the (Syrian) 2011 uprising, most Kurds opposed the Assad dictatorship, but were also highly suspicious of the Arab rebels. Tens of thousands of Kurds fled Syria because of the fighting.” Many crossed the border into Turkey where a large Kurdish population has lived. As of this writing, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians and Kurdish refugees are in Turkey. Turkey’s leader, president Tayyip Erdogan, has been fearful of engaging ISIS militarily and thus far has done nothing.
Erlich notes that “Kurds trace their roots back nearly a thousand years as a nomadic people in the Middle East. Their language and customs are distinct from Arabs, although over time most have adopted Islam…They constitute one of the world’s largest nationalities without a homeland.”
To be a Kurd has been to have been attacked by every nation in which they have resided. If any group deserves to have its own homeland, it’s the Kurds.
In 1920 after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire “the Allies and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Sevres, which included maps of an autonomous Kurdish region of Turkey and called for a referendum on Kurdish independence with one year.” The newly empowered Turkish nationalists rejected that.
If Turkey crushed hopes of a Kurdish nation, Iran did the same. Reza Shah, Iran’s dictator from 1925 to 1941, brutally suppressed the Kurds who lived mostly in the far northwest of Iran. Briefly in 1945, with Soviet encouragement, the Kurds declared an independent state, but the Soviets decided they wanted better relations with Iran and in 1946 that dream was crushed.
In Syria, they formed the Kurdistan Democratic Party in 1957, but it was banned. In 1979 this was repeated in Turkey who regarded it as a terrorist group, imposing martial law in Kurdish areas what wasn’t lifted until 2002. “On March 8, 2004, Iraq adopted the Transitional Administrative Law,” notes Erlich “which formally recognized a semi-independent Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
“Freeing Kurdistan—whatever form that might take—won’t be easy,” says Erlich. “The Syrian government, ultraconservative Arab rebels, and Kurdish groups all want to control the oil fields in the Kurdish region.” As in all of the Middle East, oil is the determining factor regarding who has a right to the area in which it is found.
On January 21, 2014, Kurds declared autonomy in three provinces of northern Syria, but there as elsewhere neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor other Arab groups opposing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad were willing to recognize their right to self-rule. The Obama administration opposed it as well, saying they wanted to see Syria remain united, but the current civil war now in its fourth year gives no indication of that.
This is a very short look at a very long Kurdish history that in the last century and this one continues to be unkind to a group that must continue to fight its enemies—right now ISIS—and this will become part of their history no matter how it turns out.
© Alan Caruba, 2014