Kurds are often described as one of the largest stateless people. While other stateless nations do exist, the Kurdish question is complex and goes back generations. So who are these stateless people, and where did it all begin?
Ahead of Turkey's upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, four opposition parties have come together to fight against the governing Justice and Development (AK) Party and its ally, nationalist political group MHP. Now one of the decisive factors could be the country's Kurds. In previous elections, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) managed to extract most of its votes from Kurds.
Experts say that Kurdish voters have two options: One is to vote for the AK Party-led alliance and the other one is to vote for the HDP, which has its presidential candidate and many members in jail for alleged links to the PKK, considered a terror organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU.
The PKK has been waging an armed campaign against the Turkish state for more than 30 years. The conflict has claimed 40,000 lives, including civilians.
But the PKK doesn't define the Kurdish people. The Kurds are essential to Turkish democracy since the country's constitution guarantees them equal rights. Between 2013-2015, the HDP and Erdogan-led AK Party engaged in a "Resolution Process," better-known as the peace process, with the aim to disarm the PKK and address the Kurdish grievances.
During the peace process, the AK Party government has allowed Kurdish language broadcasting, even launching a Kurdish language-based TV channel, TRT Kurdi as a public broadcaster under Turkish Radio Television (TRT). Ankara has also removed legal barriers to teach the Kurdish language in Turkey.
The peace talks, however, fell apart because the PKK violated the ceasefire agreement.
The HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas was imprisoned in late 2016 for alleged links to the PKK. It remains to be seen which side Turkey’s Kurds will vote for.
Since the Kurdish question continues to linger in several parts of the Middle East, including Turkey, we examine the origins of the Kurds and their social and political contributions to various states of the Middle East at different stages of history.
Where do the Kurds come from?
The Kurds have a long history, but their story is one that has not been written in great detail.
One of the indigenous people of the Middle East, the Kurds have been living for centuries mostly in the territories between two ancient rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris. They are described by some historians as nomadic Iranians or as a people indigenous to the Mesopotamian plains and highlands encompassing northern Syria, Iraq, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran.
More recent DNA research points to “multi-ethno-genetic-cultural mountain dweller civilisations, who contributed essentially to the cultivation of areas from eastern Anatolia to Zagros east.”
The language they speak, Kurdish, is considered a western Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages. The absence of a comprehensive written tradition prior to the 20th century and of a shared script between different Kurdish dialects explains in part why the history of the Kurds is less documented.
The strong tribal structure of the Kurds dates back centuries and still dominates the social fabric of the Kurdish people. Most Kurds converted to Islam during the Muslim Arab conquests in the Middle East in the 7th century and participated in Muslim empires. A majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kurds mostly settled in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria — in the confluence of the borders. However, there are also large Kurdish diasporas living in European countries.
Almost 10 percent of the Syrian population, 15-20 percent of the Turkish, 20 percent of the Iraqi, and 10 percent of the Iranian populations are Kurdish according to most estimates.
Are the Kurds the largest stateless nation?
Kurds have an estimated population of over 30 million people around the world.
It is often described as the largest stateless nation in the world; there are, however, stateless people with larger populations. The Tamils have about 64 million people, living mostly in the Indian subcontinent.
Is there much precedence for Kurdish statehood?
History does not favour Kurdish statehood. The history of the Middle East shows there are precedents for Arab, Persian and Turkish-dominated states.
The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates were Arab-led and there had been Persian dynasties like Persians and Sassanids. Turks have also established a number of states via the Seljuk and Ottoman empires, conquering most of the Middle East.
Saladin, the famous Muslim warrior and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, was from a Kurdish family of fortune from northern Iraq. He unified the Muslim leadership against the Crusaders in the 12th century and is largely credited with the eventual eradication of the Crusaders from the Middle East.
But the sultanate was not Kurdish. The rank and file of the Ayyubid army was a mix of Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish contingencies, and Saladin himself started off in the service of the Seljuks.
Prior to the emergence of Kurdish political organisations in the 20th century, tribes in the Ottoman Empire’s Kurdish territories attempted several rebellions but were ultimately quelled.
But most commentators like Dr Martin van Bruinessen, think these rebellions, which were mostly rooted in regional and tribal disputes, demonstrate more tribal features than nationalistic aspirations.
Much of the Kurdish population lived in the Ottoman Empire during its reign. When the empire’s central power over distant provinces weakened in the late 19th century, Kurdish tribal leaders started lobbying for political leverage.
Following World War I, the British and French carved the Middle East a new map with artificial borders managed by political entities empowered with the mandate of the colonisers.
The first reference to a possible Kurdish state on what are now Turkey’s eastern provinces was made by the same powers in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres which aimed to fracture the Ottoman Empire, but the treaty never came into effect.
Do the Kurds have a unified political front for statehood?
The Kurds currently do not have a unified leadership.
Experts cite factionalism as one of the main obstacles to a unified Kurdish leadership in Iraq.
There are two powerful Kurdish political factions in northern Iraq — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani up to his death in 2017.
The KDP was split along the Iranian-Iraqi divide, after Masoud’s father Mustafa Barzani helped established the Iraqi KDP in the 1940s.
Talabani used to be part of the KDP but political and intellectual differences with Mustafa prompted Talabani to establish the PUK in Damascus in 1975.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq held a referendum on September 25 on seeking independence from Baghdad. The bid for self-determination, driven by then president of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, saw overwhelming support with 92 of the vote in favour.
The Iraqi government responded with a military operation against the Kurdish-held oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which some Kurds regard as their Jerusalem. Kurdish peshmerga forces under the PUK — against Barzani’s orders — withdrew from Kirkuk without putting up any serious fight.
On 16 Oct, PMF - part of Iranian Quds Force, backed by Iraqi forces, conducted a large-scale operation on Kirkuk and surrounding areas. pic.twitter.com/IZz0bb8H64— Peshmerga Command (@GCPFKurdistan) October 17, 2017
Even though the referendum clearly favoured KRG’s independence from Iraq, Kurdish political groups were unable to set aside their differences.
Though KDP and PUK are the leading Kurdish political organisations in northern Iraq, an armed group named the PKK also emerged in 1974 with a different agenda.
Established by Abdullah Ocalan in Turkey's capital Ankara in 1974, the PKK is rooted in Marxist-Leninist ideology and it mostly recruits its members from Kurdish-dominated areas in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
As a result of its decades-long armed campaign towards the Turkish state, the PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU.
The PKK sporadically clashes with KDP and PUK peshmerga forces in northern Iraq.
The PKK used to defend a unified independent Kurdish state as its ultimate aim, based on the doctrines of Ocalan. They have changed their stance from independence to autonomy after Ocalan — imprisoned by Turkey since 1999 — developed the idea of democratic confederalism while serving his imprisonment. But political analysts think that the idea of democratic confederalism is a ground preparation for an independent Kurdish state.
Where does this leave Middle Eastern Kurds today?
In northern Iraq, primarily backed by the US, the Kurds have carved out the KRG — the autonomous region recognised by the Iraqi constitution which was written with the involvement of the US after they invaded Iraq in 2003.
Most of Iran’s Kurds are settled in the country’s northwestern parts where Kurdish populations live under local administrations in Kurdistan Province, Kermanshah Province, West Azerbaijan Province, Ilam Province and Hamadan Province.
The PJAK, PKK’s Iranian wing, clashes with Iranian security forces time to time, while Sunni Kurds have problems with Tehran. However, Shia Kurds have come to a compromise with Iran’s predominantly Shia Iranian leadership.
In Turkey, since 1984, PKK’s violent attacks has cost more than 40,000 lives, most of whom were Kurdish living in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern and eastern provinces.
In early 2013, Turkey’s governing AK Party launched an ambitious peace process to resolve the country’s Kurdish question by disarming PKK militants in Turkey and addressing Kurdish grievances.
However, by July 2015 the PKK’s renewed fight against Turkey by digging trenches and setting explosives in several cities - aimed to challenge the state's sovereignty in the country - brought the peace process to a crashing stop. Since then, the PKK has been conducting attacks on both to Turkish security forces and civilians along across the country.
What about the Kurds in Syria?
Syria’s civil conflict and its complex multi-player international proxy wars have become the centre of the recent Kurdish debate.
The YPG, the PKK’s Syrian wing, took over areas from Afrin in northwestern Syria to Kobani and Jazira in northeastern Syria, declaring so-called "cantons” or autonomous regions after the Bashar al Assad regime withdrew its security forces without fighting from those areas.
Many analysts have seen the Assad regime's move as a countermeasure against Turkish support to the Syrian opposition. The YPG and the Syrian regime have reportedly been on good terms during much of the Syrian civil war.
In northern Syria, the YPG also declared "cantons" in areas they took from Daesh. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Syrian militia alliance led by the YPG, are supported by the US-led coalition and Americans are allegedly warming up to the idea of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria, much like its Kurdish design in northern Iraq.
Turkey has vehemently opposed the presence of PKK-aligned groups right on its border with northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the driving force behind the country’s recent military operation against YPG control of Afrin in northwestern Syria, has repeatedly warned Ankara will not tolerate any terror corridor along the Turkish border.
Turkey previously launched military operation dubbed Euphrates Shield in northwestern Syria in August 2016, in order to clear Daesh from the country's Syria border. The operation also ensured to prevent the YPG from joining its Kobani and Jazira "cantons" with Afrin. With Operation Olive Branch, Turkey has also taken Afrin from YPG.
The PKK was already in Syria before civil war erupted there in 2011. Ocalan, the PKK’s ideological mentor, used to live in Damascus under the protection of Assad until Turkey threatened Syria in 1998. Syria allowed the PKK to operate its training camps in the Bekaa Valley and other locations during the 1980s and 1990s.