Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misstated the population of Kurds in Iraq. The error has been corrected in the text below.
Kurds are the largest stateless minority in the world, with an estimated 30 million Kurds in a geographic area encompassing territories in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. They comprise 18% of the population in Turkey and 15-20% in Iraq, and are the third largest ethnic group in the region after the Arabs and Persians. A largely Sunni Muslim people with their own language and culture, most Kurds live in the generally contiguous areas of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Syria—a mountainous region of southwest Asia generally known as Kurdistan (Land of the Kurds). Non-Arab minority populations, Kurds are also an Linguistic minority, speakers of Kurdish, a subdivision of the Iranic branch of the Indo-European family of languages, which is akin to Persian. Modern Kurdish divides into two major groups: 1) the Kurmanji group and, 2) the Gurani group. These are supplemented by many sub-dialects. The most popular vernacular is that of Kurmanji (or Kirmancha), spoken by about three-quarters of the Kurds today. Kurmanji divided into North Kurmanji (also called Bahdinani, with around 15 million speakers, primarily in Turkey, Syria, and the former Soviet Union) and South Kurmanji (also called Sorani, with about 6 million speakers, primarily in Iraq and Iran).
The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which created the modern states of Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait, was to have included the possibility of a Kurdish state in the region. However, it was never implemented. After the overthrow of the Turkish monarchy by Kemal Ataturk, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq each agreed not to recognize an independent Kurdish state. The Kurds received especially harsh treatment at the hands of the Turkish government, which tried to deprive them of Kurdish identity by designating them “Mountain Turks,” outlawing their language and forbidding them to wear traditional Kurdish costumes in the cities, a direct attack on their culture. The government also encouraged the migration of Kurds to the cities to dilute the population in the uplands. Turkey continues its policy of not recognizing the Kurds as a minority group. In Iraq, Kurds have faced similar repression. After the Kurds supported Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein retaliated, razing villages and attacking peasants with chemical weapons. The Kurds rebelled again after the Persian Gulf War only to be crushed again by Iraqi troops. About 2 million fled to Iran; 5 million currently live in Iraq. The United States has tried to create a safe haven for the Kurds within Iraq by imposing a “no-fly” zone north of the 36th parallel.
Despite a common goal of independent statehood, the 20 million or so Kurds in the various countries are hardly unified.
The paper tries to look the Kurdish Issue through the three lenses:
1. The issue of Kurdistan
2. The intra state relations between the Kurds and the government in Iraq and Turkey
3. And since these two West Asian states share borders, the impact on their respective bilateral relations with each other under this framework.
The Issue of Kurdistan
The main hindrance to the formation of ‘Kurdistan’, literally meaning Land of the Kurds, lies in the fact that the Kurds have internal divisions which often come in way to unify them. They lack any single unified language (spoken or written). Even on the grounds of religion, they do not comprise of a homogeneous category. The majority of the Kurds are Sunni however; one can also find Kurds who are Alevis, Shi’a or Christians. The Kurdish ‘nation’ also would include smaller sects such as the Yazidis, as well as Christian minorities like the Assyrian and the Syrian Orthodox.
The area comprising Kurdistan includes approximately parts of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and northern Syria inhabited mainly by Kurds. The permanent Iraqi constitution in Article 113 states, ‘This Constitution shall approbate the region of Kurdistan and its existing regional and federal authorities, at the time this constitution comes into force. This Constitution shall approbate the region of Kurdistan and its existing regional and federal authorities, at the time this constitution comes into force.’, hence making it an official-political statement in recognizing the autonomous federal entity of the Kurds and granting it an official recognition internationally.
Kurds in Iran are also officially recognized as a minority, and there is a province by the name of ‘Kurdistan’ in Iran. The problem surfaces with the way the Kurds are looked upon in Turkey. The Kurds were historically concentrated in eleven provinces of the southeast. There are also isolated Kurdish villages in other parts of Turkey. Kurds migrated to Istanbul for centuries, and since 1960 they had migrated to almost all other urban centres as well. Turkey’s censuses do not list Kurds as a separate ethnic group. Consequently, there has been no reliable data on their total numbers. Unlike the Sunni Turks, who follow the Hanafi School of Islamic law, the Sunni Kurds follow the Shafii School. However, the Kurds are divided between several states making them a minority in each.
Kurish Demand and the Government Reaction
The Kurds have often demanded their own independence with varying degree of reciprocity as well as animosity. The focus here would be on how the Issue of Kurdistan has been entertained and dealt with by the two neighbouring states of West Asia—Iraq and Turkey. A short historical schema is shown to understand the situation of Kurds today in these regions on general terms.
During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi government implemented anti-Kurdish policies which was widely condemned by the international community, but was never seriously punished for oppressive measures, including the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, which resulted in thousands of deaths. The ‘Al-Anfal Campaign’ constituted a systematic genocide of the Kurdish people in Iraq. Large Kurdish town of Qala Dizeh was completely destroyed by the Iraqi army. The campaign also included Arabization of Kirkuk, a program to drive Kurds out of the oil-rich city and replace them with Arab settlers from central and southern Iraq. Needless to say, there were blatant violations of Human Rights along with life itself.
Saddam Hussein’s regime proved even more disastrous for the Kurds in Iraq. After the Gulf crisis, U.N. Security Council Resolution 688 gave birth to a safe haven following international concern for the safety of Kurdish refugees. The U.S. and British government established a No Fly Zone over a chunk of northern Iraq; however, it left some of the Kurdish populated areas unprotected.. Bloody clashes between Iraqi forces and Kurdish troops continued but then finally the Iraqi government fully withdrew 1991, allowing Iraqi Kurdistan to function de facto independently. The region was to be ruled by the two principal Kurdish parties—the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Then again, tensions between the two principle Kurdish Parties led to intra-Kurdish conflict and warfare.
Prior to the U.S.-led invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in March 2003, Turkey denied the U.S. the bases in Turkey to launch a northern front into Iraq. This Turkish decision unintentionally made the Iraqi Kurds a powerful ally for the U.S. Aided by the Kurds, U.S. Forces were able to open a northern front in Iraq and secure the oil fields in and around Kirkuk. This ensured the Kurds a prominent role in the future of Iraq. The new government for Iraq post-Saddam Hussein proved very comforting for the Kurds. The Iraq Governing Council (IGC) that was appointed in July 2003 had Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, along with three independent Kurdish leaders. The Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for The Transitional Period (TAL), signed March 8, 2004, laid out a political transition process, as well as citizens’ rights, and much of the debate over the TAL concerned the rights and privileges of the Kurds. Further, both the Arabic and Kurdish languages were deemed “the two official languages of Iraq”—an unprecedented gain for the Kurds historically. Further, the constitution also reflected on this change where Islamic principles are to be considered “a source,” but not the only or the primary source, of law. Thus, the assumption based on the recent positive changes showed a gradual improvement in the life of the Kurds in Iraq.