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The Kurds

A funeral of a Kurdish fighter killed in the fighting against the islamic state in Kobani, November 2014 /Photo Corbis
A funeral of a Kurdish fighter killed in the fighting against the islamic state in Qamishli, July 2016 /Photo AFP

The Kurds, constituting one of the oldest nations of the Middle East, are in the spotlight in 2014 as they fiercely defend their territory against attacks by Islamic State, with the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane becoming a symbol of Kurdish persistence and emerging unity.

The geographical area referred to as Kurdistan stretches across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria and covers an area of 410,000 square kilometres. They are the largest nation in the world without their own country.

Worldwide there are now some 35 million Kurds, about 5 million of whom live outside the geographical area referred to as Kurdistan, especially in Armenia and Azerbaijan but also in Europe—Germany has the largest Kurdish community, about 1 million—the United States, and Canada.


Thousands of Kurds protest in Istanbul over Islamic State attacks on Kobane, October 2014 /Photo Corbis
Thousands of Kurds protest in Istanbul over Islamic State attacks on Kobane, October 2014 /Photo Corbis

About 18 million Kurds live in Turkey, which is about one-fifth of Turkey’s population. The region with a predominantly Kurdish population covers about a quarter of the area of Turkey, or 195,000 square kilometres, and is situated in the east and southeast of the country. Diyarbak?r, the largest city in this region, has a million inhabitants. The city in Turkey with the most Kurds is Istanbul.

Since 1984, news from the Kurdish region in Turkey has been dominated by the war between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish state. Initially, the goal of the PKK, founded in 1978, was to establish an independent Kurdistan, but, in the 1990s, the group’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, changed his objectives, and the PKK has since been fighting for autonomy within the Turkish state and for full respect for the cultural and linguistic rights of Kurds.

The PKK, which has enormous grass-roots support among Kurds in Turkey, has respected several ceasefires since Öcalan was captured in 1999 and imprisoned for life on the island of Imrali, in the Marmara Sea, south of Istanbul. The latest ceasefire began in early 2013. This was the first mutually agreed ceasefire, and since then both the PKK and the Turkish army have largely refrained from hostilities.

The Turkish government of then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an admitted in December 2012 that talks about a lasting peace with the PKK had begun. The talks were between Hakan Fidan (the head of Turkey’s intelligence agency MIT) and Abdullah Öcalan. However, it proved difficult to make political progress towards solving the Kurdish issue in Turkey. Crucial to the solution is the implementation of a new constitution, because the current one dates back to 1982, having been written by the army after the 1980 military coup. The main problem with the constitution is that it recognizes no identity but the Sunni Turkish identity, thus restricting the cultural and linguistic rights of all other ethnic and religious groups in Turkey.

Both the PKK and the larger Kurdish political movement and the Turkish government seem committed to the ceasefire. However great the tensions sometimes become—for example, in the fall of 2014, over the lack of support from the Turkish government for the Syrian Kurds fighting extremist Islamic State in Syria—neither side wants to be the one to resume the violence, which has caused the deaths of at least 45,000 people since 1984.


Iraq Kurdistan Map
Iraq Kurdistan Map

The Iraqi part of Kurdistan is situated in the northeast of Iraq and has about 5 million inhabitants. It covers about 72,000 square kilometres, which is about one-sixth of the area of Iraq, but the official autonomous Kurdistan Region is smaller than that, about 40,000 square kilometres, or one-tenth of the country. The difference can be explained partly by the so-called ‘disputed areas’.

Kurds consider larger parts of Iraq as Kurdish territory, including parts that do not have a Kurdish majority. An example is the city of Kirkuk and its surroundings. Policies of demographic engineering carried out in the past, especially during Saddam Hussein’s rule, increased the Arab population at the expense of the Kurds. Kirkuk is important economically for the many oil fields around the city. A referendum on the status of Kirkuk was planned but has never been carried out.

The capital of the Kurdistan Region is Erbil, a city of about 1.5 million inhabitants. The region’s economy has seen phenomenal growth, due partly to heavy investments from Turkey, Kurdistan’s neighbour to the north. It helps the economy that Kurdistan is stable and safe compared to the rest of Iraq.

Iraqi Kurdistan has had de facto autonomy since the first Gulf War in 1991. In 1992 the Kurdistan Regional Government was formed by the two most important political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In 2005, a new constitution was promulgated in Iraq, which joined the Kurdistan Region securely to the rest of Iraq.

The KDP and the PUK have dominated the Kurdistan Region politically. The KDP has its strongholds in the northern provinces of Erbil and Duhok, while the PUK is stronger in the southern province of Sulaymaniyah. The KDP and the PUK govern the Kurdistan Region together.

Since 2009 there is a new player in the political field: Gorran ( ‘Change’) is a centrist, liberal party. It has not broken the hegemony of the KDP in Erbil and Duhok provinces, but in the latest elections in Iraqi Kurdistan, in 2013, Gorran beat the PUK in Sulaymaniyah, thus becoming the second largest party in the region. Negotiations on forming a government took nine months, but eventually, in the summer of 2014, a coalition government comprising KDP, Gorran, and PUK was formed. The president is Massoud Barzani (KDP), and the prime minister is his nephew, Nechirvan Barzani (KDP).

The Kurdistan Regional Government has developed excellent relations with Turkey, exemplified by the friendship between Massoud Barzani and Turkey’s former prime minister and now president Recep Tayyip Erdo?an.

The relations between the Kurdistan government in Erbil and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad have soured over the last couple of years, especially in 2014. Disputes began over oil revenues. The revenues of all oil sales in Iraq, including oil from Kurdistan, are paid to Baghdad, after which the Kurdistan Region is supposed to receive 17 percent of the total revenues. Kurdistan wants more control over its own natural resources, and Baghdad refuses to pay the full 17 percent to Erbil. This led Kurdistan to try to sell its own oil, via a pipeline to Turkey, but it has proven difficult to find buyers, because Baghdad threatens potential purchases with legal proceedings.

In June 2014, President Barzani announced that Kurdistan would organize a referendum on full independence, although no date for the referendum has yet been set. Because the advances of Islamic State also threaten the stability of Iraqi Kurdistan, the referendum seems to be off the political agenda for the time being.


The smallest part of Kurdistan lies in Syria; it covers about 18,000 square kilometres, which is less than one-tenth of the area of Syria. It is situated mostly in northern Syria but is currently divided into three non-contiguous districts: Cizire in the northeast, Efrin in the northwest, and Kobane, between Cizire and Efrin. The largest city is Qamislo, with about 200,000 inhabitants. Qamislo borders the Turkish town of Nusaybin. About one million Kurds live in Syrian Kurdistan and about another million in other Syrian cities, such as Aleppo and Damascus.

The plight of the Syrian Kurds has changed dramatically since the civil war in Syria began in 2011. In the summer of 2012, Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) took the Kurdish majority regions in the north of the country under their control with little effort, the troops of President al-Assad having left those regions to concentrate on other fronts in the country.

The YPG is the military force connected with the PYD, the Democratic Union Party. Because the YPG controls the Kurdish regions militarily, the PYD has been working to establish political autonomy. In November 2013, the PYD and other groups in the region, including groups representing minorities, declared an interim administration. Three administrative districts were established—Cizire, Kobane, and Efrin. The United States objected to the de facto autonomy of Syrian Kurdistan, fearing it would endanger the geographical integrity of Syria. Turkey also objected: given the PYD’s connection to the PKK, Turkey feared that the successes of the Syrian Kurds would incite the Kurds in Turkey also to seek such autonomy.

The government of Iraqi Kurdistan has also opposed the de facto autonomy of Syrian Kurdistan. This is related to wider Kurdish politics: the KDP of Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, and the PKK of Abdullah Öcalan have been competing for power over the Kurds for decades.

The KDP established a party in Syrian Kurdistan as well, and Barzani accused the PYD of not giving any space to this opposition party. Barzani closed the (short) border with the Cizire district, effectively preventing the Syrian Kurds from importing food and medicine. Also Turkey, having good relations with Barzani and still in a state of war with the PKK, decided to close its borders with the parts of Syria controlled by Kurds.

Loyalties began to shift, however, when both Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan came under heavy attack in 2014 from Islamic State , which had captured tanks and other heavy weapons from the Iraqi army. The PKK came to the rescue of the Peshmerga, the official army of Iraqi Kurdistan, in the summer of 2014, when Islamic State made advances around the town of Sinjar, inhabited mostly by Yazidi Kurds, a religious minority.

President Barzani pledged, in return, to help the YPG in its battle for the city of Kobane against Islamic State. IS attacked in mid-September 2014, and, to the surprise of many, the YPG managed to stand up to IS despite being outgunned and outnumbered. The United States decided eventually not only to bomb IS around Kobane but also to drop weapons to the YPG, weapons provided by Iraqi Kurdistan. In a surprising move, Turkey then agreed to allow Peshmerga troops, including heavy weapons, to cross Turkish territory so they could reach Kobani and help turn the tide in the YPG’s battle against IS.

It remains to be seen if the new Kurdish unity is a fundamental change or just a temporary reaction to the common enemy they have in IS.


The Iranian part of Kurdistan covers about 125,000 square kilometres, which is about one-thirteenth of the country; it is located in north-western Iran. The largest city is Sanandaj, with some 400,000 inhabitants.

Unlike the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, a large proportion (some 30 percent) of the Iranian Kurds are Shiite Muslims; the rest are Sunnis. In general, the Shiite Kurds in Iran, unlike many of the Sunni Kurds, have little interest in autonomy for the Kurdish region.

The most important political party in Iranian Kurdistan is the Democratic Party of Kurdistan in Iran (KDPI, founded in 1945), which advocates for the cultural rights of Kurds and the formation of an autonomous region within the Islamic Republic.

Another political player is the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), an armed group affiliated with the PKK in Turkey. They began hostilities against the government in Tehran in 2004, with the fiercest clashes taking place in the summer of 2011. A ceasefire was declared after that, but occasional battles still occur.

The PJAK does not have the same huge grass-roots support as the PKK in Turkey and the PYD/YPG in Syria. Most Iranian Kurds who seek wider cultural rights and autonomy choose to do so unarmed and prefer to work within the KDPI.

In addition to the Kurds’ cultural and political rights being suppressed in Iran, they, like other ethnic or religious minority groups in the country, are subject to human-rights violations; the overall human-rights record of Iran worsened after the controversial 2009 elections. Kurds who engage in peaceful activities to enhance cultural and political rights are subject to arbitrary arrest and to prosecution on the pretext of endangering national security. The death penalty is widely used against political activists: since 2007 at least 14 Kurdish political prisoners have been hanged, and some thirty await the same fate on death row.

Further Reading

The Kurds were the first to realize that the Baath regime was not really interested in political accommodation: Baghdad never honoured promises of Kurdish autonomy.
From the beginning of the Syrian civil war, in March 2011, the Turkish government has been open about the goals of its Syria policy: President al-Assad has to be removed from power, and the Syrian Kurds can’t be allowed autonomy...
Kurdistan has been suffering immense security and economic problems since early 2014, which argue against changing the leadership of the region now. Islamic State (IS) poses the greatest security threat to the region. The peshmer...
In 1994 a bloody civil war broke out, which led to a de facto division of the area into a KDP-ruled zone and a PUK-ruled zone. Only after the downfall of the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003 were the KDP and the PUK reconciled.
The battle against the PKK inside Turkey is probably not going as planned. The AKP government and the security forces continually claim scores of PKK fighters killed, with unverifiable claims as high as hundreds of casualties on t...
The KRG has continued to grow in stature and international standing, even as ISIS has harassed its borders and threatened its very existence. But the greatest threat to a prosperous future remains an internal one. The demon of int...
The Kurds in Syria declared a “federal democratic system” in the areas they control in northeastern and northwestern Syria. They consider the system a model for the whole of Syria, not just for the Kurdish regions, but the Syr...
Kurds in Iran are still waiting for recognition of their very identity. The Kurds seem trapped in a system that discriminates strongly against them. Several web sites that publish news from Iranian Kurdistan have reported that the...
With the lives of some 30,000-40,000 people lost in the conflict between Turkey and Kurdish militants since 1984, it is without doubt one of the greatest stains on the republic’s history.
Kurds went to the polls in the hope of making history and beginning the march to an independent state in the eyes of the world. Yet that longed-for result is still far from certain. With such international opposition to their caus...

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