Introduction Of all the ethnic groups in the world, the Kurds are one of the largestthat has no state to call their own. According to historian WilliamWestermann, “The Kurds can present a better claim to race purity…thanany people which now inhabits Europe.” (Bonner, p. 63, 1992) Over thepast hundred years, the desire for an independent Kurdish state hascreated conflicts mainly with the Turkish and Iraqi populations in theareas where most of the Kurds live. This conflict has importantgeographical implications as well. The history of the Kurdish nation,the causes for these conflicts, and an analysis of the situation will bediscussed in this paper.
History of the Kurds The Kurds are a Sunni Muslim people living primarily in Turkey, Iraq,and Iran. The 25 million Kurds have a distinct culture that is not atall like their Turkish, Persian, and Arabic neighbors (Hitchens, p. 36,1992). It is this cultural difference between the groups thatautomatically creates the potential for conflict. Of the 25 millionKurds, approximately 10 million live in Turkey, four million in Iraq,five million in Iran, and a million in Syria, with the rest scatteredthroughout the rest of the world (Bonner, p.
46, 1992). The Kurds alsohave had a long history of conflict with these other ethnic groups inthe Middle East, which we will now look at.
The history of Kurds in the area actually began during ancient times.
However, the desire for a Kurdish homeland did not begin until the early1900s, around the time of World War I. In his Fourteen Points,President Woodrow Wilson promised the Kurds a sovereign state (Hitchens,p. 54, 1992). The formation of a Kurdish state was supposed to havebeen accomplished through the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 which said thatthe Kurds could have an independent state if they wanted one (Bonner, p.
46, 1992). With the formation of Turkey in 1923, Kemal Ataturk, the newTurkish President, threw out the treaty and denied the Kurds their ownstate. This was the beginning of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict.
At about this same time, the Kurds attempted to establish asemi-independent state, and actually succeeded in forming the Kingdom ofKurdistan, which lasted from 1922-1924; later, in 1946, some of theKurds established the Mahabad Republic, which lasted for only one year(Prince, p. 17, 1993). In 1924, Turkey even passed a law banning theuse of the Kurdish language in public places.
Another group of people to consider is the Kurds living in Iraq. Majorconflict between the Kurds and Iraqis did not really begin until 1961,when a war broke out that lasted until 1970. Around this time, SaddamHussein came to power in Iraq. In 1975, Hussein adopted a policy oferadicating the Kurds from his country. Over the next fifteen years,the Iraqi army bombed Kurdish villages, and poisoned the Kurds withcyanide and mustard gas (Hitchens, p. 46, 1992). It is estimated thatduring the 1980s, Iraqis destroyed some 5000 Kurdish villages (Prince,p. 22, 1993). From this point, we move into the recent history andcurrent state of these conflicts between the Kurds and the Turks, andthe Kurds against the Iraqis.
Causes for Conflict The reasons for these conflicts have great relevance to geography. Theareas of geography relating to these specific conflicts are a historicalclaim to territory on the part of the Kurds, cultural geography,economic geography, and political geography. These four areas ofgeography can best explain the reasons for these Kurdish conflicts.
First, the Kurds have a valid historical claim to territory. They havelived in the area for over 2000 years. For this reason, they desire theestablishment of a Kurdish homeland. Iraqis and Turks, while living inthe area for a long period of time, cannot make a historical claim tothat same area. The conflict arises, however, because the area happensto lie within the borders of Iraq and Turkey. Even though the Kurdsclaim is valid, the Turks and Iraqis have chosen to ignore it and havetried to wipe out the Kurds.
Second, and probably most important, is that this conflict involvescultural geography. The Kurds are ethnically and culturally differentfrom both the Turks and the Iraqis. They speak a different language,and while all three groups are Muslim, they all practice differentforms. The Kurds have used this cultural difference as a reason toestablish a homeland. However, the Turks and Iraqis look at thecontrast in ethnicity in a much different sense. The government ofTurkey viewed any religious or ethnic identity that was not their own tobe a threat to the state (”Time to Talk Turkey”, p. 9, 1995). SaddamHussein believed that the Kurds were “in the way” in Iraq and heperceived them as a threat to “the glory of the Arabs” (Hitchens, p. 46,1992). For this reason, he carried out his mass genocide of the Kurdsin his country.
A third factor in these conflicts is economic geography. The areas ofIraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria that the Kurds live in is calledKurdistan, shown on the map “Confrontation in Kurdistan” (Hitchens,1992, p.37, map). Kurdistan is a strategically important area for bothTurkey and Iraq because it contains important oil and water resourceswhich they cannot afford to lose (Hitchens, p. 49, 1992). Also, therehas been no significant economic activity in the region, due to thetrade embargo against Iraq that has been in place since 1991 (Prince, p.
22, 1993). Still, an independent Kurdish state would be economicallyviable and would no longer have an embargo placed against it.
A final cause of the conflict is political geography. The Turks andIraqis do not wish to lose their control over Kurdistan, and haveresorted to various measures such as the attacks previously described.
The Kurds, on the other hand, have political problems of their own.
There is a sharp difference of opinion between the two main Kurdishpolitical parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and thePatriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) (Hitchens, p. 36, 1992). The partiesare at odds about how to resolve the conflicts in which their people areinvolved. Until this internal conflict among the Kurds is solved, itwill be difficult for them to deal with the Turks and Iraqis.
Recent History and the Current Situation In 1991, after the defeat of his country in the Persian Gulf War,Saddam Hussein had the Iraqi army attack the Kurds again. As a result,the United States and its allies launched Operation Provide Comfort inApril 1991 that created a safe haven for the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Eventually, the Kurds were able to secure a small measure of autonomyin Kurdistan and on May 19, 1992, the Kurds held their first freeelections in Iraq (Prince, p. 17, 1992). The Kurds had sovereignty inpart of Kurdistan, called Free Kurdistan, but not to the point of beingrecognized as an independent state. Seeing how the Kurds in Iraq wereable to hold elections, the Turks got scared and banned the PeoplesLabor Party, a legal Kurdish party in Turkey, from the TurkishParliament (Marcus, p. 9, 1994).
In Turkey, a civil war between the Kurds and Turks has been going onfor the last ten years; approximately 15,000 people have been killed sofar (”Time to Talk Turkey, p. 9, 1995). The Turks launched an invasionthey called Operation Steel against the Kurds in March 1995, sending35,000 troops against them, but the plan backfired, as only 158 Kurdishrebels were killed in the first week (Possant, Doxey, & Borrus, p. 57,1995). To sum up the Turks attitude toward the Kurds, Tansu Ciller, theTurkish prime minister, said, “Turkey has no Kurdish problem, only aterrorist problem” (Marcus, p. 9, 1994).
As far as the United States is concerned, Kurdistan probably should notexist. During Operation Provide Comfort, the U.S. helped out the Kurdsin Iraq, but did nothing to help the Kurds in Turkey. The reason forthis is that Turkey is a NATO ally, while Iraq is one of the U.S.sworst enemies (Marcus, p. 9, 1994) By helping out the Kurds, the U.S.
would be siding with enemies of the Turks, which could create problemsthat the U.S. government would rather not deal with. This type ofsituation does not exist in Iraq, however, since the U.S. is not onfriendly terms with Husseins regime.
There are two main views on how to deal with the conflicts. The KDP,led by Masoud Baranzi, seeks limited political autonomy within Iraq(Hitchens, p. 36, 1992). Interestingly, many Kurds would accept being astate of Iraq, holding some autonomy, provided that Hussein was removedfrom power, a democracy was installed, and the Kurds were treated asequals (Bonner, p. 65, 1992). This means that some of the Kurds do notbelieve it is absolutely necessary that they have their own state, onlythat they are recognized as equals by the Iraqi government. On theother hand, Jalal Talabanias PUK says that the Kurds should hold outfor more political concessions from Iraq (Hitchens, p. 36, 1992). It ispossible that they would try to use guerrilla warfare tactics tofrighten the Iraqi army into meeting its demands.
Analysis: Looking Ahead to the Future Looking at the current state of the conflict, the end does not seem tobe near. On one hand, the Kurds have been struggling to gain theirindependence for a number of years, and even though they have beenlocked in a ten year guerrilla war with the Turks, have come too far tostop fighting and accept the harsh treatment they have received from theTurks and Iraqis. Even though Turkey has lost a large number of troopsdealing with the perceived Kurdish “menace”, they do have the support ofthe U.S., and that in itself seems to be a good enough reason to keepthe war going.
As for the situation in Iraq, the situation is a bit more complicated.
The plan of KDP seems like a plausible solution. However, the plan isnot likely to succeed until Hussein dies or is forced out of power. TheIraqis also do not seem very willing to give up their territory to theKurds. The plan of the PUK has a small chance to work, assuming thatguerrilla tactics would scare the Iraqi government. By simply holdingout, the Kurds would gain nothing, because the Iraqis are not threatenedby the Kurds per se. However, by attacking the Iraqis, the Kurds runthe risk of a counterattack which they probably could not effectivelydeal with. Basically, that would make the situation for the Kurds evenworse than before.
Conclusion Without the support of a large powerful nation such as the U.S., theKurds will probably never establish an independent Kurdish state. TheKurds do not have enough military power to fight off the Turks andIraqis without help. The Iraqis and Turks would not be willing to giveup their economically important territory to people which they perceivea “threat” to their way of life and will most likely continue to fightthe Kurds. The Kurds have no choice but to continue fighting untileither they or the Turks and Iraqis are defeated, as both groups areunwilling to allow them to remain in their countries. The futuredefinitely looks bleak for the Kurds.
Cite this The Kurds – A Nation Without a State
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