Who Are the Kurds?

Who are the Kurds?
A Kurdish flag is seen next to Peshmerga fighters taking position with their weapons on the frontline against the Islamic State, on the outskirts of Mosul January 26, 2015. Azad Lashkari/Reuters

The Kurds are one of the indigenous peoples of the Middle East and the region's fourth-largest ethnic group. They speak Kurdish, an Indo-European language, and are predominantly Sunni Muslims.

Kurds have a distinct culture, traditional dress and holidays, including Nowruz, the springtime New Year festival that is also celebrated by Iranians and others who use the Persian calendar.

Kurdish nationalism emerged during the twentieth century following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of new nation-states across the Middle East.

The estimated thirty million Kurds reside primarily in mountainous regions of present-day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey and remain one of the world's largest peoples without a sovereign state. The Kurds are not monolithic, however, and tribal identities and political interests often supersede a unifying national allegiance.

Some Kurds, particularly those who have migrated to urban centers, such as Istanbul, Damascus and Tehran, have integrated and assimilated, while many who remain in their ancestral lands maintain a strong sense of a distinctly Kurdish identity. A Kurdish diaspora of an estimated two million is concentrated primarily in Europe.

Kurds have a long history of marginalization and persecution, and, particularly in Iraq and Turkey, have repeatedly risen up to seek greater autonomy or complete independence.

At the outset of the twenty-first century they have achieved their greatest international prominence yet, most notably in Iraq. Iraqi Kurds were an important partner for the U.S.-led coalition that ousted Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.

Even while asserting their autonomy, Iraqi Kurds are still considered by policymakers as the "glue" that holds the country together amid sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Arabs.

The Iraqi Kurdish fighting force, known as peshmerga (Kurdish for "those who face death"), and Syrian Kurdish fighters have played a significant role in fighting the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), a jihadi group that has exploited the ongoing civil war in Syria and instability in Iraq to take control of large territories in both countries.

Other Kurdish fighters, including Turkish guerrilla fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, have also been instrumental in warding off Islamic State advances in the region.

Meanwhile, the Turkish government has been attempting to resolve its thirty-year conflict with the PKK through a negotiated peace process and increased rights and recognition for the country's Kurdish population.

The role of Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State in particular has raised their international profile. Some countries, including Germany, have directly armed and trained Iraqi Kurdish forces, while the U.S.-led coalition to fight the Islamic State has supported Kurdish ground operations with air strikes.

Multinational Heritage

Four countries are home to large Kurdish minorities, who call the mostly contiguous area they inhabit Kurdistan, or land of the Kurds. In two of these countries, Kurds have established different and separate forms of self-rule.

In Iraq, Kurds primarily reside in three provinces that make up the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Iraqi Kurds have had de facto autonomy since 1991, when a U.S.-led coalition established a no-fly zone over Kurdish areas to protect them from Saddam Hussein's attacks. The KRG was officially recognized as a semi-autonomous region in the 2005 Iraqi constitution, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and fall of Saddam's regime two years earlier.

Some Iraqi Kurds live outside of the KRG, however, and the Kurds have laid claims to areas outside their recognized borders, including the oil-rich Kirkuk region.

Kurdish leaders refer to the city of Kirkuk, located about sixty miles from the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital of Erbil, as their Jerusalem, alluding to the city's disputed status among different ethnic groups decades after Saddam resettled the region and ousted thousands of Kurds in his "Arabization program." Kirkuk has been the focal point of the Kurds' disputes with Baghdad over territory and resources.

The Iraqi military fled the area in the face of Islamic State fighters' advances, in 2014, and peshmerga forces deployed against the insurgents, taking control of Kirkuk. Experts say that Kurdish control over Kirkuk—and its oil—plays into Iraqi Kurds' potential secession from Iraq, as today's de facto borders may define the borders of a future independent Kurdistan.

In northern Syria, Kurds inhabit three noncontiguous regions, which also have large oil deposits near the border with Turkey and Iraq. Amid the Syrian civil war, Kurds unilaterally declared self-rule in these areas in 2012 and have since protected them from Islamic State forces.

The map below shows the areas in which Kurds reside and govern, and the most recent information available on the location of Islamic State forces.

Kurds: A People Divided

Historical Context

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire dispersed Kurds into four nations nearly a century ago, they have pursued recognition, political rights, autonomy, or independence. Throughout this period, Kurds have been persecuted, Kurdish identity has been denied and thousands of Kurds have been killed.

In each of the four nations, Kurds have had uneasy relationships with authorities, rebelling at times and cutting deals with the governments at others. The destabilization of Iraq, civil war in Syria, and the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State present new challenges, but also opportunities, for the Kurds.

Independence and Disunity

The quest for independence is intrinsic to Kurdish identity. However, not all Kurds envision a unified Kurdistan that would span the Kurdish regions of all four countries. Most Kurdish movements and political parties are focused on the concerns and the autonomy or independence of Kurds in their specific countries. Within each country, there are also Kurds who have assimilated, and whose aspirations may be limited to greater cultural freedoms and political recognition.

Kurds throughout the region have vigorously pursued their goals through a multitude of groups. While some Kurds established legitimate political parties and organizations in efforts to promote Kurdish rights and freedom, others have waged armed struggles. Some, like the Turkish PKK, employed guerrilla tactics as well as terror attacks on civilians, including fellow Kurds.

The wide array of Kurdish political parties and groups reflects the internal divisions among Kurds, which often follow tribal, linguistic and national fault lines, in addition to political disagreements and rivalries. Tensions between the two dominant Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), escalated to a civil war that killed more than two thousand Kurds in the mid-1990s.

Political disunity stretches across borders as well, with Kurdish parties and organizations forming offshoots or forging alliances in neighboring countries. Today, disagreement over the prospects for Kurdish autonomy in Syria, or Iraqi Kurds' relations with the Turkish government, fosters tensions that have pitted the Iraqi KDP and its Syrian sister organization, the KDP-S, against the PKK and its Syrian offshoot, the PYD. Still, adversarial Kurdish groups have worked together when it has been expedient. The threat posed by the Islamic State has led KDP-affiliated peshmerga to fight alongside Syrian PYD forces.

Kurdish groups have at times bargained with not only their own governments but also neighboring ones, in some cases at the expense of their relations with their Kurdish brethren. The complex relationships among Kurdish groups and between the Kurds and the region's governments have fluctuated, and alliances have formed and faltered as political conditions have changed.

The Kurds' disunity is cited by experts as one of the primary causes for their inability to form a state of their own. Another is that as a landlocked people they are reliant on governments that oppose their independence.

Kurds in the Emerging Middle East

Domestic upheaval and political changes throughout the region have made Kurds critical players on many fronts, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

In Iraq, sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Arabs threatens the country's unity, and the Islamic State has increased its foothold by capturing territory, including Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. The Kurdish region has been largely unharmed by the sectarian fighting, and Kurdish peshmerga forces have halted the advance of Islamic State militants into the autonomous region.

Amid the fighting, the Kurds have also deployed forces further south, filling the void left by the retreating Iraqi military. They have taken control of Kirkuk, an oil-rich region to which they have long laid claim.

Tensions between Erbil and Baghdad peaked in 2014 over oil-revenue sharing between the regional and federal governments. Though resolved later that year, the dispute with Baghdad and prospects for increased oil wealth from Kirkuk have fueled speculation that the Kurds may secede from Iraq.

In Syria, civil war between the Assad regime and its supporters and myriad anti-government groups has killed more than 220,000. The Islamic State, which is fighting against both government and antigovernment forces, controls territory in the north and the east.

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A Kurdish refugee woman from the Syrian town of Kobani walks along tents at a refugee camp in the border town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province January 31, 2015. Umit Bektas/Reuters

The Kurds have not taken a side in the civil war but, filling the void after Syrian government forces left the area, have effectively established self-rule in three regions. The PYD has governed since mid-2012, and its military arm, the People's Protection Unit (YPG) has been fighting against the Islamic State, with support from U.S.-led airstrikes.

The coalition's support for the PKK-affiliated group has caused tensions between the United States and Turkey, a NATO ally. The PYD's and PKK's effectiveness in ground operations against Islamic State, most notably in the battle for Kobani in 2014, has led some experts to call for the United States to remove the PKK from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Meanwhile, Turkey has been negotiating directly with the PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to try to end the insurgency, which has killed forty thousand people since 1984. The peace talks, part of the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) "democratization" agenda, follow other measures aimed at integrating Kurds into Turkish society, including the removal of a ban on broadcasting and teaching in the Kurdish language.

Experts say the negotiations and resulting cease-fire have already had a positive economic and societal impact for both Turkish Kurds and the rest of the country, though tensions persist between the government and Kurdish citizens.

Iran's Kurds have received less international attention than their Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish brethren. Experts attribute this partly to internal disunity, but mostly to the Iranian regime's political repression and limits on international media coverage.

In 2011, the government carried out a massive military campaign against the Kurdish guerrilla group Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), which left hundreds dead, including civilians. Iran has routinely executed Kurdish activists.

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Sources: CIA World Factbook, KRG, International Energy Agency, Oil & Gas Journal, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Reuters Council on Foreign Relations

Flashpoints

Conflict fracturing two countries, a delicate normalization process in a third and Kurdish nationalist aspirations could reshape the Middle East and trigger further upheaval. Experts point to three unfolding developments that could significantly affect the Kurds and the region.

Iraqi Kurdish Independence

Kurdish secession from Iraq to form an independent state would likely trigger conflict with Baghdad and exacerbate sectarian conflict between Iraq's Sunni and Shia Arabs.

Neighboring Iran, Syria and Turkey are concerned that independence for Iraq's Kurds could inspire Kurdish uprisings in their own countries and that an independent Kurdistan might harbor militant Kurdish groups. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has forged extensive economic ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government, including a booming oil trade, but as recently as 2007 the Turkish government threatened to send troops into KRG territory, where the PKK's leadership is known to operate. Regional analysts say Turkey would not support Iraqi Kurdish independence without first resolving its internal Kurdish conflict.

Foreign policy experts say U.S. and international support for Kurdish secession from Iraq is unlikely due to commitments to a unified federal Iraq and close ties with Turkey, a NATO member and candidate for membership in the European Union.

Some countries may also be reluctant to support Kurdish independence due to minority secessionist movements within their own borders. However, if Kurdish independence follows rather than precedes Iraq's dissolution, it may be met with less resistance. International and regional support are seen as critical to the viability of an independent Kurdistan since it would be landlocked and reliant on its neighbors for the passage of goods and people.

Command of territory and resources will also be important for an independent Kurdistan's sustenance. The territory that Iraqi Kurds could potentially claim for an independent state is unclear. They have claimed disputed territories beyond the borders of the three provinces that make up the Kurdistan Regional Government and where Arabs, Turkmen and others have lived for many years. These claims have been further complicated following the Kurds' 2014 capture of disputed territories in the oil-rich Kirkuk area.

Battling the Islamic State

Kurds in both Iraq and Syria continue to be embroiled in the fight against the Islamic State. Since the summer of 2014, the Kurds of northern Iraq patrol a 640-mile border with territories held by the Islamic State, which also hold territories adjacent to Kurdish areas in northern Syria. More than one thousand peshmerga have been killed and thousands more wounded in combat, and the Islamic State has on several occasions published videos that purportedly depict the beheadings of peshmerga fighters.

The United States has trained Iraqi Kurds and backed Syrian Kurds with airpower, though notably, it has refused to circumvent Baghdad and directly provide arms to the peshmerga. The Iraqi Kurds have also received training and weapons from European countries, as well as Iran. Meanwhile, the PKK has also supported the Syrian Kurds with training, arms, and fighters.

Further gains for the Islamic State may lead the United States and other international actors to expand their support for the Kurds in both countries, whom experts say have proven to be the most effective ground forces against the militant group. But such support carries risks of backlash by authorities in Iraq, who are wary of further empowering their autonomous Kurdish region, and in Turkey, who are concerned that support for PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurds may lead to international legitimization of the Turkish terrorist organization.

Turkey-PKK Relations

The fragile peace process between the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdish insurgent group, the PKK, has been repeatedly tested by cease-fire violations and spillover from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

In 2014, the Turkish government's refusal to support PKK-linked Syrian Kurds in their battle against Islamic State militants in the Syrian border town of Kobani spurred violent protests by Turkish Kurds. Incumbent AKP and pro-Kurdish HDP leaders faced off ahead of the June 7, 2015, general elections, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisting that Turkey "does not have a Kurdish problem."

A resumption of fighting between government and PKK forces either resulting from or leading to a failure of the ongoing peace negotiations could hamper Turkey's economy and lead to a reversal of moves toward Kurdish cultural recognition and political autonomy.

Alternatively, a negotiated resolution of the Turkish-Kurdish civil war could be transformative for Turkey, affording it greater stability, further economic prosperity, thus increasing its ability to project power in the region.

Resources

Experts

Namo Abdulla - Washington Bureau Chief, Rudaw
Henri Barkey - Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor, Lehigh University
Steven A. Cook - Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR
Meghan L. O'Sullivan - Adjunct Senior Fellow, CFR

Further Reading

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site. All material © Copyright 2015, Council on Foreign Relations. All rights reserved.

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