A Kurdish People, The Kurdish Questions

The killing of three Kurdish activists in Paris shines new light on a longstanding fact of a millions of people spread across large swaths of terrritory, but with no nation of their own.

Kurdish flag flies bright
Kurdish flag flies bright
Dietrich Alexander

BERLIN - The Kurdish question urgently requires a solution. With around 30 million people, the Kurds are the largest of the world’s peoples without their own state. About half of the Kurds live in Turkey, the rest in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

None of these countries show much interest – either on the part of the majority of the population or the government – in Kurdish independence, autonomy or a federative solution. An independent Kurdistan in Turkey, Iraq or even Syria would not only draw Kurds from surrounding states but also spur separatist efforts in those states.

Though the motive and culprits remain unknown, Thursday's killing in central Paris of three Kurdish women activists highlights the need for the international community to address the issue.

The Kurds who have come furthest in the quest for autonomy are those of northern Iraq who even under dictator Saddam Hussein have since 1990 enjoyed relative freedom, having been allowed by the central government in Baghdad to develop their own structures and authorities.

Having control of significant amounts of oil and investment in their area of influence has furthered their economic independence and gives them leverage in their relations with Baghdad.

Twenty-two years of peace is a long time for a people who have seen the persecution, betrayal and mass murder the northern Iraqi Kurds have. Meanwhile Iraqi Kurdistan, whose leadership is dominated by Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, has gained de facto independence from Baghdad. It has its own flag, army and police force, a complex media landscape, and a regional parliament.

Talabani is the current President of Iraq, and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party in Iraq. Barzani is the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the leader of the other large Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Constant confrontations with their powerful neighbor Turkey because of the Turkish-Kurdish rebels from the forbidden Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq created a bond between arch-rivals Talabani and Barzani that is part of a history of changing alliances, as indeed is the history of the entire Kurdish people.

Tragic past

Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabaja in 1988, in which up to 5,000 men, women and children died, highlighted this tragic history in a particularly dramatic way.

Although Kurds living in other countries comprise a minority and have fewer rights, a sense of Kurdish identity has remained – in fact, the diaspora appears to have strengthened it. The identity manifests most in use of the Kurdish language, in music, religion (most Kurds are Muslims although some are Christians) but also in the areas Kurds have chosen to settle in.

The first reference we have to the name "Kurd" dates back to the Seventh century. It was used to connote tribes in the mountains along Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian borders. Through diplomacy and military might, most Kurdish dynasties and clans became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.

After the Balkan Wars (1910 to 1913), World War I, and then the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds hoped that the Peace Treaty of Sevres in 1920 would lead to the fulfillment of their dream for an independent Kurdistan.

But the treaty was never implemented, and the following Treaty of Lausanne (1923) didn’t mention Kurdistan. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of modern Turkey, rejected ideas of partial autonomy or full integration, which has remained official Turkish policy to this day.

Secret negociations

Yet recently, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown signs of wanting to contain or even solve the conflict over the issue that has burned for decades in Turkey and beyond.

That is probably also due to the fact that the fight for Kurdish independence in Turkey has been marked by particular brutality on both sides. Negotiations are now taking place between the Turkish secret service, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), and Turkish separatist leader Abdullah Öcalan who is serving a life sentence and for the past 14 years has been imprisoned on the Turkish island of Imrali. According to Ankara, Öcalan is still influential within the PKK.

More talks with Öcalan are set to take place on Imrali this Sunday, and according to Turkish media reports Ankara has promised constitutional reforms that would change the definition of citizenship from “Turkish citizen” to “citizens of Turkey” – and the ethnically neutral definition would indeed make a big legal difference.

Thousands of prisoners jailed for alleged ties to the PKK would be released. There is also talk of amnesty or exile for PKK commanders and disarmament of PKK fighters to take place as early as March.

Öcalan founded the PKK on Nov. 27, 1978, but six years later the organization changed its tactics from peaceful resistance to armed violence. The ongoing civil war between the Turkish army and Kurdish rebels in southeast Anatolia has so far killed more 40,000 people on both sides.

The 10,000 PKK guerillas are fighting for political autonomy inside existing Turkish national borders and their own "non-governmental organization." More pragmatic PKK leaders have said that they would be satisfied with official recognition of Kurdish identity by Turkey, for example via relevant constitutional amendment.

Meanwhile, the PKK has taken the fight outside Turkey, and maintains sister organizations in all countries with large numbers of Kurds: in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), in Iraq the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PCDK), in Iran the Party For A Free Life In Kurdistan (PJAK).

The Syrian opposition claims that the Syrian Kurdish fraction has been cooperating since the revolt against the Assad regime started with the wobbling dictatorship’s forces.

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