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The Kurds: A Nation Without A State


Of all the ethnic groups in the world, the Kurds are one of
the largest that has no state to call their own. According
to historian William Westermann, "The Kurds can present a
better claim to race purity...than any people which now
inhabits Europe." (Bonner, p. 63, 1992) Over the past
hundred years, the desire for an independent Kurdish state
has created conflicts mainly with the Turkish and Iraqi
populations in the areas where most of the Kurds live. This
conflict has important geographical implications as well.
The history of the Kurdish nation, the causes for these
conflicts, and an analysis of the situation will be
discussed 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 at all like their Turkish,
Persian, and Arabic neighbors (Hitchens, p. 36, 1992). It
is this cultural difference between the groups that
automatically creates the potential for conflict. Of the 25
million Kurds, approximately 10 million live in Turkey,
four million in Iraq, five million in Iran, and a million
in Syria, with the rest scattered throughout the rest of
the world (Bonner, p. 46, 1992). The Kurds also have had a
long history of conflict with these other ethnic groups in
the 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 early 1900's, 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
have been accomplished through the Treaty of Sevres in 1920
which said that the Kurds could have an independent state
if they wanted one (Bonner, p. 46, 1992). With the
formation of Turkey in 1923, Kemal Ataturk, the new Turkish
President, threw out the treaty and denied the Kurds their
own state. This was the beginning of the Turkish-Kurdish
At about this same time, the Kurds attempted to establish a
semi-independent state, and actually succeeded in forming
the Kingdom of Kurdistan, which lasted from 1922-1924;
later, in 1946, some of the Kurds established the Mahabad
Republic, which lasted for only one year (Prince, p. 17,
1993). In 1924, Turkey even passed a law banning the use of
the Kurdish language in public places.
Another group of people to consider is the Kurds living in
Iraq. Major conflict between the Kurds and Iraqis did not
really begin until 1961, when a war broke out that lasted
until 1970. Around this time, Saddam Hussein came to power
in Iraq. In 1975, Hussein adopted a policy of eradicating
the Kurds from his country. Over the next fifteen years,
the Iraqi army bombed Kurdish villages, and poisoned the
Kurds with cyanide and mustard gas (Hitchens, p. 46, 1992).
It is estimated that during the 1980's, Iraqis destroyed
some 5000 Kurdish villages (Prince, p. 22, 1993). From this
point, we move into the recent history and current state of
these conflicts between the Kurds and the Turks, and the
Kurds against the Iraqis. Causes for Conflict
The reasons for these conflicts have great relevance to
geography. The areas of geography relating to these
specific conflicts are a historical claim to territory on
the part of the Kurds, cultural geography, economic
geography, and political geography. These four areas of
geography can best explain the reasons for these Kurdish
First, the Kurds have a valid historical claim to
territory. They have lived in the area for over 2000 years.
For this reason, they desire the establishment of a Kurdish
homeland. Iraqis and Turks, while living in the area for a
long period of time, cannot make a historical claim to that
same area. The conflict arises, however, because the area
happens to lie within the borders of Iraq and Turkey. Even
though the Kurds claim is valid, the Turks and Iraqis have
chosen to ignore it and have tried to wipe out the Kurds.
Second, and probably most important, is that this conflict
involves cultural geography. The Kurds are ethnically and
culturally different from both the Turks and the Iraqis.
They speak a different language, and while all three groups
are Muslim, they all practice different forms. The Kurds
have used this cultural difference as a reason to establish
a homeland. However, the Turks and Iraqis look at the
contrast in ethnicity in a much different sense. The
government of Turkey viewed any religious or ethnic
identity that was not their own to be a threat to the state
("Time to Talk Turkey", p. 9, 1995). Saddam Hussein
believed that the Kurds were "in the way" in Iraq and he
perceived 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 Kurds in his country.
A third factor in these conflicts is economic geography.
The areas of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria that the Kurds
live in is called Kurdistan, shown on the map
"Confrontation in Kurdistan" (Hitchens, 1992, p.37, map).
Kurdistan is a strategically important area for both Turkey
and Iraq because it contains important oil and water
resources which they cannot afford to lose (Hitchens, p.
49, 1992). Also, there has been no significant economic
activity in the region, due to the trade embargo against
Iraq that has been in place since 1991 (Prince, p. 22,
1993). Still, an independent Kurdish state would be
economically viable and would no longer have an embargo
placed against it.
A final cause of the conflict is political geography. The
Turks and Iraqis do not wish to lose their control over
Kurdistan, and have resorted 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 Kurdish
political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP),
and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) (Hitchens, p.
36, 1992). The parties are at odds about how to resolve the
conflicts in which their people are involved. Until this
internal conflict among the Kurds is solved, it will 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 in April 1991 that
created a safe haven for the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Eventually, the Kurds were able to secure a small measure
of autonomy in Kurdistan and on May 19, 1992, the Kurds
held their first free elections in Iraq (Prince, p. 17,
1992). The Kurds had sovereignty in part of Kurdistan,
called Free Kurdistan, but not to the point of being
recognized as an independent state. Seeing how the Kurds in
Iraq were able to hold elections, the Turks got scared and
banned the People's Labor Party, a legal Kurdish party in
Turkey, from the Turkish Parliament (Marcus, p. 9, 1994).
In Turkey, a civil war between the Kurds and Turks has been
going on for the last ten years; approximately 15,000
people have been killed so far ("Time to Talk Turkey, p. 9,
1995). The Turks launched an invasion they called Operation
Steel against the Kurds in March 1995, sending 35,000
troops against them, but the plan backfired, as only 158
Kurdish rebels were killed in the first week (Possant,
Doxey, & Borrus, p. 57, 1995). To sum up the Turks attitude
toward the Kurds, Tansu Ciller, the Turkish prime minister,
said, "Turkey has no Kurdish problem, only a terrorist
problem" (Marcus, p. 9, 1994).
As far as the United States is concerned, Kurdistan
probably should not exist. During Operation Provide
Comfort, the U.S. helped out the Kurds in Iraq, but did
nothing to help the Kurds in Turkey. The reason for this is
that Turkey is a NATO ally, while Iraq is one of the U.S.'s
worst enemies (Marcus, p. 9, 1994) By helping out the
Kurds, the U.S. would be siding with enemies of the Turks,
which could create problems that the U.S. government would
rather not deal with. This type of situation does not exist
in Iraq, however, since the U.S. is not on friendly terms
with Hussein's 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 a state of
Iraq, holding some autonomy, provided that Hussein was
removed from power, a democracy was installed, and the
Kurds were treated as equals (Bonner, p. 65, 1992). This
means that some of the Kurds do not believe it is
absolutely necessary that they have their own state, only
that they are recognized as equals by the Iraqi government.
On the other hand, Jalal Talabania's PUK says that the
Kurds should hold out for more political concessions from
Iraq (Hitchens, p. 36, 1992). It is possible that they
would try to use guerrilla warfare tactics to frighten 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 to be near. On one hand, the Kurds have been
struggling to gain their independence for a number of
years, and even though they have been locked in a ten year
guerrilla war with the Turks, have come too far to stop
fighting and accept the harsh treatment they have received
from the Turks and Iraqis. Even though Turkey has lost a
large number of troops dealing with the perceived Kurdish
"menace", they do have the support of the U.S., and that in
itself seems to be a good enough reason to keep the war
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 is not likely to succeed until
Hussein dies or is forced out of power. The Iraqis also do
not seem very willing to give up their territory to the
Kurds. The plan of the PUK has a small chance to work,
assuming that guerrilla tactics would scare the Iraqi
government. By simply holding out, the Kurds would gain
nothing, because the Iraqis are not threatened by the Kurds
per se. However, by attacking the Iraqis, the Kurds run the
risk of a counterattack which they probably could not
effectively deal with. Basically, that would make the
situation for the Kurds even worse than before. Conclusion
Without the support of a large powerful nation such as the
U.S., the Kurds will probably never establish an
independent Kurdish state. The Kurds do not have enough
military power to fight off the Turks and Iraqis without
help. The Iraqis and Turks would not be willing to give up
their economically important territory to people which they
perceive a "threat" to their way of life and will most
likely continue to fight the Kurds. The Kurds have no
choice but to continue fighting until either they or the
Turks and Iraqis are defeated, as both groups are unwilling
to allow them to remain in their countries. The future
definitely looks bleak for the Kurds. 


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