In this essay, I intend to discuss the Middle Eastern politics along with The Kurdish Question in detail. This essay comprises of a brief history of the Kurds and how the Kurds were affected during the Saddam Regime in Iraq and would focus on the Kurdish Question, along with how the Kurds were affected after WWI. In the essay, I have also tried to incorporate the external factors – the role of other countries apart from the Middle Eastern countries and their contribution to the Kurdish situation. The differing situations of the Kurds in the respective Middle Eastern countries is also brought up while answering the main question in the beginning of the essay: Is the demand for the formation of Kurdistan really feasible or not?
My research has primarily been qualitative as most of the information gathered here is through books, newspaper articles and journals. It also involved some qualitative analysis of the data regarding the Kurdish immigrants to get a better understanding of the situation. Some questions that arise when looking at the Kurdish Situation are- Who are the Kurds? Are they unified through ethnicity? If yes, is their idea of ethnicity well developed? Is it plausible to call the Kurds a nation and should they be granted a nation-state that is Kurdistan? I have intended to answer the questions and tried to incorporate my views on these questions.
The Middle East has been an area of heated discussion and debate in the UN due to its instability and conflicts that make its political system so volatile and vulnerable to the terrorist organizations. The crux of this essay will focus on ‘The Kurdish Question’ with a brief introduction to the Middle-Eastern conflicts. The Kurdish question mainly focuses on the feasibility of the formation of a state primarily in the heart of the Middle East, which is exclusive for Kurds. The Middle East primarily consists of four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and the Syrian Arab Republic among others. This area is in a constant state of unrest due to clashes in religious and political ideologies. The demand for an independent state of Kurdistan and the accompanying Kurdish nationalism has opened doors for more conflicts in the Middle East. The struggle of the Kurds thus, leads us to ask questions like – Is the creation of Kurdistan really feasible? If it is, then how? Through the course of this essay, I intend to discuss such questions and provide a brief history of the Kurds along with the present situation of Kurdistan.
The ‘Cradle of Civilization’, the Middle East stands on the brink of war and unrest prevails due to ethnic, political, economic and religious conflicts. Islam as a religion prevails in this region but there are several factions in Islam that disunites them. The two main denominations of Islam are the Shia and the Sunnis, which have differing opinions on the ‘Hadith’ and the interpretations of the Quran. These differing religious beliefs diminish the feeling of brotherhood, in other words, fraternity in Islam, fueling conflicts among the Muslims. “In countries which have been governed by Sunnis, Shia tend to make up the poorest sections of the society. They often see themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression. Sunni extremists frequently denounce Shia as heretics who should be killed.”1
Apart from this, there are several economic conflicts regarding the distribution of gas and oil, which happen to be the main assets for the Middle East. “Most of the countries that border the Persian Gulf have vast reserves of crude oil, with the dictatorships of the Arabian Peninsula, in particular, benefiting from petroleum exports. Arabs, Turks, Persians, Azeris and Kurds constitute the largest ethnic groups in the region by population, while Armenians, Assyrians, Circassians, Copts, Greeks, Jews, Somalis, Shabaks, Mandaeans and other ethnic and ethno religious groups form significant minorities.”2 Due to settlements of immigrants in this region, there is a lot of diversity in ethnicity, which has led to many conflicts questioning the sovereignty of the region. In this paper, I argue that the Kurdish problem is a complicated one. Therefore, the road to a new nation-state is fraught with difficulties. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, they are spread over five contemporary nation-states hence making it difficult to carve a new state. The second reason being, the disunity among the Kurds themselves.
Although the Kurds happen to be one of the largest ethnic groups in the Middle East, they are not heavily involved in much of the decisions taken in the Middle East. Apart from Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, Russia is also heavily involved in the Kurdish situation which is a heavily debated topic nowadays as the Russian census of 2010, registered a total of 63,818 ethnic Kurds living in Russia. To understand the Kurdish situation in the Middle East it is important to familiarize ourselves with the history of the Kurds and their origin.
The Kurds belong to the Iranian branch of the mammoth Indo-European race. Yet they have settled in large numbers in the Middle Eastern countries and Russia because of which Russia is very heavily involved in the Kurdish Question. The immigration and bifurcation of Kurds mostly happened during the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Hussein decided to put an end to the Kurdish resistance by using lethal chemical weapons killing up to 5000 people and injuring up to 10000, most of them civilians. This deadly attack, known as the Halabja Chemical attack, which began on March 16, 1988, continued for five hours followed by sporadic attacks. The attack was aimed at terminating the Kurds from Iraq. Other countries apart from Iraq, such as the United States was also involved in this deadly massacre.
The Kurds are spread over five different nation states and the situation of the Kurds now is drastically different from that after WWII. “The Kurdish question is a term widely used in reference to the fact that Kurdish people do not have a homeland. Kurdistan is divided into four regions; including parts of Iran, North-eastern Syria, South-eastern Turkey and Northern Iraq where Kurds live. The Kurdish population exceeds 40 million, and the spoken language is Kurdish, which consists of different dialects, similar to the different Persian dialects.”3 The 40 million Kurds are spread over different sovereign nations. The Kurds are striving to form a nation-state. ‘Nation’ as Anderson explains is a “socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as a part of the group”4. Here the Kurds perceive themselves as a nation, which has cultural and ethnic cohesion but is striving for a separate identity hence leading them to demand Kurdistan.
The Kurds are an ancient community of the Middle East but they have been divided for centuries between the Persian and the Ottoman Turkish empires. The decline of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI and the wave of national self-determination that swept the Versailles Peace Conference – The Kurds were completely neglected and they did not have a place in the international agenda even though they were promised their own state in the Treaty of Sevres, 1920. “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk turned that treaty into a dead letter when he fought back under a resuscitated Turkish force to establish a modern Turkish state with new borders in the early 1920s. From that point onwards the Kurds lost hope of further international support and found themselves divided up among not two but three states-Turkey, Iraq and Iran, Iran-with much smaller communities left in Syria and the USSR.”5 Apart from this, the Kurdish population is spread over sporadically in five different nation states.
The conflict arose when the Kurds started demanding for a region involving territories of other Middle-Eastern countries as “Kurdistan”. The area demanded as Kurdistan is very rich in gas and oil, which are commodities on which the Middle-Eastern economy is dependent. Therefore, the demand for Kurdistan is not just a religious demand or a unification of this ethnic group, but it involves many political and economic motives behind it. The area demanded as Kurdistan is not going to come easily to the Kurds as none of the other Middle-Eastern countries will willingly part with their territory for the formation of another sovereign state. “One must doubt whether Kurdish nationalism can ever prevail against three hostile governments willing to apply ruthless methods to contain the challenge. One must equally doubt the capacity of the governments of the region to achieve the stability that all three need. The Kurds in each country will remain a potential cat’s paw for those wishing to foment unrest in the region, whether it be one of these three governments acting against another, or whether it is an external contestant, like Israel or the United States.”6
As mentioned above, countries like the United States and the USSR were heavily involved and the US sided with Hussein during the Halabja chemical attack. “The Americans stood aside allowing the massacre of populations which have become the hallmark of the Saddam regime, pleading that they had no mandate to intervene in Iraq’s internal affairs. This uncharacteristic neutrality is clearly related to perceptions of the political interests of the USA and its clients in the region, principally Turkey and Saudi Arabia.”7 The Iraqi Kurds at the time were living through yet another nightmare. The Kurds fled to the Turkish and Iranian borders when both the countries were reluctant and hostile towards them, perceiving them as burdens. The European powers aimed to initiate humanitarian aid and a UN intervention but in vain. This was not the only issue that united the Kurds but the fact that they had been neglected as a nation for as long as one could remember.
The constant struggle of the Kurds is for self-autonomy, self-administration, federalism, and an independent sovereign state. But in the course of time, they have come to realize that what separates them might be more significant than what unites them. “The Kurds seem further from autonomy or independence today than in the past. In part, the cause lies in their disunity in language, religious behavior, and especially tribal structure. The division of their core area of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq after the First World War gave Kurdish nationalism its major opponents. In Turkey, the government has attempted to deny the very existence of Kurds as separate people. While the Kurdish leaders can exploit the multi-party system to establish local power bases, they must eschew overt ethnic agitation.”8
As per the present scenarios, the creation of an independent state for the Kurds, which is unlikely but possible would not be able to solve the problems of the minorities amidst them like the Turcomans, Assyrians, and Yazidis in Iraq. This might lead to the division of Kurdistan into smaller states thus worsening the problems. “Ethnic Kurdistan was the scene of instability, wars and armed conflicts for a long time, and it was completely dependent on the imperial ambitions of conquerors (the Arabs, the Persians, the Tatar-Mongols and the Ottomans, among others). The Kurds have struggled for national liberation throughout their long history, but they have nevertheless failed to establish an independent country.”9 The isolation of an ethnic group is not capable of producing a solution, as different ethnic groups have existed in the Middle East since 1918. To solve any ethnic problem a consensus is needed between the state and the community requirements. The situation of the Turkish Kurds and Syrian Kurds are drastically different.
The situation in Turkey has taken a turn due to the clash between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdish rebels. “The PKK renamed itself as the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK), and armed clashes between the state forces and Kurdish rebels, which has continued since 1984 except for brief intervals, practically ceased. Until the 1990s, it was rare that people would publicly refer to “Kurds” in reference to an ethnic group in Turkey. The “Kurd” category was avoided in official documents as well as in the mainstream public-political discourse. The use of the word “Kurd” in the mainstream media can demonstrate this.”10 This differs from the situation of Kurds in Syria.
The scenario in Syria is regarding their identity as the Kurds happen to be Syrian nationals but they refuse to be called Arabs, which seems to be happening inevitably, as the Syrian Arab Republic embeds the word “Arab” in it. “If the Kurdish communities remain disconsolate because they are denied adequate expression and control over their internal affairs, the political and economic future of the states they inhabit, particularly Turkey and Iraq, is bound to be impaired. If the international community is to grasp the nettle, it must seek ways to support the sovereignty and stability of Iran, Iraq and Turkey, and also use either carrot or stick to persuade them to allow their Kurds the community freedoms that will in themselves diminish the appeal that nationalism currently holds for the Kurdish people.”11
As a major ethnic group, the Kurds have been aware of their distinctiveness from other communities such as the Persians, Turks, and Arabs who happen to be their neighbours. Even though they possess a strong sense of their unique identity, their idea of “ethnic unity” is poorly developed. They do not even speak the same language and they have lost the international support for the formation of an independent state12. “The Kurds had slipped off the pages of history over the past fifty years: their national aspirations were long suppressed by European imperial powers and later by modern Middle Eastern states. To be sure, various Kurdish guerrilla forces regularly served the external powers as a handy tool to weaken local regimes. The British helped foment trouble in Turkish Kurdistan in the 1920s; the Americans and the Israelis supported the Kurds against the Iraqi Baath regime in the 1970s; the Syrians have periodically assisted Kurds against Turkey and Iraq. Iran-under both the shah and the ayatollahs-enlisted the Iraqi Kurds in Tehran’s geopolitical struggle against Iraq. And Baghdad, in turn, has regularly supported the Iranian Kurds against the Islamic Republic. Almost invariably, however, once the Kurds no longer served the immediate political goals of the external powers, they had been abandoned.”
In the past years, the immigration and the bifurcation of Kurds have been visibly significant and they received political attention due to this reason. “Apart from the dramatic events of 1991, the only recent instance of flight from Kurdistan which received much media coverage took place in August 1988 after the Iraqi-launched chemical attacks on Kurdish-held valleys in northern Iraq when tens of thousands fled across the Turkish border. Much larger numbers of Iraqi Kurds have fled to Iran during the past few years. In both cases, the refugees include political activists and guerrilla fighters, although the vast majority are displaced villagers. Numerous Kurdish political activists from Iran and Turkey have fled Kurdistan and sought asylum in western (and, to a lesser extent, eastern) European countries.”
Through the course of this essay I have talked about the history of the Kurds, their position and relations with other countries and the emergence of the Kurdish Question. As mentioned earlier, the feasibility of Kurdistan is questioned in this essay. Their internal religious conflicts are such that the formation of Kurdistan seems like a farfetched dream. They want a sovereign country solely having a Kurdish majority but the question arises pertaining to if the formation of Kurdistan will establish peace or will it lead to more conflicts? Their demand is justified when it comes to equal rights and recognition but is it justified when the formation of Kurdistan might cause a civil war in the Middle-East, which is already in a situation of turmoil due to the terrorist organizations? The region demanded, is the richest in oil and gas and due to this reason Kurdistan will not come on a platter, it must be fought for.
So, when one asks a question such as the one asked in the beginning of the essay, “Is the demand for Kurdistan really feasible?” there is no single answer to it. Looking from the Kurdish lens, ethnic unification is important and also they should not bear with the world by being known as Arabs, which is inevitably done since they are a part of the Syrian Arab Republic. When the Kurdish Question is looked at from the world’s perspective, the decision to form Kurdistan is irrational. Since the Kurds seem to be disunited among themselves, the formation of Kurdistan could lead to a situation of unrest which could in turn, lead to a civil war as the Kurds themselves seem to flee Kurdistan. There seems to be no solution to Kurdistan, but peace will only be met through compromise from both sides and when the state and the community come to a consensus. As humans, everyone should provide aid to the refugees who have lost their homeland as this is the most basic help one could provide out of humanity instead of being hostile to the Kurdish immigrants. This does not require the intervention of any developed country because when we as humans forget about the differences in ethnicity, race and color is when the real problem is solved and peace is established.
List of citations and references
- The Kurds, A contemporary Overview; Philip G. Kreyenbroek, and Stefan Sperl, 1992
- The Fate of Kurds, Graham E. Fuller, Foreign Affairs,1993
- Ethnic Conflict and the Kurds, G.S. Harris,1977
- Turkey’s Kurdish Conflict: Changing Context, and Domestic and Regional Implications, Murat Somer, Middle East Journal
- “What is the Kurdish question?”, Rabar, Ruwayda Mustafah, 23 Sept. 2011
- The Kurdish Problem and Possible solutions, Ivanov Stanislav, New Eastern Outlook, 28.5.13
- Kurds in Turkey, Fighting for Survival, Menon Meena, Economic and Political Weekly
- Turkey v Syria’s Kurds v Islamic State, BBC monitoring, August 23, 2016
[i] “Sunnis and Shia: Islam’s ancient schism.” BBC , January 04, 2016.
[ii] A., Door John, Shoup. “Ethnic Groups of Africa and the Middle East.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.[iii] Rabar, Ruwayda Mustafah. “What is the Kurdish question?” Open Democracy. N.p., 23 Sept. 2011. Web. 23 Feb.
[iv] Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Revised and extended. ed.). London: Verso. pp. 6–7.
[v] Fuller, Graham E. “The Fate of the Kurds.” Foreign Affairs 72.2 (1993): 108.
[vi] Clive, Nigel, Philip G. Kreyenbroek, and Stefan Sperl. “The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 68.2 (1992): 373.
[vii] Clive, Nigel, Philip G. Kreyenbroek, and Stefan Sperl. “The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 68.2 (1992): 373.
[viii] Harris, G. S. “Ethnic Conflict and the Kurds.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 433.1 (1977): 112-24.
[ix] Ivanov Stanislav,” The Kurdish Problem and possible solutions”, New Eastern Outlook, 28.5.13
[x] Somer, Murat. “Turkey’s Kurdish Conflict: Changing Context, and Domestic and Regional Implications”, Middle East Journal, Middle East Institute. (235,246), 2004
[xi] Clive, Nigel, Philip G. Kreyenbroek, and Stefan Sperl. “The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 68.2 (1992): 373.
[xii] Fuller, Graham E. “The Fate of the Kurds.” Foreign Affairs 72.2 (1993): 108.
The author, Sneha Roy, is a student of Jindal School of International Affairs