Who Are The Kurds?
By Jon Sproule
In October 2019, Turkey launched an invasion into Syria. Their objective was to expel Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), presumed to be just across the southwest border of Turkey. The SDF had ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organization viewed as terrorists by Turkey, but allied with the United States in their war on terrorism. Yet shockingly, despite their U.S. alliance, 3.6 million Kurdish refugees became human collateral last October. To fully understand the complex situation, a deeper understanding of the Kurdish people and their culture and history is necessary to discern whether their actions contributed to this injustice, or if they are simply victims of discrimination.
The Kurdish people are an ethnic group indigenous to the Middle East, occupying a large swath of land at the intersection of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Armenia. They have no defined borders or country to unite their people; and although they identify as Kurds and share a common culture and language, their community includes several religions and creeds, the majority of which are Islamic. Despite their ethnic identity, they are without a standard dialect or Kurdish state, instead they have assimilated into existing countries. They are minorities, struggling against dominant communities in an effort to pursue cultural rights and create an independent Kurdish State.
Kurdish minorities experience systemic prejudice mostly from countries they reside in. Kurds have faced persistent threats from governments such as Turkey, which has long refused to acknowledge Kurdish identity instead calling them “Mountain Turks” as well as banning them from speaking their own language and practicing their beliefs. Other tactics have included genocide and deportation from Turkish territory, occurring primarily in times of war. During World War I, hundreds of thousands of people representing various ethnic groups, primarily Kurds and Armenians, were rounded up and sent to internment camps, or deported. Even after the war, and after the sultanate gave way to a new republic, the Kurds were still seen as threats to Turkish authorities.
The Kurds have taken several approaches when attempting to establish sovereignty. Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, they were promised a nation in 1920 by Western allies, only for the provision to fail two years later due to renegotiated territory treaties with Turkey. Other Kurds formed militant organizations such as the PKK to take a more aggressive approach against “Turkish fascists”. The continuation of civil conflicts escalated violence against Kurdish minorities, and any further attempts to reestablish a Kurdish state were shut down swiftly by Turkish nationalist movements, claiming that the Kurds were terrorists, rather than freedom fighters.
The Turkish government is currently dominated by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Recep Tayyop Erdogan. This political party gained power over the past few decades by popularizing Turkish identity through nationalism as well as the scapegoating of minority groups and political enemies to gain support. Although the AKP was initially a minor party, once they claimed enough seats in parliament, they quickly began consolidating their power and using it to shut down threats, real or perceived. These actions included censoring the media as well as arresting protesters. It was this line of thinking that spurred Turkey to invade Syria; to attack Kurdish “enemies”.
The Turkish incursion into Syria also highlights the mistreatment Kurds faced from allies as well as enemies. Kurdish communities have been victims of ethnically motivated terrorist acts, much like the United States, prompting them to make alliances outside of their territory. One such ally was the U.S., an asset in combating the terrorist group known as ISIS. The U.S. military had been assisting Kurdish forces indirectly through military consultation and drone strikes. This changed when Turkey announced the invasion of Syria. U.S. forces in the area were ordered to withdraw when Turkey alerted U.S. officials about the upcoming invasion. This move by the U.S. allowed former Kurdish allies to become casualties, resulting in the deaths and displacement of thousands of civilians and military troops alike.
The oppression and persecution that Kurds face is not an unfamiliar issue, nor is it exclusive. Many minorities, including Kurds, Jews, and Armenians faced discrimination throughout history and even today. Popular examples include the genocides and holocausts during both World Wars under Turkish and German military occupations, as well as the African nation of Rwanda in the late 20th century. In hindsight, it is clear that these conflicts can be overlooked by those who are most able to make a difference. It may seem obvious that nations would learn from these historical horrors and avoid them or stop them in their tracks, yet historic and current events in the Middle East suggest otherwise.
Some might wonder why these conflicts are still ongoing, and why we haven’t learned from the past. One of the largest contributing factors is the many passive bystanders who are not aware of the situation, or who choose to look away from the ugly truth. This in turn contributes to the problem by condemning innocents in favor of ignorance. Another significant factor could be the rise of overzealous hate groups, fed by bias and lack of information; this thereby, creates further misunderstanding. The Kurds make up only a small part of the Middle East; as of 2012 they were only one quarter of the Turkish population and existed in even fewer numbers in surrounding states. Furthermore, they continue to be persecuted; painted as villains by established majorities. These factors make it difficult to truly understand these people from an objective standpoint. Perhaps education, exposing crimes against the Kurdish people and promoting self-determination will go a long way toward finding justice for them.
1. Balakian, Peter, and Aris Sevag. Armenian Golgotha: a Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918. Vintage Books, 2010.
2. Cook, Steven A. “How Erdogan Made Turkey Authoritarian Again.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 July 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/07/how-erdogan-made-turkey-authoritarian-again/492374/.
3. “Who Are the Kurds?” BBC News, BBC, 15 Oct. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440.