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
1900s, 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 conflict.
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 1980s, 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 conflicts.
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 Peoples
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 Husseins 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 Talabanias 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 going.
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.
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.