The Kurds: A background


[By Dave Holmes] The Kurds are the largest ethnic group without a state of their own. They are divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. There is also a sizeable diaspora.

How many Kurds are there? This is a politically-charged issue and estimates vary considerably. The Wikipedia entry under ‘Kurds’ gives the following estimates: Iran 5.9-7.9 million, Iraq 4.6-6.5 million and Syria 1.3-3 million. (Its figures for Turkey are way too low.)

A September 20, 2012 article by Mashallah Dakak reported on new data released by the Turkish Statistical Institute, a government agency. Using this data, the author suggested that 20 million was a reasonable estimate of the number of Kurds living in Turkey — 27% of the then total population of 74.7 million.[1]

Putting all these figures together suggests the total number of Kurds in the region is between 32 and 38 million.

Then there is the diaspora, especially in Europe — in Germany alone there are an estimated 800,000 Kurds — but also in countries like Azerbaijan and Israel.

Kurds big losers in postwar settlement
In the Middle East, World War I saw British and French imperialism manoeuvering to grab as much territory from the collapsing Ottoman empire as possible. Britain seized what became Palestine, Jordan and Iraq and the French got Lebanon and Syria. The Kurds were promised their own homeland but this didn’t happen.

After the war many Turkish cities and towns were occupied by the British and French and their allies. In May 1919 a Greek army invaded Turkey. The war of independence lasted from 1919 to 1923. In October of that year a republic was proclaimed. Mustafa Kemal, the victor of Gallipoli, was its first president and dominating figure.

Despite his vaunted “secularism”, Kemal and the nationalist officers around him wanted a Turkey made up of Sunni Muslims and saw other communities as a threat to the integrity of the state. The 1915 genocide had dealt with the Christian Armenians. The Kurds were too numerous and would have to be forcibly assimilated.

During the war of independence against the imperialists and their proxies, when Kurdish support was vital, Kemal stressed that in the new state “Turks and Kurds would live as brothers and equals”. But once victory had been assured, Kemal was quick to declare that “the state which we have just created is a Turkish state”.[2]

In March 1924, a government decree banned all Kurdish schools, associations and publications. For decades even speaking Kurdish was a crime. The Kurdish regions were subject to brutal repression. Several revolts were ruthlessly crushed.

Even today, despite a number of concessions, Kurds in Turkey are still denied public education in their mother tongue.

Syria: Kurds face Arabisation campaigns
The largest non-Arab minority, the Kurdish population in Syria suffered heavy discrimination under successive Arab-chauvinist regimes.

In 1962 some 120,000 Kurds in Hasaka province were stripped of Syrian citizenship and all the rights to work, property, education, etc. that go with it. Often they were forced off their land and Arab or Assyrian settlers moved in.

In 1973 in Hasaka the Syrian authorities dispossessed tens of thousands of Kurds of their land which was given to Arab settlers moved in from other areas.

These and other Arabisation campaigns substantially changed the demography of northern Syria. In Rojava today, the regions between the original three cantons have large Arab majorities. Dealing with the legacy of this ethnic cleansing and bringing some measure of justice to the victims will require the greatest political sensitivity, tolerance and democracy. Military operations in these areas require alliances with Arab and other non-Kurd forces.

Iraq: Oppression and betrayal
The history of the Kurds in Iraq is one of continuous struggle for their rights against Arab-chauvinist regimes.

One of the most ghastly episodes occurred towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war. On March 16, 1988 the Kurdish city of Halabja was subjected to a gas attack by the forces of the Saddam Hussein regime. Up to 5000 people were killed, with thousands more badly injured.

Halabja was part of the regime’s genocidal 1986-89 Al-Anfal campaign which targeted the Kurdish and other non-Arab minorities. As many as 180,000 Kurds were killed.

In August 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, leading to the first Gulf War. In early 1991 the United States urged the Iraqi people to rise up and topple the regime. Uprisings took place in both the south and in the Kurdish areas in the north. Most of Kurdistan was liberated. But Washington took no concrete action to help the insurgents and the regime was able to crush the southern rebels.

Then it moved against the Kurds. Unable to match the firepower of the regime forces, the Kurdish rebellion collapsed and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into the mountains.

The US established a no-fly protected zone in the north and in 1992 a Kurdish-controlled region was established — the Kurdistan Regional Government. However, this area was not subject to a unified Kurdish administration but was divided into a northern zone controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Massoud Barzani, and a southern one dominated by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani. The KDP and PUK fought a civil war between 1994 and 1996 in which several thousand people died.

Iran: Islamic Republic oppresses Kurds
Iran is a multi-ethnic country with Persians a majority but with non-Persians making up around 40%. Iranian Kurds welcomed the 1979 revolution which overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi. They rose up and took control of their areas. But the new Islamic leadership of Iran saw this a threat and moved to crush the revolt by force. Over 10,000 Kurds were killed.

Kurds in Iran continue to experience oppression. Prisoners face torture and execution. In March 2015 six Kurds were executed despite a worldwide outcry.

In 2004 the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) was founded, inspired by the struggle of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) .

Turkey: PKK insurgency
The foundation congress of the PKK took place in November 1978 near the Turkish city of Lice. The leading figure in the group was Abdullah Öcalan.

When the military coup took place in September 1980, Öcalan and most of the group’s forces withdrew to Syria.

In 1984 the PKK launched an armed insurgency. With ceasefires in 1993 and again in 1999-2004, the uprising continued until March 2013 when the PKK declared its last ceasefire.

The human cost of the war was enormous. A commonly cited figure is that over 40,000 people died but according to estimates cited in Wikipedia, the real figure is likely to be considerably higher than that. In addition, 4000 villages were destroyed and several million people displaced.[3]

The economic cost was similarly gigantic. Hundreds of billions of dollars were consumed and the economy severely damaged. One recent government report put the cost from 1986 to 2012 at $1.2 trillion![4] If these huge resources had been used in rational development projects, Turkey would be a different place today.

The PKK has established bases and a zone of control in the mountainous region of northern Iraq, bordering both Turkey and Iran.

The PKK and its supporters are active in all the areas of Kurdistan.

Öcalan: Imprisonment and rethinking
One turning point in the long civil war came in 1998 when PKK leader Öcalan was forced to leave Syria. No European country wanted to give him refuge and eventually he was forced to go to Kenya where US agents arrested him and turned him over to Turkish authorities.

In Turkey he was put on trial and sentenced to death. But in August 2002, with the abolition of the death penalty, Öcalan’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He is confined to a high security jail on Imrali Island, 65km off Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. Access to him is tightly controlled.

From prison Öcalan made a harsh criticism of the past practices of the PKK. He said the movement had been strongly disrupted by banditry, warlordism and gangsterism and that a great many fighters had died unnecessarily.[5]

Öcalan called for a completely new strategy. A peace process was to be initiated with the Turkish government and the PKK would transform into an open legal movement. The fight for an independent state was to be abandoned; this was unrealistic both militarily and politically. Armed self-defence was legitimate but must be kept within strict and defined limits.

But the overriding objective had to be genuine autonomy and democratisation of the country. (See his historic March 2013 Newroz message which was read out to a huge rally in Diyabakir.)

Aliza Marcus, in her 2007 book Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence, regards Öcalan’s change of views as irrelevant or special pleading to curry favour with his captors. But this dismissal completely ignores the political rationality and cohesiveness of the project Öcalan is advocating.

One can be critical or not of the political line and practice of the PKK in the past (and Öcalan is extremely critical). But there is no denying the immense progressive impact of Öcalan’s current ideas embodied in the Kurdish struggle today in Turkey and in the Rojava Revolution.

The emphasis on grassroots democracy, ecology, creating a society where all ethnic and religious communities can find their place, and the tremendous and unprecedented weight given to the empowerment of women (even defining the revolution as a women’s revolution and the PKK as a women’s party) — all this is genuinely distinctive and points the way forward for the whole Middle East.

Kurdistan Regional Government
The PKK and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant party in Rojava, represent the revolutionary wing of the Kurdish movement. Massoud Barzani and the KDP leadership, on the other hand, are a conservative, corrupt wing of the movement. Indeed, the Barzani leadership is tribal with family members occupying key positions of power. The PUK leadership is much the same.[6]

The revolutionary and conservative wings are engaged in a struggle for political influence. However, at key moments of the war against the Islamic State, the intervention of PKK and YPG/YPJ forces in Iraq has been vital and the KRG leadership has been forced to acknowledge them.

The KRG peshmerga is not a true national army but is largely divided into units controlled by either the KDP or the PUK.

The KDP is hostile to the PYD. The KDP has tried to establish an armed presence in Rojava but has been blocked by the YPG/YPJ.

Turkey has close relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government. Some 1300 Turkish firms are active in the area; each year Turkey exports billions of dollars of goods to Kurdistan and takes most of its oil.

A great deal of investment money has poured into Kurdistan in the last period, much of it going into building fancy shopping malls. Corruption is widespread and the gap between rich and poor is growing.

In April 2014 the KRG dug a 26km-long trench, two metres deep and three metres wide along its border with Rojava. The PYD and the PKK denounced it as project to isolate the Kurdish areas of Syria.


  1. See
  2. Kendal, ‘Kurdistan in Turkey’ in Chaliand ed., A People Without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan (Zed Books: London, 1993), p. 48.
  3. See
  4. See
  5. See Abdullah Öcalan, Prison Writings: The PKK and the Kurdish Question in the 21st Century (Transmedia Publishing: London, 2011), especially pp. 50-69.
  6. See

[“The Kurdish Freedom Struggle: Oppression and Resistance”, The Kurdish Freedom Struggle Today by Dave Holmes, Tony Iltis et al (Resistance Books: Sydney, 2015).]