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Who are the Kurds?


Kurdish YPJ Solder, RojavaSyria,
 Photo: Denilaur
Who are the Kurds? Who are these Middle Eastern people that have both men and women in their army? These mountain warriors that many refer to as the best fighters in the Middle East; these ancient people who claim descent from the Biblical Medes and count among their number: Saladin, the Muslim leader who defeated Richard the Lionheart and, more recently (through her mother), the late Benazir Bhutto.

Kurds were once a mostly nomadic people living around the mountainous regions of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Mostly Sunni (there are Kurdish Shi'a, Alevi, Yazidi, Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, etc), they are known to hold their Islam with a light touch. Promised an autonomous Kurdistan under the terms of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, rescinded under 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

The resultant division of their historical homeland between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria left somewhere around 40 million Kurds as the world's largest stateless minority. This has led to an an alphabet soup of alliances as the Kurds struggle to survive in a world of shifting allegiances:

1. The PUK:

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan says they are working for "self-determination, human rights, democracy and peace for the Kurdish people of Iraq. The Secretary General was the late Jalal Talabani, the former president of Iraq." The PUK has extensive business interests in the region (a visitor once reported every gas station between the Turkish border and Irbil has belonging to either the PUK or KDP) and relationships with western powers, cultivated, in part, by Talabani's youngest son, Qubad, the former U.S. Representative of the Kurdish Regional Government and now the deputy Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan.

2. The KDP:
The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iraq was founded by Mustafa Barzani, the legendary Kurd who fought numerous revolts against Baghdad with some success. It was established in Iranian Kurdistan in 1946. Rebelling against the Iraqi government in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, the KDP became perhaps the single most influential Iraqi anti-Saddam group. Its Peshmerga, or militia fighters, were able to operate with relative impunity in the no-fly zone of northern Iraq.

The KDP is the leading party in the Kurdistan Regional Government (Iraqi Kurdistan). Their leader, is a Barzani descendant, as is the Prime Minister, with other clan members in similar positions of authority and the main body of the Peshmerga forces (the Kurdish Militia) reporting to them.

3. PJAK:
The Iranian Kurdish Militia probably numbers less than 1,000 in Qandil and thousands more underground in Iran. It recruits female guerrillas and boasts that its cruelest and fiercest fighters are Iranian women drawn to the movement's radical feminism.
4. The Peshmerga (Kurdish Armed Militia):

Falling under the leadership of the KDP and the PUK, the Peshmerga, a Kurdish compound word that means "Those who face death," is rumored to be between 100,000-190,000 strong (they may be much larger) and are considered one of the most effective fighting forces in the Middle East.

5. The PKK (Kurdish Workers Party):

This is the group the Turks are fighting, declared a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the E.U., the PKK has also been known to be at odds with the other Kurdish clans, as well (though Qubad Talabani did call for a PKK amnesty prior to the current round of fighting). There is sympathy for the PKK among the wider Kurdish population, tempered, in some part, by pragmatism and disagreement with their tactics:
Since 1984 the separatist PKK waged a violent terrorist insurgency in southeast Turkey, directed against both security forces and civilians, almost all of them Kurds, whom the PKK accuses of cooperating with the State. The government of Turkey in turn waged an intense campaign to suppress PKK terrorism, targeting active PKK units as well as persons they believe support or sympathize with the PKK. In the process, both government forces and PKK terrorists committed human rights abuses against each other and noncombatants. According to the Government, from 1984 through November 1997, 26,532 PKK members, 5,185 security force members, and 5,209 civilians lost their lives in the fighting.
Turkish Kurds point to the low standard of living in Southeastern Turkey, the oppressive measures the Turkish Kurds have endured, restrictions on their language, freedoms, opportunities (the remediation of some of which are conditions for Turkish EU membership).

The Turks point to the PKK bombings of their tourist sites and the subsequent loss of lives. What they do not talk about is the internal pressure upon the Turkish government by their own secular right-wing nationalist movement that has been growing in juxtaposition to the Islamic influence of their new president, Abdullah Gul. and his ruling party. As many of these nationalists are also anti-Kurd, it puts the Kurds (who, as mentioned above, are mostly Sunni, but who are also known to hold their Islam with a light touch) the focus of an argument that is not entirely of their making.
Anti-PKK demonstration in Istanbul
6. The YPG and YPJ: 

The People's Protection Units is a mainly-Kurdish militia in Syria and the primary component of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria's Syrian Democratic Forces.The YPG is mostly ethnically Kurdish, and also includes Arabs, foreign volunteers, and is closely allied to the Syriac Military Council, a militia of Assyrians. 

The YPG was formed in 2004 as the armed wing of the Kurdish leftist Democratic Union Party. It expanded rapidly in the Syrian Civil War and came to predominate over other armed Kurdish groups. A sister group, the Women's Protection Units (YPJ), fights alongside them. The YPG is active in northern and eastern Syria. 

In early 2015, the group won a major victory over ISIL at the Siege of Kobanî, where the YPG began to receive air and ground support from the United States and other coalition nations. Since then, the YPG has primarily fought against ISIL, as well as on occasion fighting other Syrian rebel groups. 

In late 2015, the YPG founded the Syrian Democratic Forces upon the U.S.'s urging, as an umbrella group to better incorporate Arabs and minorities into the war effort. In 2016–2017, the SDF's Raqqa campaign captured the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State's de facto capital. 

Several western sources have described the YPG as the "most effective" force in fighting ISIL in Syria. A light infantry force, the YPG has limited military equipment and few armoured vehicles. 

The YPG has been criticized by Turkey for its alleged support for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), especially since a rebellion in southern Turkey began in 2015. Turkey has designated the YPG as a terrorist organization, and in 2018 Turkey captured most of Afrin Canton from the YPG.

In December, 2018, US Defense Secretary James Mattis cited the abandonment of the YPG/YPG by the US in the face of an impending Turkish offensive against the YPG/J as one of his reasons for resigning his position.  As of this writing, the Turks are preparing to invade northern Syria where the Syrian Democratic Forces may be unprotected. 

The Kurds today: 

It was into this miasma of nationalism, religion, militancy, terrorism, education and aspiration that the destabilizing influence of the Iraq and Syrian wars were introduced. While the two democratically aligned Kurdish clans did benefit from the removal of Saddam Hussein, the rise of ISIL required all of the Kurds, the PUK, KDP, PKK, YPG and YPJ to work together and with the US to drive them back.  They took back Raqqa and Mosul and paid dearly for the effort. 

Now, as the U.S. that had been their ally has become unreliable, this means the world's largest stateless minority will have to decide who they want to ally with. As they beat back ISIL for us, and bled for us, it would be a disaster if we were not their ally of choice.

The Iraqi Kurdish Regional Governments know this, and they must balance their citizens' concerns about the Turkish incursion with their need to get along with the Western world.

Why does the West care? The Iraq Kurds have oil, as referenced in this earlier post, Kurdistan Hunts for Oil, regarding the deal between the KRG and Texas' Hunt Oil. This gives the KRG a bargaining position with the oil hungry West and East, along with the impetus to maintain a peaceful relationship with both sides.

Why will the Turks cross the border now? The answer is the YPG and YPJ are successful.  They proved themselves the best fighting force in the region, and the Turks, with a third of the population as subjugated Kurds, doesn't want them inspiring the Kurds to the north. 

The tragedy is that the Kurds would probably have found a way to coexist if they had their main ally, the U.S., stayed to protect them. Instead, the U.S. is stepping aside in favor of the Turks. There may be more resignations in the U.S. military because of it, and the Kurds, with their long memories, will never forget what the Trump Administration did.  

Kurds say they have no friends but the mountains.  Never has this be a truer statement. When a friend visiting a Peshmerga camp during that period found the Pêşmerge cleaning their weapons in anticipation of a battle with the PKK, the Peshmerga commander explained, "ez ĥes ji partî demokratî dikim [I like the Democratic Party]."

It's the Democrats in Congress who will need to right this wrong because the conflict could escalate if the Turks were to kill Kurdish civilians or any soldier, an increasingly likely scenario. The equation would then change as two of the U.S.'s closest allies (Turks and Iraqi Kurds) look to their western ally for support, while Russia, Iran and other interested parties back whichever side is not chosen.

The start of a new cold and/or hot war with no good outcome.

Barack Obama said we must be as "careful getting out [of Iraq] as we were careless getting in." He didn't stay true to that when he withdrew and gave an opening to ISIL, but he more than made up for it when he went back in to save the Kurdish Yezidi from genocide. Now, after years of fighting side by side, the US may be abandoning the Kurds. This is not careful, and may give ISIL the opening it has wanted to regroup. The Kurds are the only ones who have been able to stop them. It remains to be seen if they will be there to do so after the Turks get through with them, and who they will blame for the outcome.

A personal anecdote about an evening I spent with a Kurdish family during research for a book: I was interviewing a local Kurdish leader when he announced to his wife that I was joining his family for dinner (ten minutes before dinner). The serving spoon that landed on his head led him to follow her around the rest of the night asking what he'd done wrong (he never did figure it out).

The food was among the best I've tasted -- Kurdish cooking is amazing -- the hospitality was warm and inclusive on a night that devolved into the extended family with musical instruments (an important part of Kurdish culture) and all of us getting drunk on pot-stilled whiskey from which I will likely never recover.

I fell in love with the Kurds that night and, while I don't know what will happen out of the mess we've made of the Middle East, I do know the Kurds are a key to either war or peace.

I hope it's peace.

Notable Kurds: