In Liberated Kobani, Kurds Take Pride Despite the Devastation
(NY Times, 2/1/2015, T. Arango)
The Kurds have been much in the news lately yet many Americans know very little about this ancient culture. The Kurds have existed as a society in the Mesopotamian plains and the mountains of the Taurus and Zagros for at least 3000 years. Traditionally they were sheep and goat herders but were known for their military prowess since ancient times and were probably the Kardouchoi that Xenophon speaks of in his Anabasis as those who fought for Persia attacking the “Ten Thousand” Greek mercenaries in 401 B.C.E. Their native tongue is Indo European and it is believed that they are related to the ancient Medes who established an empire in 612 B.C.E. the date that the Kurds claim for their founding. That lasted until Cyrus the Great was able to impose Persian hegemony in 550 B.C.E. Nevertheless, their culture was dominant in Persia until Alexander the Great conquered the Empire in 331 B.C.E. After that, the Kurds remained as small principalities similar to the other populations of the area such as the Parthians and the Sassanids of Persia, and the Seljuk Turks of Anatolia. It was a Turkish sultan who gave the name Kurdistan (“the land of the Kurds”) to their provinces. In the 7th century C.E., many Kurds adopted Sunni Islam so Arabic is also an official language, yet the Kurds never adopted Arab customs but held fast to their own culture and traditions.
The Kurds rose in political power again as the Ayyubid Dynasty founded by Kurdish soldiers of fortune in the 12th century C.E. They were excellent military engineers and built the citadel at Cairo and the massive defenses at Aleppo.
They controlled the government of this empire that stretched from the Zagros Mountains through Egypt until the 13th century when Turkish-Mongolian tribes invaded. After that, the Kurds split up into several principalities united by language, culture and traditions and were autonomous but not independent. In the 15th century, the Kurdish principalities got caught in a power struggle between the Persians and the Ottoman Turks as they each tried to expand their territories. The Kurds made an alliance with the Ottomans who defeated the Persians and allowed Kurdistan to govern itself for about 300 years (much like the autonomous states of the Holy Roman Empire at about the same time). In the 19th century, the Kurdish people began asking for unity and independence (just as the French were doing in France and the English and Spanish were doing in the Americas). But the Ottomans, with the help of some European friends, were able to defeat the Kurdish independence movement because Kurdish aristocracies were reluctant to give up their elite status. When the Ottomans were defeated in World War 1, the Kurds rushed to the Conference at Versailles to present their claims for the recognition of Kurdistan. Most were thrilled when the Allied Powers passed the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, recognizing a free Kurdistan, although some Kurds did not think the territory was large enough.
The British and French had been given mandates in the Levant to oversee the development of new states from the defeated Ottoman Empire. But Atatürk won his war of independence for Turkey in 1923 and at the peace conference at Lausanne a new treaty was signed that invalidated the Treaty of Sevres and divided Kurdistan between Turkey, Iran, and the mandates that became Iraq and Syria (similar to the way Poland was divided between Austria, Russia and Prussia in 1772–Poland was re-established after WW I).
They were allowed some autonomy in Iran, Iraq and Syria but not in Turkey where they are forbidden to wear traditional clothing, denied ethnic identity, restricted in the use of their Kurdish language and are called “Mountain Turks” rather than Kurds. In response, the Kurds formed an independence party (PKK) and have engaged in armed struggles since 1978 so they are hated by the Turkish government. In Iraq they make up nearly 20% of the Iraqi population (BBC News, 2/5/16) and are still known for their military excellence but in 1988 Saddam Hussein used poison gas on them in an attempt to extract them from their oil-rich territories. They were given back their autonomous status in Iraq’s new constitution in 2005 and have joined in the struggle against Al Qaeda and IS. In Syria, they are the largest minority comprising nearly 10% of the Syrian population (CIA, May 2015) but Amnesty International claims that the Syrian government persecutes the Kurds. The Iranian government claims to protect the Kurds but recently an Iranian West Asian analyst said that Iran will not tolerate Kurdish independence (Azad News Agency, 2/17/2016). Kurds have become an important ally for the U.S-led coalition forces in the war against IS, but Turkey is an ally too, so hostilities against Kurds from their neighbors could cause problems for the coalition. So the Kurds are in a difficult position again and even though they are a legitimate and ancient society, they may never gain the independence that they long for.