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

1900's, 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 1980's, 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 People's

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 Hussein's 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 Talabania's 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.

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