Who are the Kurds?

Sunday, 01 October 2017, 06:44:16 PM. Living throughout the Middle East, millions of Kurdish people are pursuing recognition and autonomy.

Iraqi Kurds last month backed independence from Baghdad in a controversial referendum that has heightened regional tensions. 

Indigenous to a mountain region in the northern Middle East, the Kurds are the largest stateless nation in the world. The fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, around 25 million Kurds live in a territory that spans the borders of modern-day Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia.

Kurds have a distinct community, united by race, culture and language - although several dialects exist. Due to the cross-border nature of their nation since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Arabic and Turkish are also widely spoken.

They have a long history of political marginalisation and persecution, and have repeatedly risen up, particularly in Iraq and Turkey, in pursuit of greater autonomy or complete independence.

The destabilisation of Iraq, the war in Syria, and the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) have presented new challenges for the Kurds, as Kurdish forces have played an increasingly important role in the battle against ISIL.

Did you know?

  • The Kurds are one of the largest stateless populations in the world.
  • The Kurdish population is similar to that of Canada and Australia.
  • Kurdish women lead the world in female fighters, accounting for 40 percent of the military.
  • The Kurdish Regional Government has more women than both the United States and the United Kingdom, with 30 percent of seats in the government reserved for women.
  • Iraq's Kurdish region spends at least 16 percent of its annual budget on education, more than the US and Canada.
  • One in four people living in Iraq's Kurdish region is a refugee or an internally displaced person.

Source: The Kurdish Project who-are-the-kurds photo 1  

Historical background

At the end of World War I, the Treaty of Sevres was drafted to deal with the dissolution and partition of the Ottoman Empire. 

The treaty bolstered Kurdish national aspirations by providing for a referendum to decide the issue of the Kurdish homeland.

The Treaty of Sevres was rejected by the new Turkish Republic, and a new treaty (the Treaty of Lausanne) was negotiated and signed in 1923.

The Treaty of Lausanne gave control of the entire Anatolian peninsula, or Asia Minor, to the new Turkish Republic, including the Kurdish homeland in Turkey.

There was no provision in the new treaty for a referendum for Kurdish independence or autonomy. Kurdish hopes for an autonomous region and independent state were dashed for the next few decades.

From the end of World War I to the Gulf War in 1990, the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria fought separate campaigns to achieve autonomy.

All of the campaigns were forcibly put down and the Kurdish people suffered greater suppression each time.

OPINION: Iraqi Kurdistan - Playing the independence game

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