Understanding The Kurds' Different Roles In Different Conflicts

Oct 21, 2014
Originally published on October 22, 2014 7:16 pm

The Kurds are involved in several Middle East dramas at the moment. Yet they live in multiple countries across the region and are playing different roles in different places.

In Iraq, Kurdish fighters are working closely with the U.S. to battle the Islamic State.

In Syria, the Kurds are also fighting the Islamic State, but until U.S. air drops this week, the U.S. had been reluctant to work directly with the Syrian Kurds.

Then there are the Turkish Kurds, who have been seeking to join the battle, but have been blocked from doing so by Turkey.

We thought it was time to step back and take a broader looks at the Kurds. To do that, Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep spoke with NPR Middle East correspondent Deb Amos.

Interview Highlights:

On How Kurds Became So Scattered

Let's start with what's known as "the Kurdish question." Nearly 100 years ago, after ... World War One, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds thought they would get a state. That's the question. The answer: they didn't. So, when the borders were drawn by the Europeans it was right through the middle of all these Kurdish enclaves and they found themselves living in four regions: Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

On Their Current Status In These Countries

Well, the dream of statehood didn't go away, so each country presented its own challenges.

Iran jails Kurds for organizing.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein carried out this genocidal military campaign known as Al-Anfal – and he used chemical weapons against a town called Halabja [in 1988].

In Syria, a lot of Kurds don't have Syrian nationality – no IDs at all. So, when the Syrian revolution began in 2011, President Bashar al-Assad offered them nationality to keep them from joining the revolt.

Now, there's Turkey: There's been a decades-long, violent civil war that defined relations with their Kurdish citizens. It was only about a decade ago that Kurds were even allowed to speak their own language publicly or hear it on TV.

I was at a wedding in 2003. This was a Kurdish wedding. For the first time ever, they could sing their wedding songs in Kurdish. And they did a dance, a Turkish Kurdish dance that (commemorated) ... Halabja, when Iraqi Kurds were hit by chemical weapons.

On Whether The Kurds Are United

Nope. And that makes for very complicated politics, especially in this crisis in Kobani – this enclave in northern Syria [where Kurds are fighting the so-called Islamic State].

Turks says these Syrian Kurds there are terrorists; they are part of the same group that fought in the civil war. Turkey is reluctant to support them and, for a while, the Kurds of Iraq were on the same page. They didn't like those guys either. So, Kobani was left to fend for itself.

But existential threats do unite the Kurds – the chemical attack on Halabja and now Kobani... So, this has redefined identity for Kurds in Syria, Turkey [and] Iraq.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some news out of the war against ISIS requires some explanation. ISIS has besieged a city called Kobani in northern Syria. For days, nearby Turkey was preventing military aid from reaching that city, even though Turkey opposes ISIS. Now finally Turkey is leading in some reinforcements. Turns out the Syrian city of Kobani is filled with ethnic Kurds. The people who wanted to get in to help them were Iraqi Kurds. And Turkey has its own Kurdish populace and worries about them all getting together. To help us better understand where the Kurds fit into this story, we turn to our colleague Deb Amos who covers the Middle East for NPR News. Hi, Deborah.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How did Kurds end up in so many neighboring countries?

AMOS: It's complicated. Let's start with something that's known as the Kurdish question, and that's nearly a hundred years ago, at the end of World War I, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds thought that they would get a state. That's the question. The answer, they didn't. So when the borders were drawn by Europeans, it was right through the middle of all these Kurdish enclaves, and they found themselves living in four regions - Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

INSKEEP: So they got sliced up like a pizza. What has life been like for the Kurds in the various slices?

AMOS: Well, the dream of statehood didn't go away, so each country presented its own challenges. Iran jails Kurds for organizing. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein carried out this genocidal military campaign known as Anfal, and he used chemical weapons against a town called Halabja in 1988.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah in the '80s, right.

AMOS: Yep. Now, in Syria, a lot of Kurd don't have Syrian nationality, no IDs at all. So when the Syrian revolution began in 2011, President Bashar al-Assad offered them nationality to keep them from joining the revolt. Now, there's Turkey - there's a decades-long, violent civil war, that defined relations with their Kurdish citizens. It was only about a decade ago that Kurds were even allowed to speak their own language publicly and hear it on TV. I was at a wedding in 2003 - this was a Kurdish wedding - for the first time ever they could sing their wedding songs in Kurdish, and they did a dance, a Turkish-Kurdish dance that celebrated Halabja, when Iraqi Kurds were hit by chemical weapons.

INSKEEP: Wow. So we have all of these countries basically fearing that the Kurds will unite in some way, rise up, try to form their own state, take away chunks of the neighboring states. But are the Kurds in these different countries actually united?

AMOS: Nope, and that makes for very complicated politics, especially in this crisis in Kobani, this enclave in northern Syria. So Turks say these Syrian Kurds are terrorists. They're part of the same group that fought the civil war. Turkey's reluctant to support them, and for a while the Kurds of Iraq were on the same page. They didn't like those guys either. So Kobani was left to fend for itself.

But existential threats do unite Kurds - the chemical attack on Halabja in '88 and now Kobani. These heroic defenders, lots of women fighting there - so this has redefined identity for Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iraq.

INSKEEP: And we'll see how this story continues to evolve. Deborah, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Deborah Amos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.