The Struggle for Kurdistan


The sporadic fighting so common to the area of the Middle East known as “Kurdistan” bears witness to one of the world’s longest-running struggles for independence.  The Kurds, an ethnic group divided primarily between modern Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, have been fighting for an independent nation – or, alternatively, for greater autonomy in the nations in which they live – for decades (1).

Today, major Kurdish movements in Iraq and Turkey often have competing goals and methods, with Iraqi Kurds attempting to run a semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, while Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey oppose the Iraqi Kurdish parties and instead push for a truly independent Kurdistan, to serve as a homeland for all the Kurdish people (2).

Major Kurdish uprisings first began following the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the creation of the modern nation-states of the Middle East.  The Turkish government under Mustapha Kemal Ataturk rejected the Treaty of Sevres, which would have provided for the creation of an independent Kurdistan (3) – leaving Kurds to become an ethnic minority in multiple nation-states in which the ethnic nationalism of the majority (Turkish, Arab, or Iranian) is a basic part of the national identity.

Although Kurds now have a certain level of autonomy in Iraq, they continue to face problems elsewhere.  In Turkey, Kurdish activists are often arrested, and Kurdish-language broadcasting and education is largely banned (4).  Iranian Kurds are also frequently subjected to discrimination, in part because they are largely a Sunni religious minority in the majority-Shia Muslim country (5).  In Syria, Kurds are often arrested for belonging to unregistered political parties (5).  Such abuses are frequently cited by Kurdish activists as a reason to not to halt, but rather to continue, activism on behalf of the Kurdish people.


1.  O’Toole, Pam. February 17, 1999. “A People Divided by Borders.” Retrieved January 24, 2011 from the BBC website:

2.  Salaheddin, Sinan. March 24, 2009.  “PKK Kurdish Rebels: We Won’t Stop Fighting in Iraq.” Retrieved January 24, 2011 from the Huffington Post website:

3.  The Washington Post Company. 1999. “Who Are the Kurds?” Retrieved January 24, 2011 from the Washington Post website:

4.  Schleifer, Yigal. October 5, 2005. “Opened with a Flourish, Turkey’s Kurdish-language schools Fold.” Retrieved January 25, 2011 from the Christian Science Monitor Website:

5. Amnesty International.  2008.  “Iran: Human Rights Abuses Against the Kurdish Minority.” Retrieved January 26, 2011 from the Amnesty International website:

6. Human Rights Watch.  November 26, 2009.  “Syria: End Persecution of Kurds.” Retrieved January 26, 2011 from the Human Rights Watch website:

Further Reading:

Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder: Inside the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK)

BBC News World: A people divided by borders

BBC: Turkey unveils reforms for Kurds

Human Rights Watch: Turkey: Kurdish Party Banned

CBSNews, Opinion: Kurdish Iraq: An Emerging Success Kurdish heritage reclaimed

Newsweek: The End to a Long Conflict

Time: Behind Turkey’s Kurdish Problem


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