Location: Border regions of Turkey, Iraq and Iran; also Syria, Soviet Armenia, eastern Iran and Lebanon
Population: 19.6 million; Turkey 9.6 million, Iraq 3.9 million, Iran 5 million, Syria 0.9 million, USSR 0.3 million
% of population: Turkey 19%, Iraq 23%, Iran 10%, Syria 8%, USSR 0.1%
Religion: Sunni Muslem (85%), Shi’ite Muslim, various syncretic Islamic sects e.g. Alevis, Yazidis
Language: Kurmanji, Kurdi (Sorani); localized variations and sub-dialects of these

The Kurds are the fourth most numerous people in the Middle East and one of the largest minority groups in the world. They do not possess a state of their own but are found throughout the Middle East with the majority inhabiting the mountainous region where Iraq, Iran and Turkey meet. Most Kurds are probably descendants of Indo-European tribes which settled in the region some 4,000 years ago, but actual references to “Kurds” date from the seventh century AD.


Few factors unify Kurdish society. Its members are probably not descended from a single ethnic group, neither are they united in their religious

beliefs. They do not share a single systematized written or spoken language and many Kurds are unable to communicate freely with each other although both major dialect groups stem from a north-western Iranian linguistic origin. Despite these major differences the Kurdish people do form a unique community with its own distinctive culture stemming from a tribal nomadic or semi-nomadic past, blood ties and territorial loyalty. Religious ties are also strong, and the Sheikhs or local leaders of religious brotherhoods have great influence and power within the community.

The people of Kurdistan have a history of tension, both with central government and among themselves. Until quite recently banditry was an accepted source of income for some tribes, and Kurdish revolts and plunder feature frequently in the annals of the Arab period and thereafter. For many Kurds, however, pastoralism and trade were the chief source of income, with skins, livestock, oak galls and other materials offered in exchange for basic necessities.

Kurdish tribalism is hard to classify and does not conform to any rules; many plains-dwelling Kurds are no longer tribal, and nomadism — essentially a tribal way of life — has almost completely ceased; society is nevertheless still made up of confederations, tribes and sub-tribes. The village or group of villages, led by a chief or “Agha”, was the effective political unit. The Agha mediated between paramount chief and village and also between villagers and government.

The Kurds living in the foothills or plains pursue a markedly different lifestyle from those in the mountains. Theirs is a sedentary economy based on crop cultivation and some pastoralism, and most are subject to landlords to whom they are usually unrelated. Some lowland Kurds have formed sub-tribes related to tribes in the mountains, but most fear the mountain Kurds, owing to the latter’s reputation for banditry.

History up to 1920

During the sixteenth century the Turkish Ottoman and the Persian Safavid empires vied with each other for regional supremacy. Most of the Kurdish Aghas supported the Ottoman cause, in exchange for which they were granted fiefdoms and in some cases principalities (emirates). Fifteen emirates were created and these formed the basis of the political structure of Kurdistan until the nineteenth century. Each emirate was ruled by an Emir, a hereditary title granted to the Aghas by government.

In the first half of the nineteenth century the Ottoman administration, alarmed by the success of the independence movement in the Balkans, extended direct control over Kurdistan, thus threatening the authority of the emirs. This led to a series of unsuccessful revolts, and secular power on a smaller scale was ultimately assumed by the many Aghas who still controlled one or two villages apiece. In the absence of the powerful emirs, rivalry and dissension broke out among the Aghas and it was the sheikhs or religious leaders — who had previously played no part in political affairs — who assumed the role of arbiter.

Calls for Kurdish autonomy began in the late nineteenth century. The Young Turk revolution of 1908 aimed at constitutional reform but failed, due — not for the first time — to inter-tribal rivalry. With the onset of World War I in 1914 the majority of Kurds fought with the Ottomans against the European powers. In the following year some Kurds were active in the killing and expulsion of Armenians from Kurdish areas, the loyalty of these Christian Armenians in the war being suspect. The support by Kurds of the government did not prevent them too from being persecuted, however. In the winter of 1916-17, the government, fearful of Russian influence on the north-eastern frontier, began to deport Kurds from the region and many died of exposure on the journey westward.

With the fall of the Ottoman empire in 1918 and the overthrow of Czarist Russia by the Bolsheviks, Turkish, Russian and British forces faced each other in the strategic zone around Azerbaijan and the Caucasus. Allied plans for postwar settlement included the apportionment of Turkish parts of the empire to Greece, Russia, Italy and France. These radical changes had a dramatic effect on the Kurdish population, but the majority of Kurds were unprepared to meet such change. They still felt themselves to be part of the Sunni community which formed the basis of Ottoman society, and were more concerned with inter-village life than with their position on the international scene.

Although the Aghas were more concerned with maintaining their position locally than uniting with other Kurdish groups, a number of intellectuals attempted to establish political groups which would further Kurdish independence or autonomy. The foremost society, the Kurdistan Taali Djemiyeti (Society for the Recovery of Kurdistan) soon split into factions: those who wished to see Kurdistan completely independent and those who believed in autonomy. Others were aware of Allied plans for an independent Armenian state and feared the implications for Kurds. They co-operated with Armenians to produce a joint memorandum which was presented to the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919. This resulted in the Treaty of Sèvres, which was signed on August 20, 1920. Articles 62 and 64 of this treaty stated that an Allied commission would prepare those regions with a preponderance of Kurdish inhabitants for local autonomy, leading to full independence from Turkey. However events in Turkey were to prevent the Treaty from becoming a reality.


The Ottoman government in Istanbul was unable to sustain its credibility after (amongst other issues) the loss of its Syrian and Mesopotamian territories and the invasion of Turkey by Greece. An uprising led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk gained the support of a significant number of Kurds who were fearful of falling within an Armenian — hence Christian — state. The revolt proved successful and Atatürk defeated the Greeks, eliminating nearly all Greeks living in Anatolia. The Allies, exhausted by the war and unable to enforce the Sèvres proposals, were no longer prepared to negotiate for the Armenians or for the Kurds. A new peace conference in Lausanne resulted in a treaty, signed in 1923, which restored sovereignty over Anatolia and Eastern Thrace to Turkey.

Kemal Atatürk was determined to establish a specifically Turkish state following the European pattern. In 1922 the Sultanate was abolished and in 1924 the Caliphate was also abolished, thus removing the temporal and spiritual bases from which the authority of the Aghas and sheikhs had derived. Kurdish associations, schools, publications, religious fraternities and teaching foundations were all banned, thus removing all public vestiges of a separate Kurdish identity. It was this clear threat to their status that finally brought about a unity, albeit a fragile one, between the politically aware urban intellectuals and the Aghas, sheikhs and their many followers.

Dissension between the tribes continued to hamper the Kurdish nationalist cause. One revolt which took place in 1925 occurred when a Turkish detachment was massacred as it tried to arrest the followers of the powerful Sheikh Said of Piran. Although Sheikh Said’s followers overran about one third of Kurdish Anatolia they were unable to capture any sizeable towns, mainly because they could not amass the support of urban Kurds and because they scorned the support of those oppressed Kurds who offered to join them, considering them unfit to fight. Turkish troops took advantage of the rebels’ lack of support and crushed the rising, hanging Sheikh Said and hundreds of his supporters, killing many thousands more and razing hundreds of Kurdish villages. Thousands of Kurds were then moved forcibly from their homes, leaving Kurdish Anatolia denuded of its Kurdish population.

Shortly after this rising local Aghas from the foothills of Mount Ararat led another revolt, supported by a Kurdish liberation organization, “Khoyboun”, which was based in Lebanon and Syria. For the first time such a movement was not a vehicle for the personal ambitions of a sheikh or Agha; also for the first time all leading Kurdish groups cooperated in the rising, which was supported by Reza Shah, the Shah of Iran; however the Shah altered his policy and cut off support for the Kurds and the revolt failed.

In 1932 the total evacuation of Kurds from certain areas was legalized. Turks were encouraged to settle in Anatolian Kurdistan and Kurds were assimilated as far as possible into the Turkish population in other, non-Kurdish areas. Kurdish resistance was quashed and the area remained under martial law until 1946. The brutally repressive measures adopted by the Turkish government had their effect and little was heard of Kurdish nationalism for the next 30 years. Much of Anatolian Kurdistan was declared a “military zone”, partly because of its proximity to the Soviet border but also so that indigenous Kurds could be displaced from the region.

In 1950 the first free general elections were held in Turkey and the Democratic Party was successful, a reaction against some 25 years of authoritarian rule under Kemal Atatürk. The election of the Democratic Party heralded the return of many exiled Aghas, sheikhs and landlords and the restoration of confiscated property. Schools, hospitals and roads were built in Kurdish areas and Kurds were elected to parliament. Members of the new Kurdish middle class espoused a movement calling for economic development in the eastern region. This movement, known as “Eastism” (doguculuk) was partly prompted by the exposure of Turkish Kurds to Kurdish-language broadcasts from neighbouring countries, and partly by news of Kurdish activism elsewhere, particularly in Iraq. Following a coup d’état in 1960 the situation improved still further for the Kurds. A new constitution permitted freedom of expression in the press and through associations. Kurds were able to voice their dissent publicly and in Kurdish if they wished although they risked imprisonment for their views since it was — and still remains — illegal for a specifically Kurdish party to be formed.

As a result of the previous policy of displacement the government was now faced with the problem of a large urban population of whom very many were Kurds, increasingly aware of liberation movements in other countries. In 1965 a separatist movement, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDPT), was formed and members of the left-wing Turkish Workers’ Party espoused the Kurdish cause and established branches in Kurdistan. As these groups became increasingly vocal and popular the risk of a large-scale uprising grew and the government became uneasy, banning the publication of bilingual Kurdish-Turkish journals, ransacking the homes of suspected agitators and eventually sending commando groups into Kurdistan to patrol the area. In 1969 Members of the Turkish Workers’ Party joined with young Kurds to form the Organization of Revolutionary Kurdish Youth (DDKO). Leftist groups became involved in violent confrontations with right-wing groups which in many cases had the backing of local police. The Turkish Workers’ Party was banned for recognizing the Kurds, the first legal party to have done so.

A military coup in 1971 led to thousands of arrests throughout Turkey and numerous reports of the murder and torture of Kurds. Confrontations and repression continued sporadically throughout the decade, culminating in 1979 in the declaration of martial law in the Kurdish provinces. In September of that year it was reported that 5,000 Turkish Kurds had been recruited to fight alongside Iranian Kurds, although the report was denied by the government.

Repression continued with tens of thousands of people, mostly Leftist activists and Kurds, being arrested and interrogated. There were many reports of torture. There were clashes between the army and small groups from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and over 600 death sentences were demanded by the state in mass trials of PKK members. In Turkey’s eastern and southern provinces the military presence has been increased, partly because of sensitivity over Afghanistan-Iran-USSR relations, but also in order to control the Kurdish population more closely. A coup took place in September 1980.

In 1984 civilian authority was restored under Prime Minister Turgut Ozal. However there has as yet been little change in the conditions faced by Kurds, and PKK guerrilla attacks continue. In the past, Kurdish rebels have used safe havens in Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan after battles with Turkish troops but Turkey was now pursuing guerrillas into Iraqi territory by agreement with the Iraqi government. In the late 1980s the activities of the PKK increased considerably as did counter-insurgency activities by the Turkish security forces. Although most Kurdish villagers did not support the PKK they were prime targets of counter-insurgency warfare by the Turkish security forces. In January 1989 there were allegations of torture and killing of villagers in Cizre province, particularly of a mass grave, containing several hundred Kurds, who had been allegedly “disappeared” after arrest by the army. The government agreed to institute an enquiry into these allegations. Also in 1989 thousands of Alevi Turks left central Anatolia fearing persecution from both the security forces and local Sunni Muslim fundamentalists.

The civilian government apparently was willing to consider a more liberal attitude towards its Kurdish subjects, especially in the cultural field, partly in reaction to persistent criticism from member countries of the EC which it was applying to join. This appeared to be the case when thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing from Iraq entered Turkey in 1988, although there were later reports that the Turkish authorities had forced several thousand across the border to Iran. However most of these intentions have not been translated into action and the Kurdish minority continues to face repression, such as the schoolgirl who was arrested in April 1989, after admitting to a teacher that she was Kurdish. To date most restrictions on Kurds — such as the ban on speaking, writing or publication in Kurdish — remain in force.

A major social development amongst Turkish Kurds has been the increasing number who have moved to the West over the past 30 years as a result of underdevelopment in south-eastern Turkey. There are an estimated 380,000 Kurdish workers in Europe at the present time, the majority of them guest workers in Germany. The perceptions of these Kurds have radically altered and they have contributed greatly to the development of a political ideology amongst the Kurds in Anatolia. Recently, however, considerable economic advances have been made in the region, with the electrification of villages, greatly improved communications and the construction of the largest hydro-electric dam in Turkey. This economic advance partly explains the reluctance of most Kurds to join Kurdish political activists.

The old divisions between traditionalists and urbanized Kurds continue. Political opinion is now divided between those who support the Turkish leftist parties, tribal or religious leaders who act as intermediaries between the Turkish authorities and the Kurdish peasantry, and the traditionalist members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Turkey, who are suspicious of leftist ideology and talk of class war.


During World War II the USSR occupied northern Iran and the British occupied the south. The Kurdish area between the two zones was a power vacuum and the Shahpur and Urmiya regions fell under Soviet control. Both the Kurds and the Azerbaijanis began to take more direct control of their internal affairs with the encouragement of the Soviet Union. In December 1945 the Azerbaijanis captured Tabriz and declared a Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. Within days the Kurds had declared the Republic of Mahabad. The Kurdish republic was very small, however, as the Kurdish areas which lay within the Anglo-American zone of control were not incorporated. In January 1946 a government was formed by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDPI).

The Mahabad government had expected Soviet support to continue but in May 1946 the Soviets left Iran. Their interests lay in maintaining good relations with the Iranian government and not with supporting a secessionist movement. Government troops entered Azerbaijan and Mahabad which fell easily. Qazi Muhammad and two colleagues were publicly hanged, the teaching of Kurdish prohibited and Kurdish books burned. After this the Kurdish nationalist movement went underground but the KDPI remained active during the next 30 years.

The downfall of the Shah in January 1979 presented the Kurdish people with an opportunity to pursue their demands for autonomy; however once more Kurdish leadership was divided, this time between those who had previously received financial and political rewards for ensuring peace in their regions and those who had attempted to assert their independence. The following months were marked by a series of negotiations and armed clashes culminating in July and August 1979 in the fall of Mahabad and Sardasht to the Iranian army and the summary execution of at least seventy people by the revolutionary court.

Despite the loss of all their towns to government forces the Kurds had not been beaten decisively and they began to regain territory. The government made an offer of self-administration but not full autonomy, granting the Kurds rights as a religious, not a political minority. The offer was rejected by Kurds, who still held an area of about 192,000 square kilometres. The invasion of Iran by Iraq in September 1980 opened new opportunities for Kurds within Iran but due to divisions within the Kurdish groups these were not utilized. Instead the Iranian military presence has been tightened. By early 1984 the Kurdish controlled area of Iran had been virtually eliminated by which time 27,500 Iranian Kurds were estimated to have died, only 2,500 of whom were soldiers.

The loss of a territorial base has forced the two main Kurdish groups, the KDPI and Komala, to abandon conventional guerrilla warfare and concentrate on specific limited military actions at night, in addition to organizing among civilians. There have been clashes between the two groups and the KDPI has also split over its position towards the Iranian government. A KDPI leader in exile, Dr Abdulrahman Qassemlou, was assassinated in Vienna in mid-1989, allegedly by agents of the Iranian regime, and a Komala leader was killed in Cyprus a month later. To date Iranian Kurdistan remains under heavy military operations and there are continuing reports of arrests, torture and “disappearances”.


The Kurdish experience in modern Iraq has been dominated by the charismatic figure of Mulla Mustafa Barzani, who died in 1979. He combined the secular power of the Agha with religious leadership, and for many years his name was almost synonymous with Kurdish revolt. He established cordial relations with government whilst participating in the illegal Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). By co-operating with government troops in the defeat of Arab nationalists and monarchists Barzani succeeded in gaining the legitimization of the KDP, but he lacked the support of many Kurds who supported instead other Kurdish tribal leaders.

With the backing of a number of disaffected Aghas Barzani gradually led the Kurds into widespread revolt against the government, gaining popular support from Kurds unhappy with agrarian reform laws and unpopular land and tobacco taxes. Throughout the 1960s war raged between the army and Kurdish forces. 300,000 people were displaced or made homeless during this period and 60,000 others were killed or wounded. There were also reports of massacres of civilians. A peace agreement reached in March 1970 recognized the bi-national character of the Iraqi state in which the Kurds were to be free and equal partners. A Kurdish Vice-President was appointed and education and economic development in Kurdish areas improved. Despite these improvements Barzani made more demands in 1972, with the support of Iran, the US and Israel, and this led to further clashes between Kurds and government troops. The situation was unstable and there were accusations by both sides of rape and the burning of villages.

In 1974 the Kirkuk oil production was nationalized. Barzani and the KDP demanded proportional distribution of oil revenues but the Ba’ath government was adamant that the revenues were national assets which should be allocated under central authority. This dispute and divisions within the KDP provoked a crisis which resulted in the declaration of a new Autonomy Law in 1974. Although the law recognized the existence of the Kurds as a distinct group it was rejected by Kurdish leadership mainly due to the dispute over Kirkuk. With strong backing from Iran the Iraqi Kurds reverted to war. Fighting intensified until in early 1975 it became clear that the army could not win unless Iranian support was cut off. In March Iraq ceded the strategic Shatt-al-Arab waterway to Iran and in return Iran withdrew its support for the Kurdish rebels. The revolt collapsed and Kurdish inhabitants of the border areas were moved to “model villages” outside a new cordon sanitaire. The war resulted in the displacement of approximately 600,000 people with possibly as many as 50,000 killed or wounded. Repression of Kurds continued long after this; in 1983 8,000 non-combatant members of the Barzani clan had been arrested and “disappeared”.

The Iran-Iraq war 1980-88

In September 1980 Iraq invaded Iran, providing the Kurds with an opportunity of establishing independent enclaves. Lack of agreement among the Kurds on either side of the border prevented them from capitalizing on the situation, however. In 1983 Iraqi-backed Iranian Kurds were defeated by Iranian forces and expelled from Iranian territory. Iraqi Kurds were more successful in their struggle and the KDP and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) succeeded in pinning down one quarter of the Iraqi army and inhibiting troop movements after dark. Tremendous loss of life and the use of lethal (and internationally banned) chemical weapons by the Iraqi forces persuaded Iran to accept a ceasefire which came into force on August 20, 1988.

Iraqi troops then drove KDP and PUK forces almost out of Iraqi Kurdistan using gas, massive bombardment and the threat of shooting all Kurds found in prohibited areas, in what international observers have described as an official policy of genocide. On March 16, 1988 Halabja, a mainly Kurdish city, was attacked with chemical weapons, killing 6,350 people, largely civilians. There were further attacks with the deadly gas against civilian and military targets in April and May 1989. By the end of August over 3,000 villages had been razed to the ground, over 60,000 Kurdish civilians had fled across the border into Turkey and as many had crossed into Iran where they were housed in camps along the border.

There are reports of continuing displacement of Kurdish civilians. Basically the Iraqi government appears to envisage destroying the Kurdish heartland. Up to one million Kurds are estimated to have been moved within Kurdistan and another half a million have been sent to camps in remote desert regions. Arab settlers are being encouraged to move into former Kurdish areas. Over 100,000 Kurds are in squalid refugee camps in Turkey and Iran, which are not subject to international monitoring and protection. An amnesty offered to Kurds by the Iraqi government has been widely distrusted and few Kurds have returned. There are many reports of torture within Iraq and in early 1989, Amnesty International reported cases of torture of babies and young children by the Iraqi security forces.


The Kurdish population of Syria, which numbers about 8% of the total population, is largely “arabicized”, with many Kurds feeling themselves to be part of the local Arab culture. The majority of Syrian Kurds moved into the area following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Kurds held high rank in the army and the first three military coups in Syria were carried out by officers with part-Kurd backgrounds. By 1958 high-ranking Kurds had been purged from the army, however, possibly as a result of the union of Syria and Egypt in the United Arab Republic in that year and a mood of Arab nationalism inspired by Nasser’s first successful years in office.

Following the collapse of the union with Egypt in 1961, plans to create an “Arab belt” along the border of Jazira, while never fully implemented, caused some 60,000 Kurds to leave their homes and settle in Damascus, Turkey and Lebanon. After 1963, when the Ba’ath party assumed power, persecution of the Kurds continued, but in the 1970s the situation improved. Land reforms already implemented elsewhere were now carried out in Kurdish areas and the long-standing plan to transfer Kurdish and Arab populations in these areas was officially renounced. The position of Kurds in Syria today is more secure than in neighbouring countries although thousands, stripped of citizenship, are still obliged to serve in the armed forces.


Before the Civil War of 1975-77 there were some 70,000 Kurds living in Lebanon, mainly engaged in unskilled and poorly paid manual labour. Most had come originally from south-east Anatolia but less than 20,000 had been awarded citizenship. Since the Civil War Kurds have suffered oppression. At least 10,000, possibly many more, are known to have left Lebanon, mostly returning to Syria.


There were about 300,000 Kurds living in the USSR according to the 1970 census, mostly in Azerbaijan, Soviet Armenia, Georgia and the Turkoman Republic. There are no Kurdish territories although there are compact Kurdish colonies. Several Kurdish tribes entered the Caucasus region during the latter part of the eighteenth century whilst others reached Central Asia when used by the Persian Shahs to guard their eastern border in the sixteenth century.

There is a strong sense of cultural identity among Soviet Kurds, for whom a measure of cultural freedom exists. There are Kurdish schools and books and there is a Kurdish radio station. Kurds also identify strongly with Kurds in neighbouring countries. Since they are not physically contiguous with Kurdish communities over the border and since they are a small minority in the Soviet Union, government recognition of their cultural freedom presents no threat to central authority.

The future of the Kurds

In their major countries of residence, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, the Kurds continue to face discrimination and persecution from repressive regimes and despite international protests against aspects of their treatment, there appear to be no forseeable real changes in their situation. As in the past, some Kurdish groups are fighting for an independent state but although they pose a threat to governments they are not a united force and the odds are against the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. Other Kurds have urged a measure of political autonomy and full cultural recognition to satisfy Kurdish aspirations. Given the present political situation in the Middle East and the lack of resources and committed political support from other nations for the Kurds, the likely scenario is for continued conflict and repression.