The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has thrust the plight of the Kurdish people into the spotlight. But who exactly are the Kurds and how will their responses to increasing instability define the future of the Middle Eastern region?

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurdish people are an ethnic group that originated in the Middle East. Mostly followers of the Sunni branch of Islam and speakers of Kurdish languages, Kurds share a similar cultural identity. At the same time, there are a diverse range of Kurdish political movements, reflecting the fact that the Kurdistan region is divided between four different countries – Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

Where do they live?

The Kurds historically inhabited the regions surrounding the Zagros Mountains. The area is often referred to as Kurdistan (home of the Kurds), but the Kurdish people do not have their own state. The drive for independent nationhood is a key part of Kurdish history and identity.

Iraqi Kurdistan – a semi-autonomous region in the north of Iraq, and the closest thing to a Kurdish state – is home to around 5m Kurds. The Kurdish people also represent a minority of the population in Turkey to the north, Syria to the West and Iran to the East. There are also sizable populations of Kurds in Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in Europe and the US.

What language do they speak?

Kurdish is an official language of Iraq and a regional language in Iran. Many Kurds are bilingual.

Just as the Kurdish people inhabit different countries, the Kurdish language is written in a range of scripts, including the Perso-Arabic alphabet and the Latin alphabet.

What are the different Kurdish political groups and movements, and what do they want?

An overarching theme of Kurdish political movements is the push for an independent Kurdish state. This push, in its modern form, can be traced back to as early as the 19th century. The sheer diversity of Kurdish political movements, spread predominantly across four countries, has given rise to a veritable smorgasbord of acronyms.

Turkey

The Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), which has Marxist origins, was established in the late 1970s by Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK, which has been branded a terrorist organisation by the US, has typically fought against the Turkish government for more autonomy.

Recently, a peace process between Turkey and the PKK has emerged. But in the last few weeks, this peace process with Ankara has been strained nearly to breaking point by Turkey’s reluctance to help Kurdish forces across the border in Syria push back an Isis advance along its own frontier.And on Tuesday, Turkish forces conducted airstrikes against Kurdish forces for the first time since the peace process began.

Syria

The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is a Syrian Kurdish political party. It was established in 2003, but is currently banned in the country. The People’s Protection Units (commonly known as the YPG) is thearmed force defending Kurdish regions in Syria’s civil war. It is widely seen as the military wing of the PYD, which dominates the group.

The Kurds of Syria, represented mainly by the PYD, say they hope to emerge from the civil war as part of a decentralised Syria where they are granted greater autonomy. But neighbouring governments like Turkey worry their real aim is secession.

Iraq

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) administers the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) is the dominant party of Iraqi Kurdistan, led by the regional president Massoud Barzani. The KDP led the KRG into its historic establishment of relations with Turkey, a critical factor in the region’s economic growth.

Peshmerga, literally meaning “those who face death”, is now the term used to describe the armed forces of the KRG, but the term has long been used in Iraq to describe Kurdish guerrilla forces fighting for autonomy.

Iran

The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) pushes for Kurdish national rights in Iran.

How does the rise of IS relate to Kurdish groups?

The rise of IS has thrust the Kurds into the spotlight. Kurdish groups are coming together to try and combat IS. The clearest example of this is the PKK joining forces with the peshmerga – a longtime rival – for the first time.

Isis’s targeting of the Kurds is also fuelling long simmering tensions between Kurds and Arabs in the region, with many local Arab groups supporting Isis against their Kurdish rivals. This could risk deepening hostility between the two sides

There is another aspect of Middle Eastern politics that loosely, if only symbolically, connects the Kurds with IS: borders.

Historically, the Kurds have jostled with national borders, straddling different countries and cultures. Some Kurdish parties have drawn on their own nationalist ambitions, while the PKK now uses a Marxist-inspired approach to promote localised community governance.

IS represents an enormously different political phenomenon, but the group’s rise – and its push to establish a cross-border caliphate – is also fundamentally at odds with the strict borders delineating the Middle Eastern region.

Key moments in the history of the Kurds

The stateless Kurdish people have grappled with shifting power structures in the Middle East for centuries, ranging from the centralised forces of the Ottoman Empire to ethnic persecution under Saddam Hussein.

In 1920, after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were promised their own state in the Treaty of Sevres. The deal was later rejected by Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and Turkey repressed Kurdish uprisings over the next few decades.

In 1946, the Kurds (PDKI), supported by the USSR, established the republic of Mahabad. Later that year, though, Iran crushed the emergent state.

In 1988, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein launched poison-gas attacks on the Kurdish city of Halabja, killing around 5,000 Kurds. In 1991, during the first gulf war, Northern Iraq’s Kurdish area came under international protection.

Sometimes Kurds have come into conflict with each other. The Kurdish civil war (1994-1997), fought in Iraq between the KDP and the Patriot Union of Kurdistan, illustrates some of the potential risks surrounding the establishment of a Kurdish state.

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