The Kurds, who speak an Indo-European language related to Farsi and live in a region divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, form a population distinct – in terms of culture – from their Turk, Persian and Arab neighbours. They are mostly Sunni Muslims with a minority of Shiias, Halevi (in Turkey) and Christians of different rites. Depending on the sources, their number varies from 12 to 25 millions. Turkey and Iran have the most significant Kurdish population (respectively from 12 to 15 million and from 5 to 6 million), followed by Irak (4 to 5 million), Syria (800,000 to 1.5 million) and some former soviet republics (as for example Armenia which numbers about 200,000 Kurds). The Kurds are today the most important ethnic group without a State of it’s own. There is also an important Kurdish diaspora in Europe (825,000 in which 550,000 in Germany), in some former USSR republics (150,000), Lebanon (80,000), and the United States (10,000) (figures: Kurdish Institute, Paris).

Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Treaty of Sevres (1920) gave hope for the creation of a Kurdish State. The birth of Mustafa Kamal’s modern Turkey and the growing French-British ambitions in the region – characterised by the wish to maintain spheres of influence, the discovery of oil in the Mossul area – changed the fate of the region. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which fixed modern Turkey’s borders comprises the major part of Kurdistan. It is in Turkey and Iraq that the Kurdish rebellion is the most virulent.

In Turkey, the Kurds are subject of a policy of assimilation. While some of them have reached the highest positions in the army and the government, this policy entails also, inter alia, forced displacements, policies of denial and de-structuring of their society. As a consequence of this situation and of the prevailing underdevelopment of the south-eastern regions, a lot of them have migrated to Istanbul where they could constitute more than 1/4 of its 12 million inhabitants. In 1984, the hard wing of the Kurdish nationalism in Turkey, represented by the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) – a Marxist movement – engaged in open war with Ankara. The backbases of the PKK are located in the Iraqi Kurdistan in which the Turkish army undertakes raiding missions with the consent of Baghdad while a part of its political leadership was based in Syria until October 1998. Kurdish members of the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) however participated in the leading coalition in Turkey following the 1991 elections.

Iraq, where a large segment of the Kurdish population is in rebellion against the central government, is nevertheless the only country to have granted a form of autonomy to its Kurdish minority since 1974. In the Erbil, Sulemanye and Dohok governorates, Kurdish is recognized as an official and teaching language besides Arabic, and is used by the media. The two main Kurdish political-military factions in Iraq are the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Massud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani.

Encouraged by the United States, the Iraqi Kurds revolted once again in the beginning of 1991, which provoked immediate retaliations from the governmental army. Security Council Resolution 688 (April 1991) condemned this repression and enjoined the international community to organize a humanitarian relief for the displaced Kurdish populations (operation « Provide Comfort »). Moreover, the NATO allies, in compliance with Security Council Resolution 678 – which notably allows them to use any necessary means to restore peace and security in the region -, decided to establish in Iraq up to the north of the 36th parallel an exclusion zone closed to the Iraqi air force.

In May 1992, the vacuum left by the Iraqi withdrawal and the failure of the negotiations on the status of Kurdistan led to the foundation of a « Kurdish government » which was not recognized by Baghdad nor any other government. Unable to agree on a power sharing system, KDP and PUK have confronted each other several times since 1993 to such an extent that, in September 1996, Saddam Hussein was able to launch a vast offensive together with the KDP against the PUK in order to recuperate the Kurdistan.

On Sept. 17, 1998, the KDP and PUK leaders signed a new reconciliation agreement in Washington, under the auspices of the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

In this region, the game of alliances is both complex and ever dynamic. The political and ideological differences as well as rivalries between clans are obscuring the efforts of the Kurds and undermining their long term perspectives of success. This is contrasted by the consensus which exists amongst the concerned States not to allow the emergence of a Kurdish entity. This however does not prevent them from using the Kurds as factors to undermine respective neighbouring States in the regional game of chessboard. This tactic was amply illustrated during the Iran-Iraq war.