A young girl waves the flag of Kurdistan during a demonstration by Syrian Kurds against Turkish threats to launch a military operation on their region Image Credit: AFP

Turkish forces began a long-anticipated cross-border assault on Wednesday against the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia, in northeastern Syria.

Who are the Kurds?

Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, they are Muslim Sunnis and inhabitants of the Mountain area between Iraq, Turkey Syria and Iran.

One of the earliest records of the phrase 'land of the Kurds' is found in an Assyrian Christian document.

The Kurds speak Kurdish, a prehistoric language that shares a lot of traits with Persian language, and they use the Roman script to write it.

Features characteristic of Kurds are the colour of their eyes and blond hair. According to a study they share same DNA as Europeans.

Kurdish areas 20191010
Image Credit: Gulf News

What is their problem?

Kurds are an established ethnic group who have inhabited the Middle East for centuries, but what made them nomads and fighters?

In the 16th century, after prolonged wars, Kurdish-inhabited areas were split between the Safavid and Ottoman empires.

From then until the aftermath of World War I, Kurdish areas were generally under Ottoman rule, and inside Iranian territories in the first half of the 18th century. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the lands that the Kurds lived in were split and taken.

Some areas were retaken by forces of Kemal Atatürk and were within the borders of the modern Republic of Turkey, leaving the Kurds without a self-ruled region.

Other Kurdish areas were assigned to the new British and French mandated states of Iraq and Syria.

The British and French colonised the Middle East and divided territories between themselves in 1916 as per the  Sykes-Picot agreement.

When countries were created in that area, the Kurds were forgotten and were left divided between those borders, and that is when their dream and battle to unite under one state started.

Over the next 80 years, any move by Kurds to set up an independent self-governed state was brutally quashed in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

In Turkey, a handful rebellions were staged by the Kurds in the 1920s and 1930s, prompting Ankara to place their entire territory under martial law. The Kurds were grouped with Albanian emigrants from Kosovo and Assyrians, hoping that the Kurdish identity would be diluted.

The same process was repeated by the Baathists when they came to power in Iraq three decades later, when they uprooted thousands of Kurds from their homes throughout Iraq, in what was known as an “Arabisation” campaign in strategic cities like Mosul and Kirkuk.

They were all replaced with Sunni Arab Baathists from rural towns and villages.

The last quarter of the 20th century was marked by obstruction from Ankara, Damascus, Tehran, and Baghdad to Kurdish independence.

In Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, the Kurds were able to self-rule in Erbil, a highly condensed city in the north of Iraq, known to be now as the capital of larger Kurdistan.

In Iran there is a province by the name of Kurdistan but it is not self-ruled, and little is known about their struggle as media coverage there is limited.

Kurds of Turkey

Turkish government categorized Kurds as "Mountain Turks" until 1991. Turkey has historically feared a Kurdish state.

The words "Kurds", "Kurdistan", or "Kurdish" were officially banned by the Turkish government. Following the military coup of 1980, the Kurdish language was officially prohibited in public and private life. Many people who spoke, published, or sang in Kurdish were arrested and imprisoned.

In 1983, the Kurdish provinces were placed under martial law in response to activities of the militant separatist organization - the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Many villages were set on fire, food embargoes were placed on Kurdish villages and towns, more than 20,000 Kurds were killed in the violence and hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave their homes.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, political parties that represented Kurdish interests were banned.

Coming to 2019, Turkey saw the rising power of Kurdish forces after the Syrian Civil war along its southern border as a threat.

The Turkish government insists that the military wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey since 1984 and is designated as a terrorist group by the US and EU.

Kurds of Syria

Before 2011 most Kurds lived in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and in three areas around Kobane, Afrin, and the north-eastern city of Qamishli.

Syria's Kurds have been denied basic rights for long, and a big number of them were denied citizenship. In the 1960’s Kurdish land was confiscated and redistributed to Arabs in an attempt to make Kurdish regions more Arab populated.

When the Syrian uprising evolved into a civil war in 2012, government forces withdrew from Kurdish areas to concentrate on fighting the rebels elsewhere, and Kurdish groups then took control.

The Kurds and Daesh

In 2014 Kurdish parties declared the creation of "autonomous administrations" in Afrin, Kobane and Jazira.

They were fighting Daesh in that area, and in 2016 they announced the establishment of a "federal system" that included mainly Arab and Turkmen areas that they captured from Daesh.

But the declaration was rejected by the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition, Turkey and the US.

Syrian President Assad has vowed to retake "every inch" of Syrian territory, whether by negotiations or military force. His government has also rejected Kurdish demands for autonomy, saying that "nobody in Syria accepts talk about independent entities or federalism".