Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Kurdistan from Philip's Encyclopedia

Extensive mountainous and plateau region in SW Asia, inhabited by the Kurds and including parts of E Turkey, NE Iran, N Iraq, NE Syria, S Armenia and E Azerbaijan. Plans for the creation of a separate Kurdish state were put forward after World War 1 but were subsequently abandoned. Area: c.192,000sq km (74,000sq mi).

Summary Article: Kurdistan
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Mountain and plateau region in southwest Asia near Mount Ararat, where the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan meet; area 193,000 sq km/74,600 sq mi; total population 25–30 million. It is the home of the Kurds and is the area over which Kurdish nationalists have traditionally fought to win sovereignty. The Kurdish population living in the ‘Greater Kurdistan’ region is around 30 million: 15 million in areas in Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), 6 million each in areas in Iran (Easter Kurdistan) and Iraq (Southern Kurdistan), and 2 million in Syria (Western Kurdistan). It is also the name of a northwest Iranian province in the Zagros Mountains, covering 28,817 sq km/11,126 sq mi, population (2016 est) 1,603,000. The chief towns of the Kurdistan region are Kermanshah (Iran); Irbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Kirkuk (Iraq); Divarbakir, Erzurum, and Van (Turkey); and Qamishle (Syria).

The Kurds were conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century and were later ruled by the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols, the Persian Safavid dynasty, and, from the 13th century, the Turkish Ottoman empire. Situated on the ancient Silk Road, on the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent, Kurdistan grew to be a prosperous area during the Middle Ages, but it steadily declined from the 16th century when sea traffic replaced the Silk Road and Kurdish-inhabited areas were split between the Persian Safavid and Turkish Ottoman empires. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne left the Kurds without a self-ruled region, and southern and western parts of Kurdistan became parts of the British and French mandated states of Iraq and Syria, and other parts came under Turkish rule.

Today, despite being one of the poorest areas in the Middle East in terms of income per head, it holds rich oil reserves and is the source of much of the water that flows into Syria, Iraq, and west Iran. Despite the extreme climate, much of Kurdistan is fertile and has traditionally exported grain and livestock to Iranian, Iraqi, and Turkish cities. Nomadism has been drastically disrupted by ongoing tensions between the states with Kurdish minorities. As a consequence of the policies of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (in power 1979–2003) and the Turkish military, some 5,000 villages in Kurdistan have been depopulated since 1980. Only in Iranian Kurdistan has traditional village life remained intact.

Kurdish nationalists have long campaigned to create an independent Kurdistan comprising all areas with a Kurdish majority. More moderate elements have sought Kurdish autonomy within existing national boundaries.

Kurds in Turkey Kurds have launched a series of rebellions: in 1920 (under the Ottomans) and in 1924–25, 1927, and 1937 (under the Turkish state). Until 1965, the Kurdish region in Turkey was a closed military areas from which foreigners were banned. After Turkey's military coup in 1980, use of the Kurdish language was banned and Kurdish political parties were banned, leading to arrests and imprisonment.

In 1984, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), formed in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, launched a guerrilla war with the aim of the creation of an independent socialist Kurdish state. This was met with Turkish army repression and decades of defiant insurgency by the PKK in which more than 40,000 lost their lives, mainly Kurdish civilians. In 1999, following the arrest and imprisonment (with a life sentence) of Ocalan, the PKK called a ceasefire and modified its aims to Kurdish autonomy within Turkey. The PKK resumed armed struggle in 2004 and also carried out a series of terrorist bombings before and after a further ceasefire in 2013–2015.

Kurds in northern Iraq Led by Mustafa Barzani, Kurds in Iraq formed the pro-independence Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 1946. The KDP launched an armed revolt in 1961. This was suppressed by the Iraqi government, but fighting continued until a measure of self-rule was granted in 1970.

In 1988 thousands of Kurds were slaughtered and more than a million fled their homes when the Iraqi army retaliated against Kurds for their support of Iran during the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq war.

In 1991 Kurds rose up against Iraq's autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. In 1992, a US-led coalition defeated Iraq in the Gulf War. Iraq suppressed the rebellion, killing thousands of Kurds, but a UN coalition set up a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds.

In 1992 Iraqi Kurdistan (in northern Iraq) gained autonomy, with a parliament and local government. However, between 1994 and 1998, the Iraqi Kurds' two main political groups – the KDP, led by Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), formed in 1975 and led by Jalal Talabani – fought for control of the Kurdish autonomous region.

In 2003 the Kurds supported US and UK forces in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and Barzani and Talabani were rewarded through being appointed to the post-Saddam Iraqi governing council. In 2005 Iraq's post-Saddam federal constitution recognized an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, with its own elected government, and Barsani was elected president.

The Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdistan army) fought bravely to resist the Muslim-extremist Islamic State (IS) offensive in northern Iraq from 2014. With Iraq effectively partitioned following the IS offensive, Iraqi Kurdistan's president Barzani announced plans to hold a referendum on independence. The referendum was postponed 2014–17 as all attention was focused on defeating IS. It was eventually held in September 2017 and produced an overwhelming vote for independence. However, Iraq's government refused to accept the outcome and sent troops to secure the borders.

Kurds in Syria The civil war from 2011 against the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad provided the opportunity for Kurds to take control of parts of northeast Syria (Western Kurdistan). In 2012, Kurdish parties in Syria formed a Kurdish Supreme Committee and People's Protection Units (YPG) to govern and control Kurdish-held areas. As Assad's military forces withdrew to fight elsewhere, Kurds were able to take control of large parts of northeast Syria and, in 2014, declared an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. This Kurdish enclave received support from the USA in the civil war against Assad and fighting against the IS. However, from 2016 it faced military attacks from Turkey, which opposed the formation of a Kurdish state on its border.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles

Full text Article Kurdistan
Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World

Kurdistan is a cultural-ethnic-geographic term designating an area that extends into five states, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Armenia. The Kurds

Full text Article Kurdistan
Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary

\kur-də-stan, kər-\ Mountainous region with indefinite boundaries forming a nonpolitical region in SE Turkey in Asia, and in adjoining...

Full text Article Kurdistan
Politics of Conflict: A Survey

The Kurds, the largest nation in the world without a state, live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Azerbaijan and Armenia. They are c. 25 million...

See more from Credo