The Kurds are distinguished from their neighbours by their language, culture, and a homeland where they represent about 90 percent of the population. They speak an Indo-European language different from both Turkish and Arabic.
The Kurdish population is about 36 million, of whom 55 percent live within the borders of Turkey, where they represent 30 percent of the population. The rest live mainly in Iran, Iraq and Syria. The Kurds are by far the largest stateless nation on earth.
The history of the Kurds in Turkey is a long succession of revolts and uprisings. The latest of these, led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) under Abdullah Öcalan, is the 29th. It started in 1978 and has continued to the present in the form of a low-level military conflict which occasionally flares up into bloodier battles between the Turkish military and PKK guerrillas. The conflict has so far cost 30,000 lives, with thousands of villages emptied and burnt down, and millions of peasants displaced.
Öcalan was captured by the Turkish state on 15 February 1999 with the help of the CIA and the Israeli Mossad secret service agencies. He was sentenced to death at a show trial, though the death penalty was abolished before he could be hanged. He has since been kept on a one man prison island in the middle of the Marmara Sea.
Under pressure from the European Union, which it is desperate to join, Turkey has made a number of gestures over Kurdish rights in recent years. It is no longer illegal to speak Kurdish, to publish or to make recordings in Kurdish. Laws are one thing, however, implementation of the laws is another. The general level of oppression remains high, as do military operations in Kurdish areas, despite the fact that the PKK announced a unilateral ceasefire in October 2006.
The war in Iraq has divided opinion among the Kurds. Since the war and the creation of what is effectively an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq, the Kurds in Turkey have somewhat toned down their anti-imperialism.
The fact that Iraqi Kurdistan, closely allied to the US, has not suffered much from the war (and was naturally glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein) has meant that a considerable degree of infrastructure and cultural development has flourished in the area. The Kurds have never had anything like this before. They are therefore easily swayed into favouring the US invasion in Iraq, even though the memory of the 1988 Halabja massacre, when Saddam used chemical weapons to kill 5,000 Kurds with materials supplied by the West, remains fresh.
The tragic twists in the history of the Kurds seem to continue as they are once more powerless without the help of the enemy of their oppressors. The fact that the current Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, leader of one of the two tribal organisations in Iraqi Kurdistan, has selected his son as the representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the US, while the son of the other tribal lord, Massoud Barzani, has been serving as prime minister of the same government confirms the nature of the democratic establishment the US has offered to the Kurds.
The oppression of the few Kurdish voices of dissent in northern Iraq which oppose the regime makes it obvious that freedom has not arrived in Kurdistan. But the freedom of Barzani and Talabani to increase their influence and wealth is indeed a reality. The involvement of Israel in Kurdish northern Iraq, where they are training government and security officials, is a further indictment of the US-backed Kurdish regime.
The fragility of the Barzani-Talabani empire becomes more visible as the Western occupiers consider inviting Syria and Iran to help solve the problem and control the resistance in Iraq. Syria and Iran both have their own oppressed Kurdish minorities. And if these countries become US allies in Iraq, the US is less likely to need Barzani and Talabani.
Freedom is the right of the Kurds. But at what price? What kind of freedom will be offered by artificial statehood in a federative Iraq if it is a US-guarded prison camp with a US and Israeli military presence? This is a nightmare scenario. Rather than this, clearly the Kurds must build stronger links with the democratic oppositions in the four countries where they live. This choice may be a difficult one to make, but it may soon be too late.