Sons of Devils

In a turbulent region the stateless Kurds play the role of spoiler

IN THE WINTER of 401 B.C. a tired and defeated army of Greek mercenaries was slowly making its way home from Mesopotamia, after failing to topple the Persian king Artaxerxes II. Crossing the Taurus Mountains, in what is today southeastern Turkey, the mercenaries were set upon by bands of Carduchi, a fierce race of bowmen, who caused more harm to the Greeks in seven days of hit-and-run raids than had the Persians during the entire Mesopotamian campaign. An account of the harrowing retreat was provided by Xenophon, one of the Greek commanding officers. Xenophon wrote that the Carduchi lived in the mountains and were nor subject to outside authority: "Indeed, a royal army of a hundred and twenty thousand had once invaded their country, and not a man of them had got back...."

Not all that much has changed in 2,400 years. The Carduchi may well have been what we now call Kurds, an Indo-European people, speaking a language akin to Persian, who first occupied the Zagros and Taurus ranges in the second millennium B.C. The Kurds are among history's greatest warriors: Saladin, the Muslim general who repossessed Jerusalem and much of the Holy Land from the Crusaders, was a Kurd. Their bows and slings have long since been replaced by Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Perched on isolated slopes, amid oak and mountain ash, Kurdish guerrillas known as pesh mergas ("those who are prepared to die") have in recent years wiped out whole units of Turkish and Iraqi soldiers and Iranian revolutionary guards. True to their past, the Kurds are a law unto themselves.

Although there are no trustworthy figures, it is estimated that upwards of 16 million Kurds inhabit an ellipse of territory that is larger than California and that spreads over portions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Soviet Union. (There is also a Kurdish community about 70,000 strong in Lebanon.) In geopolitical terms the Kurds occupy one of the most tantalizing bits of real estate on earth. The deserts of the Middle East and the plateaus of Central Asia and Anatolia all ram up against the 10,000-foot massifs of Kurdistan ("the land of the Kurds"). Between the southernmost Red Army units and the northernmost of the great Arabian oil fields dwell the Kurds. More than 70 percent of Iraq's oil exports pass through Kurdistan on their way to the Mediterranean; a pipeline to transport Iranian crude is soon to be built. In a Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey one of the world's biggest hydroelectric projects is under construction; Syrians fear that the project will drain the Euphrates, on which Syria also depends, in order to irrigate Turkish farms. Because statehood has always eluded them, the Kurds are hostage to the strategies of others. A Kurdish terrorist group, believed to have been trained in Syria, now constitutes Turkey's chief internal-security problem, according to Turkish officials in Ankara. Other Kurdish guerrillas, supported by both Syria and Iran, control much of northern Iraq. And pesh mergas assisted by Iraq are the most militarily potent of the opposition forces inside Iran. All these disparate groups have at one time or another enjoyed crucial assistance from the Soviet Union, which not only is nearby but also has a long tradition of expansion in the area. Although Kurdistan does not officially exist as a state, a lesson in geopolitics could easily begin with the Kurds. For decades their fortunes have served as a barometer of the stability of every state in the region.

ACCORDING TO ONE legend, the Kurds are descended from 400 virgins who were raped by devils on the way to King Solomon's court. Fatah Kavian, a member of the central committee of the anti-Khomeini Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, smiled modestly when I mentioned the tale to him recently. "This may be true," he said. Kurds take satisfaction in their reputation as spoilers who, owing to their total command of one of the world's harshest terrains, can never be completely vanquished. Perhaps because they were a distinct people, with their own language and culture, for at least 1,500 years before converting to Islam, in the seventh century A.D., their religious affinity with Persians, Turks, and Arabs has counted for little. If anything, religion has helped to estrange the Kurds from their neighbors. Some Kurds from Iran flaunt their secular values as a way of demonstrating their opposition to the ethnic Persian, Shiite theocracy in Tehran. At every evening meal I took with Iranian pesh mergas in northeastern Iraq during a recent trip, whiskey and beer were served. In Turkey, however, a state founded on the fiercely secular principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Kurdish revolts have combined fundamentalism with nationalism. Kurds in southeastern Turkey today distinguish themselves from Turks by strict adherence to Muslim tradition. While polygamy is officially banned, many Kurdish peasants in Turkey have more than one wife. Last May, during the holy month of Ramadan, the only persons apparently not fasting in the ethnic Kurdish town of Hakkari, near the Iran and Iraq borders, were the Turkish troops sent there by Ankara.

Race and language aside, what seems to make a Kurd a Kurd is an almost spiritual affinity with the beloved moors and snow-streaked mountains of Kurdistan. As the first row of domed, yellowy hills appeared on the horizon, rippling upward from the desert floor in northeastern Iraq, my Kurdish driver glanced back at the desert, sucked his tongue in disdain, and said, "Arabistan." Then, looking toward the hills, he murmured, "Kurdistan," and his eyes lit up. But if geography helps to define the Kurds, it also helps to divide them. The ranks of jagged peaks, with their walled-in valleys and forbidding chasms, seal the Kurds off from one another as much as from the outside world. Like the Scottish highlanders of previous centuries, the Kurds are more an assemblage of clans than a united people. This disunity is reflected in the myriad of Kurdish guerrilla armies fighting at cross-purposes, making statehood an impossible dream.

Bad luck has abetted disunity. In the aftermath of the First World War the Kurds came close to winning a state of their own. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, whose purpose was to carve up and distribute the Ottoman Empire, provided for a Kurdish homeland in eastern Turkey. The following year, however, Kemal Ataturk defeated an invading Greek army and, by laying the groundwork for a new, cohesive Turkish state in the Anatolian heartland, was able to demand the treaty's revision. After the Second World War the Soviets, who had occupied northern Iran, allowed for the establishment of a small pro-Moscow Kurdish republic around the city of Mahabad. But as a result of Anglo-American pressure and an increasing preoccupation with Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Stalin abandoned his Iranian holdings at the end of 1946, leaving the Kurds at the mercy of Reza Shah, the late Shah's father, who crushed the fledgling regime and executed its leader, Ghazi Mohammed. To this day photos of Ghazi Mohammed occupy a prominent place in Kurdish redoubts in Iraq and Iran.

Another influential figure in Mahabad, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, lived in exile in the Soviet Union for more than a decade. Barzani later returned to lead several rebellions in northern Iraq—supported covertly this time by the United States, Israel, and Iran. The most serious of these rebellions broke out in March of 1974, when the Iraqi regime had to use tanks and planes to repel Barzani's forces. Following an agreement between Iraq and Iran in 1975, the Shah withdrew his support from the Kurds and the revolt collapsed. The pesh mergas retreated to their caves in the mountains, and Barzani went into exile in the United States, where he died in 1979, in Washington, D.C.

The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in September of 1980 provided the Kurds with another opportunity. As Iraqi troops were diverted to the war front in the south, fewer were available to confront resurgent pesh mergas. Northern Iraq is now a cauldron of Kurdish separatism. Heading north into the mountains from the city of Sulaymaniyah, one comes to a point where the hitherto ubiquitous billboard pictures of Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein At-Takriti, suddenly vanish. So do Iraqi soldiers. Replacing them are pesh mergas with bandoliers, wearing turbans, baggy trousers, vests, and cummerbunds. According to the map it is still Iraq. But in this part of the country Baghdad's writ is hardly law. The 2.5 million Kurds who live in Iraq make up almost a fifth of the country's population. Most of them live in the mountains of the oil-rich north, where their very presence calls into question the viability of the Iraqi state. (Iraq was created after the First World War through the ad hoc process of joining Turkey's ethnic-Kurdish Mosul province with Arab Mesopotamia.) Although in Arabic the word Iraq means "well rooted," Iraq's shallow roots as a nation have been a factor in the psychological insecurity that has given one Baghdad regime after another its perverse, bloodthirsty quality. By all accounts, Iraqis are among the most greatly oppressed people in the Arab world. Iraq's record of human-rights violations includes the documented torture-related murder of several Kurdish youths, in the fall of 1985. Of all the governments in the region, none has less control over the Kurds than Baghdad. Even Iraq's own troops are a question mark, since many of Iraq's irregular soldiers in the north are themselves ethnic Kurds -- known to pesh mergas as the josh ("sons of donkeys")—upon whose loyalty Iraq cannot rely.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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