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Who Are the Kurds?

February 17, 1999

The arrest of the rebel Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan has once again brought the plight of the "hapless Kurds" (as The New York Times put it this morning) to the world's attention. Media coverage of the arrest tended to focus on the circumstances of Ocalan's arrest -- Why was the Greek embassy in Nairobi harboring a self-declared terrorist? What was the Kenya's role in the capture? Was the United States at work behind the scenes? -- but, as is always the case whenever the Kurds emerge from their stateless and generally oppressed obscurity, there are bigger questions that most readers tend to ask themselves. Who, exactly, are the Kurds? Where is Kurdistan? What is Kurdistan?

Two contributors to The Atlantic in recent years have written in depth about the Kurdish situation. In 1987 Robert Kaplan addressed the issue of Kurdish identity head on in "Sons of Devils"; he succinctly laid out the context for a layered understanding of the Kurds and reached a conclusion that, given the role of the Kurds in the Middle East this past decade, seems remarkably prescient: "Draw up any scenario you please: the Kurds are available. Lacking a state of their own, the Kurds thrive when all the existing states are in turmoil."

Laurie Mylroie visited the Kurdish regions of Iraq after the end of the Gulf War and was impressed by how the Kurds -- still officially stateless -- were effectively managing to run their own affairs. In "After Saddam Hussein" (1992), Mylroie made the case that the greatest obstacle to the Kurds' continuing ability to improve their lot was the UN embargo of Iraq, which, she argued, unnecessarily hurt the Kurds economically and politically while actually strengthening Saddam Hussein's position.

What difference will the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan make for the Kurds and the countries that currently hold power over them? Dogu Ergil, the director of the Foundation for the Research of Societal Problems, put it this way, to The New York Times: "We Turks think since we have captured him, we have gotten rid of the Kurdish problem as well, which is not true."


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