Who Are The Kurds?

And what is the international community's responsibility towards them?

Last Updated: November 5, 2019

The Kurds are in the headlines. A few examples from October 2019 include A Century of Betrayal: Kurdish Dreams of a Homeland Are Always Dashed, from The Economist, and The Kurds Are the Nation-State’s Latest Victims, from Foreign Policy.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state⁠—they are primarily split between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria⁠—yet they have often played important roles in US foreign policy. Since the Syrian War began in 2011, the Kurds have been pivotal in fighting the Islamic State  with support from the United States. As they pushed back the Islamic State, the Kurds set up their own democratic, secular government in northern Syria. However, in October 2019, US President Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from the border between Syria and Turkey, clearing the path for the Turkish military to attack the Kurds.

Though the Kurds have been important to politics and conflicts in their region, they are not widely understood outside of that region. Recent events involving the Kurds raise questions such as: Who are the Kurds? Why are they divided among so many countries in the Middle East? And what is the international community’s responsibility toward them? This Teaching Idea helps students explore these questions in order to better understand current developments in the Middle East.


The Kurds are a group of people in the Middle East who speak related dialects and share an ethnic identity. With a population of approximately 30 million, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state.1 From the sixteenth century to the early twentieth century, the Kurds were ruled by the Ottoman Empire and lived in regions alongside a number of other ethnic groups. 

During World War I, as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, a Turkish nationalist movement took control of a portion of the empire. Around two million Armenians lived in this region, along with  a significant Kurdish minority.2 Turkish nationalists committed a genocide against the Armenians, killing an estimated 1.5 million people. Many Kurds living near Armenians helped to carry out the genocide. Later, Turks attempted to forcibly assimilate the Kurds into the new Turkish nation.3 The Turkish government has never taken responsibility⁠—or even acknowledged⁠—the Armenian Genocide, but many Kurdish groups within modern-day Turkey have.4

After the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War I, the victorious powers redrew the borders and created new states. The Kurds were initially promised their own independent homeland under the Treaty of Sèvres.5 However, that treaty was never ratified, and European powers negotiated a new treaty with Turkey, the Treaty of Lausanne. This treaty created new Arab states, a Turkish state, and an Armenian state, but it did not create a state for the Kurds. Instead, Kurds were divided mainly between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, the Kurds have periodically fought either for independence or for greater autonomy and basic national rights within existing states, and their efforts have often been met with violence and repression from the states where they live. In Turkey, the war between the Kurds and the Turkish government from 1984 to 1999 resulted in more than 40,000 casualties, many of whom were Kurdish civilians.6 In Iraq, Sadam Hussein ordered the slaughter of Kurds including the gassing of Kurdish civilians, resulting in the deaths of almost 100,000 Iraqi Kurds between 1987 and 1988.7 More recently, Kurdish militias were crucial in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and some Kurds hoped that their role in this war could help them win an independent state. So far, however, the Kurds have not been able to gain the international support and recognition that they need to form a Kurdish state, but they continue to push for more self-governance and regional autonomy in the countries where they live.

  1. Who Are the Kurds?

    Begin by reading the first three paragraphs of the National Geographic article Today, The Kurds Are Spread Across Four Nations. Who Are They?  with your students. Then, look at the five photos in the slideshow in the article. Ask your students to take notes on the following:

    • What information in this article is already familiar to you?
    • What information is surprising to you?
    • What questions does this article raise for you? What would you like to know more about?

    Ask students to share their answers to these questions with a partner or with the class.

  2. Why Don’t the Kurds Have Their Own State? Should They?

    Play the Al Jazeera video Who Are the Kurds? What Do They Want? And Why Does Nobody Want to Give It to Them? (00–1:00) for your students. (Note: Stop the video at 1:00 minute. The remaining portion of the video focuses on the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq.) Show your students a map of the Kurdish-Inhabited Area in the Middle East. Then, ask your students to read the remaining portion of the National Geographic article Today, The Kurds Are Spread Across Four Nations. Who Are They?, which they began reading in the first activity.

    After students have reviewed the materials, ask them:

    • Who got to decide where the modern borders in the Middle East were drawn? What were the consequences for the Kurds?
    • How has the international community defined its responsibility to the Kurds?
    • What do you think governments owe to the Kurdish minorities in their borders?
    • Should the Kurds get to have their own state? What benefits could there be from creating an independent state for the Kurds? What could be some of the challenges?

Extension: Should the International Community Support the Kurds in Syria?

Select one or more resources from the list below to share with your students.

After reviewing the resources, ask your students:

  • Why did the US support Kurdish militias and why have they now withdrawn support?
  • What responsibilities and obligations does the international community have to minority groups, such as the Kurds, who are mistreated within the borders of individual countries?
  • Do you think that the United States should continue to support the Kurds in Syria? Why or why not?

Additional Resources

  • To help your students learn more about the formation of new states after World War I, use our reading Self-Determination.
  • Use our lesson Nation Building to teach your students about the role the United States played in the creation of an independent Armenian state after World War I.


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