world history 12 Things You Need to Know to Understand the Kurds and Their Fight Against ISIS  

Kellen Perry
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If you've watched more than 15 minutes of any cable news channel in the world in the last 20 years, you've likely heard about the Kurds, an indigenous people of the Middle East that have fought for most of the 20th century and all of the 21st century for independence and autonomy. They're the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but thanks to a rejected treaty and a suppressed rebellion following World War I, they have never had a country to call their own. Many Americans are also familiar with the Kurds because of their failed uprising against Saddam Hussein following the Persian Gulf War.

Even if you know the basics about the Kurds, there is still plenty about Kurdish people and their culture that you might not know. Their history is fascinating, tragic, inspiring, controversial, and hopeful. Read on for more interesting facts about the Kurds and Kurdistan.

The Kurds Are Said to Be Among History's Greatest Warriors


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Photo:  Enno Lenze/via Wikimedia

The Kurds are thought to be at least partially descended from the Carduchi, a "fierce race of bowmen" who, in the winter of 401 BC, "caused more harm to the Greeks in seven days of hit-and-run raids than had the Persians during the entire Mesopotamian campaign" when the Greeks failed to defeat the Persian king Artaxerxes II.

One of the Greek officers wrote that the Carduchi were not to be messed with: "Indeed, a royal army of a hundred and twenty thousand had once invaded their country, and not a man of them had got back..."

Fast-forward to 1187 for another example of Kurdish military strength: that's the year when the Kurdish general Saladin won back Palestine from the Crusaders. Zoom ahead to the 21st century and the controversial Kurdish army known as the peshmerga (which means "those who are prepared to die") for the latest display of Kurdish might: the peshmerga are considered by some to be "the most effective ground troops battling the Islamic State terror group in Iraq."

ISIS Soldiers Think Being Killed by a Kurdish Woman Is a Ticket to Hell


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Photo:  Kurdishstruggle/via Flickr

Female peshmerga forces in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria fighting the Islamic state say they have at least one huge psychological advantage: ISIS soldiers think they'll go to hell if a Kurdish woman kills them. Kurdish women on the front lines in Syria apparently "take pleasure" at this fact, and one Iraqi Kurd that joined the struggle to protect women's rights says she thinks ISIS is "more afraid of us than of the men."

Women in the peshmerga forces are trained as snipers and even use rocket-propelled grenades, just like the men. It's in stark contrast to how women are treated in the rest of Iraq, where they aren't even allowed to visit the market or leave the house without a headscarf.

"Kurdistan" Sounds Like a Country, But It Isn't


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Photo:  CIA/via Wikimedia

If you're familiar with the Kurds, than you know that they've never had a proper country to call their own. If this is all new to you, you're forgiven for thinking that Kurdistan is a country. It totally sounds like one. Kurdistan (simply "Land of the Kurds") is, in fact, a roughly defined "geo-cultural region" of the Middle East where there are a lot of Kurds.

Why no "proper" Kurdistan? Historians cite the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I as a turning point. The Allies intended, without a firm commitment, for there to be a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, but Turkey refused to honor it, and in 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne set the boundaries of Turkey as we know it today, leaving the Kurds behind. Today, they're a minority group in five other countries instead of living in their own.

The US Considers the Kurds Both Allies and Terrorists


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Photo:  BijiKurdistan/via Wikimedia

Here's perhaps the most important thing to know about the Kurds, per Steven A. Cook in The Atlantic: "When people say 'the Kurds' they are simplifying to the point of meaninglessness."

The Kurds are not a cohesive group, as Cook puts it, "in terms of worldview, political goals, and relationship to the states in which they live." The Kurds are both allies in the war against ISIS, and, depending on which splinter group you're referring to when you say "the Kurds," considered to be terrorists by the US 

The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), for example, are one such group that Washington officially considers to be an FTO (Foreign Terrorist Organization). There are other groups the US doesn't consider to be terrorists (like the Syrian Kurdistan YPG, or People's Protection Unit), but they work with the PKK to fight ISIS, which makes things pretty damned complicated (not to mention that Turkey does consider YPG to be a terrorist group).

Plus, y'know, there are plenty of Kurds unaffiliated with these groups, just trying to peacefully get through their day. So remember that when you reference "the Kurds" in a political discussion...