Spotlight on the Kurds

An estimated 20 million Kurds live in the mountainous region that covers parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Separated by ethnicity and language from their neighbors, the Kurds have for centuries found themselves the subjects of the area's various rulers.

Turkey has the region's largest Kurdish population, with an estimated 13 million, most of them living in the country's southeast region. When the new Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, severe restrictions on Kurdish language and culture were put in place, part of a larger effort to unite the country's various ethnic groups under one national identity. During the 1980s, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a militant Marxist group, began a bloody separatist war against the Turkish state that ended up costing the lives of more than 30,000 and causing great damage to social and economic life in the southeast. The PKK called for a ceasefire in 1999 after its leader was captured by Turkey, and fighters retreated to the mountains of northern Iraq. Attacks have continued on a reduced scale since then and wax and wane with the political climate, but violence is usually confined to small areas along the Iraqi border and is nowhere near the level of the 1980s and '90s. To make matters more complicated, Kurdish groups have now become targets of ISIS, following ongoing battles with the People's Protection Units (YPG, an armed faction of the Kurdish Supreme Committee in Syria).

Politically speaking, over the past few years Turkey has passed legislation aimed at easing the cultural and political restrictions on the Kurds and has promised to revitalize the local economy, bringing a guarded sense of hope to the battle-scarred region. The political landscape was shaken in 2015 when the left-wing pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) received 13.2% of the national vote, passing the 10% threshold that had barred many pro-Kurdish parties from entering Parliament. After a snap election was held in November 2015, their proportion of the vote was reduced (a fact their leader, Selahattin Demirtas, blamed on the Erdogan administration's creation of a fear of violence), yet they still made the 10% threshold and now have 59 seats in the General National Assembly.

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