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Who are the Kurds? Why is Turkey invading Syria? How should Christians respond?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Who are the Kurds? Why is Turkey invading Syria? How should Christians respond?
A Kurdish woman participates in a demonstration outside European Parliament in Brussels on Oct. 9, 2019.

When cultural or geopolitical events warrant, we publish website articles intended to explain the issues and offer biblical perspective. In this context, we’ll look today at the escalating conflict in Syria involving Turkey and the Kurds.

Who are the Kurds? 

Though not a formal country, Kurdistan represents the areas in which the Kurds live throughout Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Armenia.

Between twenty-five and thirty-five million people known as Kurds live in a region straddling the borders of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Armenia. They are indigenous to the Mesopotamian plains and form a distinct community united through race, culture, and language. The exact origin of their name is unclear. 

The Kurds may be mentioned on a Sumerian clay tablet dating to the third millennium BC. Many consider themselves to have descended from the Medes, an ancient Iranian people. The majority today are Sunni Muslims. 

Their traditional way of life was nomadic, revolving around sheep and goat herding. The enforcement of national boundaries after World War I impeded the seasonal migrations of their flocks, forcing most of them to abandon their traditional ways for village life and settled farming. 

They also became famous as warriors and mercenaries. The sultan Saladin, known for his victories during the Crusades, epitomizes their military reputation. 

After the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I, Western allies made provision for a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. However, the Treaty of Lausanne, which was signed three years later and set the boundaries of modern Turkey, made no provision for a Kurdish state. 

As a result, because they live in an area that crosses several borders, the Kurds have majority status in no country. For instance, they constitute 15 to 20 percent of the population in Turkey, 7 to 10 percent of the population in Syria, and 15 to 20 percent of the population in Iraq. 

Their status in their host countries has often been very problematic. The Kurdish Project notes: “Because the Kurds have remained a separate ethnic group, they’ve always sought autonomy and independence. These aspirations have resulted in almost continuous conflict and a history of repression, resiliency and reinvention in the face of existential threats by the Turks, Arabs and Iranians and their forebears.” 

After uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s in Turkey, many Kurds were resettled and faced severe persecution. An armed struggle against Turkey began in 1984 in which forty thousand people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Violent clashes have continued to the present. 

How have the Kurds been involved in the fight against ISIS? 

In 2013, ISIS fighters attacked Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria. Kurdish fighters in Syria responded. An ISIS advance in Iraq in 2014 drew that country’s Kurds into the conflict as well. A US-led coalition helped defend the Kurds from ISIS in northern Iraq. 

Later in 2014, ISIS launched an assault on a Syrian Kurdish town, forcing tens of thousands to flee across the nearby Turkish border. However, Turkey refused to attack the ISIS position in response or to allow Turkish Kurds to defend it. 

In 2015, the Kurds aligned with local Arab militias in Syria to form a coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Aided by US-led coalition air strikes, they drove ISIS out of much of northeastern Syria and established control over a large stretch of the border with Turkey. 

Two years later, their coalition captured the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa. In 2019, this coalition captured the last pocket of territory held by ISIS in Syria. 

Why are the Kurds being attacked by Turkey? 

Turkey’s military has been active in northern Syria since August 2016, when it supported a Syrian rebel offensive against ISIS. They now want to create a twenty-mile “safe zone” inside northeastern Syria to protect their border and resettle up to two million Syrian refugees. 

However, this area is occupied by Kurdish fighters. American troops were employed in the area as well, but they were withdrawn by the order of President Trump on October 6, 2019. The White House stated that US forces “having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate’ will no longer be in the immediate area.” 

Turkey then launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters the morning of October 9. “Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” Turkish President Erdogan said in a tweet. However, a spokesman for the SDF said Turkish warplanes were targeting “civilian areas” in northern Syria, causing a “huge panic” in the region. 

That morning, President Trump defended his decision to pull back US troops from northeastern Syria, tweeting “Fighting between various groups that has been going on for hundreds of years. USA should never have been in Middle East. Moved our 50 soldiers out. Turkey MUST take over captured ISIS fighters that Europe refused to have returned. The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!” 

Others have criticized the president’s decision as “morally wrong and strategically short-sighted.” They warn that it will damage America’s reputation as a trustworthy ally, making it more difficult to assemble coalitions when we need them in the future. The president’s former envoy for the fight against ISIS criticized the decision as well amid fears that thousands of jihadist prisoners could be left unguarded and the Islamic State could be strengthened. 

How should Christians respond to the Kurds? 

The Scriptures call us to respond to the Kurds in four ways. 

One: Support Kurdish Christians. 

Christians in Kurdish territories date their history to the first-century Apostle Andrew. The church persisted until the Arab conquest, when a majority of the Kurds were forced to convert to Islam. Some Muslim Kurds, however, converted to Christianity. 

There is an evangelical witness and church working among the Kurdish people today. They are our brothers and sisters and deserve our intercession. Paul’s commitment should be ours: “From the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9). 

Two: Seek to lead Kurds to Christ. 

We can pray for Christians who are sharing the gospel with the Kurdish people, echoing Paul’s request: “Keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:18–19). 

And we can ask the Lord how he wants us to help in sharing his word with them. 

Three: Pray for protection for those in danger. 

Military conflict nearly always leads to innocent suffering. As we pray for those in danger, we can ask God to preserve their lives so they might testify, “Your right hand delivers me” (Psalm 138:7). 

Four: Pray for peace in this conflicted region. 

I have been leading study tours to the Middle East for twenty-five years. It was my privilege to travel widely in Turkey some years ago while writing a book on the seven churches of Revelation. I am certain that the ongoing conflict in the region of Jesus’ birth grieves the heart of our Father. We should pray for lasting peace in Jerusalem and across the entire area as well (Psalm 122:6). 

The One who came as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) is the ultimate answer to the conflicts of the Middle East and in every soul. As we turn to Jesus, we find in him “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). 

Please join me in praying for such peace in every heart, beginning with our own.