Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The Turkish army’s overt military intervention in Syria marked the latest chapter in the Kurds’ century-long history of struggle. The military incursion was preceded by Donald Trump’s much criticised decision to withdraw US troops stationed in Syria to combat ISIS fighters. The US had been coordinating its anti-ISIS operations with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who had borne the brunt of the fighting and played a key role in the eventual jihadist defeat. By arming and working with the Syrian Kurds, the US ignored opposition from its NATO partner Turkey, who alleged that the SDF was merely a rebranding of the militant Kurdish nationalist YPG, a close ally of the Turkey-based PKK. The withdrawal of US troops has been characterised as a betrayal of the Syrian Kurds as it effectively gave Turkey the green light to move in and deal with elements Ankara considers hostile.
Turkey has claimed that its military operation, codenamed ‘Peace Spring’, seeks to clear northern Syria of the Kurdish militant presence and establish a ‘safe zone’ to house over 3.5 million Syrian war refugees currently living inside Turkey. For over four years, Turkey had lobbied extensively with its NATO allies for the creation of a buffer zone in northern Syria, alleging mass human rights violations by the Assad regime and indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilian areas.
Although the prolonged civil war in Syria and the resultant influx of refugees into Turkey has burdened its economy, Ankara’s military push must be understood in the backdrop of its historical conflict with the PKK and the Kurdistan question in general. The launch of the military operation has also led to a further complication of the already convoluted alliance system in Syria’s civil war. The Kurds, who had capitalised on the overstretching of the Syrian Arab Army to establish a de-facto proto-state in the north, cut a deal with the Assad regime to counter the Turkish threat. The Russian-brokered agreement3 allowed the deployment of regime forces in Kurdish territory, amongst other major concessions by the Kurdish militias. With Syrian Arab Army units moving into Kurdish-controlled territory for the first time since the Syrian civil war broke out, the agreement brings about further consolidation of the Assad regime and constitutes a major blow to Kurdish aspirations for an independent state. On the other hand, in the backdrop of Moscow’s rapidly advancing ties with Turkey, Putin and Erdogan reached an agreement that meets all of Ankara’s military objectives.
Russia has guaranteed the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the proposed Turkish ‘safe zone’ and the two Eurasian powers have started joint patrols to enforce the pact.
The Kurds are a mountainous people indigenous to the northern Middle East. Between 25 to 35 million Kurds populate a vast but continuous geographic region spanning parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. As a whole, the Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle.
Like other ethnic groups, the Kurds have common cultural practices and speak a distinct language, even though the dialect varies across the numerous Kurdish communities. Religiously, the Kurds adhere to a number of doctrines but the majority of them identify as Sunni Muslims. Kurdish aspirations for an independent state first garnered hope after the First World War defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The fall of the Turkish Ottomans, who had ruled for centuries over Kurdish lands and repressed Kurdish cultural identity, was seen as an opportunity for the Kurds to unite their dispersed community into a single umbrella. Initial signs from Britain and France, the victorious Allied colonial powers, were also positive. The Treaty of Sevres in 1920 between the Central Powers and the Allied block set forth the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, along with the proposed Ottoman abdication of all non-Turkish lands. The Allied powers also included a provision for a possible Kurd state, leaving the decision to a future referendum. However, the treaty was seen by the rising Turkish nationalists as amounting to betrayal and resulted in a surge of nationalist sentiment across the Turkish speaking regions, igniting the Turkish War of Independence.
Consequently, nationalist general Kemal Ataturk unanimously abrogated the Sevres Treaty, eventually going on to defeat the combined Allied armies and their royalist Ottoman allies. The July 1923 Treaty of Lausanne7 eventually marked the end of hostilities, as Ataturk agreed to give up claim to oil rich Arab territory in return for Turkish sovereignty over Eastern Anatolia, which included the Kurdish speaking regions.
After the declaration of the Turkish republic in October 1923 and the subsequent abolition of the Caliphate, Kemal Ataturk initiated a series of radical reforms aimed at bringing Turkey on par with the developed west by transforming the existing multi-communal Ottoman system into a secular nation state. Ataturk’s reforms also instilled a fiery brand of nationalism in the citizens of modern Turkey. As a result, the Kurds, who made up the largest ethnic minority in the new republic, were systematically sidelined and attempts were made by the Turkish state to deny the existence of a distinct Kurdish identity. These measures included official categorization of the Kurds as ‘Mountain Turks’, a blanket ban on conversing in the Kurdish language, and severe restrictions on Kurdish cultural practices. Likewise, Kurdish popular uprisings in the early years of the Turkish republic were brutally suppressed. The 1937-38 Dersim rebellion, is one example of the Turkish state’s heavy handedness in dealing with the issue. The Dersim uprising, led by Seyed Riza, was crushed in a brutal military campaign that killed almost 40,000 people and displaced more than 13,000 civilians. The Ararat rebellion of July 1930 also resulted in a similar response, with wide scale massacres of Kurdish civilians committed by the Turkish army to root out the insurgency. In a reaction to the Turkish state’s hostility, a group of left wing students founded the Kurdistan Workers Party in the village of Fis, southwestern Turkey. The Kurdistan Workers Party, known popularly as the PKK, sought to create an independent communist state encompassing all Kurdish lands. Almost immediately after its formation in 1978, the PKK engaged in armed clashes with Turkish security forces and later announced a full scale insurgency in August 1984.
During its infant years, the PKK relied on existing far left organisations to fill up its ranks and cooperated closely with other ethnic groups in the country. The PKK chief, Abdullah Ocalan, presented the organisation as part of the worldwide communist revolution and branded the movement as staunchly anti-capitalist. Nevertheless, the PKK ideology has evolved significantly over the decades and the organisation now demands Kurdish autonomy within the Turkish state. There exist numerous reasons behind this, including the capture and imprisonment of the PKK commander Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, but the primary impetus behind the PKK adopting a more moderate position was the devastating toll extracted on Kurdish civilians in the decades long conflict. As many as 40,000 Kurds were reported to have been killed until the PKK declared a ceasefire in March 2013 and started peace talks with the Turkish government. The ceasefire, which was preceded by months of secret negotiations, was largely successful and raised hopes for a political solution to the dispute. The ceasefire crumbled when ISIS fighters laid siege to the Kurdish city of Kobane in northern Syria, as the PKK accused the Turkish government of aiding ISIS jihadists by denying its fighters permission to cross the border and aid their besieged Kurdish brethren. The growing tension led to riots in Turkey, with dozens of Kurdish civilians killed during the government crackdown. Historical mistrust between the Kurds and the Turkish state became apparent once again in the aftermath of the July 2015 ISIS suicide bombing in Suruc. Despite the Turkish government condemning the attack and announcing an official inquiry, Kurdish groups such as the PKK held the Turkish government responsible, accusing it of hatching a conspiracy with ISIS to undermine the Kurdish cause. After months of escalation, Turkey’s bombardment of PKK positions in neighboring Iraq led to a collapse of the truce. The PKK officially cancelled the ceasefire on July 25, 2015 and resumed hostilities, with the stated goal of toppling the Erdogan-led Turkish government.
Similar to Turkey, the Kurdish movement in Iraq has a long history of conflict with the central government. Kurds comprise the largest ethnic minority in Iraq and are the single largest ethnic group in the country’s north. As opposed to Turkey, the Iraqi Kurdish struggle has been hampered by significant internal divisions as a consequence of enmity between the two major Kurdish blocs, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The Barzani clan, headed by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, has led the KDP since its inception in 1946 and the party was at the forefront of Kurdish separatist efforts in the First Iraqi-Kurdish war from September 1961-1970. The war, initiated by the Baghdad government to establish control over Kurdish lands in Iraq, ended in a stalemate. The failure of the Iraqi Army to subdue the Kurdish militias culminated in the landmark Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy accord of 1970. The agreement, which was to be implemented over a four year period, offered considerable concessions to the Kurds, including their guaranteed representation in government bodies, elevating the status of the Kurdish language as a ‘national language’ along with Arabic in Kurd majority areas and setting aside funds for the development of the Kurdish regions. Despite the agreement, Baghdad capitalised on the break in hostilities to initiate an ‘Arabisation’ programme in oil-rich Kurdish cities. Kirkuk and Khanaqin were specifically targeted, as the Iraqi government sought to alter their demographics by settling ethnic Arabs in the sensitive localities. After a period of increasingly strained relations, the peace accord collapsed in 1974, marking the start of the second Iraqi-Kurdish war. The war proved to be a success for Baghdad’s forces as they managed to re-establish authority over most of the Kurdish belt, leading to the KDP leadership fleeing east towards neighbouring Iran.
The power vacuum created in the KDP’s absence led to the establishment of a rival group, composed mainly of former KDP members. The new party, the PUK, was opposed to the KDP’s traditional tribal-based conservatism and instead adopted a radical left ideology. The PUK leadership was also highly educated, which made the movement popular amongst Iraqi Kurdistan’s urban classes and intelligentsia. The period between 1974-79 witnessed a low level insurgency campaign conducted by the PUK against Iraqi forces, before the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war reversed the fortunes of the KDP. In an effort to divert Iraqi troops, the KDP was provided significant military support by the Iranian regime to mount attacks in the Iraqi army’s rear. The war gave the KDP an opportunity to re-establish its support base in Iraqi Kurdistan but proved to be catastrophic for the Kurdish people. After years of anger and frustration over what the Iraqi regime perceived to be Kurdish treachery, Saddam Hussein ordered the start of the notorious ‘Al-Anfal’ campaign in 1986. Over the course of three years, the Iraqi army engaged in a systematic campaign of Kurdish genocide that left more than 100,000 civilians dead.
The total defeat of the Iraqi army in the Gulf war in 1991 was followed by uprisings against Saddam Hussein’s rule in the country’s Kurdish north and the southern provinces, dominated by the Shi’ites. The uprisings in the South were crushed by Saddam loyalist troops but a US-enforced no-fly zone over Iraq’s Kurdish territory meant that the region was able to achieve de facto autonomy.
With the Baghdad government’s military operations crippled because of the no-fly zone, the KDP and PUK emerged as direct competitors for the command of the Iraqi Kurd movement. The tension erupted into full scale armed conflict in May 1994 and continued till November 1997, when a US-mediated ceasefire established peace. The three year conflict outlined the extent to which Iraqi Kurdish parties were divided and dependent on external support. At the peak of the conflict, the PUK gained military backing by Iran and the Turkish PKK, the latter establishing its bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. Likewise, the KDP was propped up by the Turkish state and even collaborated with Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army to oust PUK troops from the city of Erbil. At the time of the ceasefire, the PUK occupied much of Kurdish land adjacent to the Iranian border, whereas the KDP was most influential in the north, close to the Turkish border. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the KDP and PUK have stuck to an uneasy truce . Both camps continue to compete with each other for foreign patronage and sole representation of Iraqi Kurdistan, a situation that has dented hopes for Kurdish independence.
In contrast to Turkey and Iraq, where there is significant popular support for Kurdish aspirations for an independent state, the dynamics in Iran are quite different. The Kurds are the third largest ethnic group in Iran, constituting about 10 percent of the total population and concentrated in the north-west.
The case of the Iranian Kurds is an exception because unlike other Middle East nations with a large Kurdish population, the majority of Iranian Kurds are Shi’ite Muslims. Moreover, Iranian Kurds share a collective history and culture with other Iranian demographic groups, dating back centuries. The relationship of the Iranian Kurds vis-a-vis Tehran was especially strengthened in the decades following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The Pahlavi monarchy that had ruled Iran till its collapse in 1979 had stressed notions of the country’s pre-Islamic Persian identity as official state policy, resulting in the alienation of non-Persian groups. The Islamic revolutionary regime of Ayatollah Khomeini instead attempted to forge a new nation state based entirely on the tenets of Shi’ite Islam, the religion of the majority of Iran’s population. According to Dr. Philip Kreyenbroek, Kurdish separatism in Iran does not have popular support, even though Tehran remains vehemently opposed to even the idea of Kurdish autonomy. As a consequence, there exists a split between Shi’ite and Sunni Kurds, with the latter forming the bulk of Kurdish militancy.
Sunni Kurds in Iran have led numerous uprisings against the centre, with the first prominent revolt taking place in 1946. After a series of tribal revolts in the period between the two world wars, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I) declared the short lived Republic of Mahabad in January 1946. The establishment of a Kurd state was part of a series of events regarding the 1946 Iran crisis, as Tehran emerged as one of the first battlegrounds in the initial stages of the Cold War. To offset the Allied forces who had invaded Iran in August 1941, the Soviet Union threw its weight behind Azeri and Kurdish nationalist forces, leading to the formation of two independent states in the country’s north, the Azerbaijan People’s Government and the Republic of Mahabad. Support from Moscow was crucial to the survival of the two secessionist states, who were dependent on the Soviets for significant military and financial support. Intense pressure from the Allied powers eventually forced the Soviets to reach a compromise with Tehran and withdraw troops from the north-west. Iran seized the opportunity to complete the reconquest of territory proclaimed by the Azerbaijan People’s Government, resulting in the encirclement of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. With Soviet support gone, many Kurdish tribes switched their loyalty to Tehran as Soviet assistance was a crucial impetus to their support for the Qazi Mohammad-led Mahabad government. In December 1946, Iranian troops entered Mahabad without resistance and reoccupied the region.
The next major Kurdish uprising took place in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, as the Kurds joined other ethnic minorities in protesting against the new Islamic state. The Kurdish revolt, led by the veteran KDP-I, made initial gains in the Mahabad region, before a major regime offensive succeeded in stabilising the situation. Again, the Sunni-Shi’ite divide within the Iranian Kurd movement proved to be the uprising’s undoing, as the Shi’ite Kurds stayed loyal to Tehran, thereby isolating the Sunni Kurd-led revolt. Recent decades have seen the emergence of the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), an affiliate of the Turkish PKK, which waged an insurgency against Tehran from 2004 till the declaration of a ceasefire in 2011. The PJAK states that its objectives include autonomy for the Kurds within Iran, the replacement of the Shi’ite Islamic Republic with a democracy, and self-rule for other ethnic minorities in the country. Like the KDP-I, the PJAK also draws support from Sunni Kurds and holds only fringe appeal amongst the wider Iranian Kurd population.
Kurds also form the largest ethnic minority in Syria, where as many as 2.5 million Kurds populate the northen and north-eastern regions. The bulk of the Syrian Kurd community is concentrated along the border with Turkey, and there exists an intimate relationship between the Turkish PKK and Kurdish militant groups operating inside Syria. The Syrian Ba’ath party, which has ruled Syria since a coup in 1963, has been particularly shrewd in its handling of the Syrian Kurds and had for decades managed to shift the focus of Kurdish militancy towards its geo-political rival, Turkey. While themselves engaging in a policy of Kurdish cultural and political discrimination, the Syrian Ba’ath regime under Hafez al Assad provided military hardware to the PKK and refuge for its founder Abdullah Ocalan in Damascus. Syria’s support for the PKK greatly strained its relations with its northern neighbour, culminating in a tense border standoff until Hafez al Assad expelled Abdullah Ocalan from the country and declared the PKK a terrorist organisation in 1998. Ankara continued to allege Syrian support to the PKK, even as bilateral relations improved considerably after the death of Hafez al Assad in 2000 and the ascension to power of his son, Bashar al Assad. The start of mass protests against the regime in 2011 and the security apparatus’s brutal response led to all out civil war in Syria. The protests, which initially included groups across Syria’s diverse ethnic and sectarian landscape, were spearheaded by conservative Sunni Arabs who perceived the regime as a sectarian entity dominated by the minority Alawites.
The huge influx of weapons and finances from the US, western and Arab states hostile to Bashar al Assad militarised the opposition and the ensuing civil war soon transformed into a sectarian geo-political struggle. Bashar al Assad was backed heavily by Tehran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, whereas the Sunni rebel groups were provided support by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the western powers. The regime’s military situation was precarious until Russia intervened on behalf of the Assad regime and reversed the tide of the conflict. Four years since the Russian military intervention and almost a decade since the civil war began, Sunni rebel groups appear to be on the brink of total defeat. Syria’s civil war bogged down regime armed forces in Sunni Arab localities and the near collapse of the state structure resulted in a vacuum that was exploited by radical Salafist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Amidst the chaos, Kurdish inhabited regions in Syria underwent an awakening known as the Rojava Revolution. The renaissance was driven by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and succeeded in carving out a proto state in Syria’s Kurdish regions. The PYD’s armed militia, the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), gained worldwide attention after they overcame a well armed and numerically superior ISIS force in the Battle of Kobani. The YPG victory was partly due to US air support and intelligence input, despite objections by Ankara that the US was cooperating with a group designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey. US military support to the YPG was a major factor in driving Ankara closer to the Russians, who have been steadily re-establishing their geo-political clout in the Middle East.
Turkey’s military incursion in Syria holds significant repercussions for the Kurdish movement as well as regional geo-politics. Operation Peace Spring is an indicator of Ankara’s deep relationship with Qatar, which was one of the few countries to officially support the Turkish move. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, view Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy measures as an expression of ‘neo-Ottomanism’ and stress the need for a collective Arab front to counter the threat. Doha, on the other hand, differs considerably with this approach. Qatar’s ties with its historical GCC allies went downhill when the tiny Gulf emirate insisted on a fiercely independent foreign policy, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Doha supported the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt when other GCC nations were hostile to the Islamist movement. Moreover, Qatar refused to be bullied into downgrading its cordial ties with Tehran, the GCC’s main regional rival. Another cause of concern for the GCC states has been the strengthening of military ties between Qatar and Turkey. After the GCC imposed a blockade on Qatar in 2017, one of the demands put forth included calling for Doha to end military cooperation with Ankara. The GCC blockade was met with defiance from Turkey, which deployed additional troops to Qatar and delivered emergency food supplies. Since 2017, Qatar’s military ties with Turkey have blossomed further, with the two countries holding numerous war games and starting joint training of their militaries. In a highly symbolic gesture, Qatar was the first country in the world to publicly express support for Erdogan in the hours after the failed military coup of July 15, 2016. Doha also came to Ankara’s aid in the wake of limited sanctions imposed by the US on Turkey in August 2018 by pledging $ 15 billion in aid to boost the Turkish economy. Qatar’s support for Turkey’s position against Kurdish militancy is thus another example of the two countries’ special relationship and how the Ankara-Doha alliance is offsetting the GCC’s regional grand strategy.
Events in Syria have traditionally impacted Lebanon and the effects of the Turkish move have been felt in Beirut. The Lebanese Foreign Ministry’s response to Operation Peace Spring was akin to that of the Arab League, which categorised the Turkish military drive as an act of aggression. Lebanon hosts millions of Syria’s war refugees and sectarian strife has gripped the country since the start of the Syrian civil war. Keeping in mind Lebanon’s fragile sectarian demographics and the ongoing mass government protests, its political leaders have avoided getting entangled in another regional power play. Despite Sunni political parties distancing themselves from the Turkish operation, there exists popular Lebanese Sunni support for Ankara’s military endeavours in places such as Beirut’s Dar al Fatwa neighborhood and Sunni cities in Lebanon’s underdeveloped north. The split in Lebanese society, with Shi’ite citizens still sympathetic to Hezbollah, means that Beirut would continue to fail in forging domestic consensus on foreign policy issues and remain deeply divided. In the months preceding the Turkish invasion, Iran and Russia had voiced opposition to Ankara’s plans to establish a northern Syria ‘safe zone’, but their flexible response to the start of hostilities demonstrates that the two countries are keen on addressing Turkey’s concerns. Moscow has emerged as a lucrative alternative weapons supplier for Turkey’s large military and Tehran too believes that a working relationship with Ankara is vital to secure its interests in Syria. Furthermore, with the Iranian economy in a nosedive, Tehran can ill afford alienating another major regional power.
The Kurdish movement today faces a multitude of challenges. At the peak of the Kurdish-led struggle against ISIS, it appeared as though Iraqi Kurdistan’s bid for independence in September 2017 had the potential to unleash a domino effect across the Middle East’s Kurdish community and set in motion events that would bring about the realisation of an independent state for the Kurds.
Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence but the referendum was deemed unconstitutional by the Baghdad central government. The Iraqi government then capitalised on a divided Kurdish opposition to advance into the vital oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which was captured swiftly without resistance. The fall of Kirkuk was part of a series of events when Kurdish cooperation with nation-states and ‘Great Powers’ had the effect of weakening the ultimate objective of an independent Kurdistan. In Iraq, the Kurdish militias had joined forces with the Iraqi Army to battle ISIS troops but the anti-Jihadist operations had dented the war-making capacity of the Kurdish militias and resulted in a high body count. The situation in Syria has been an identical one, where the YPG suffered significant casualties in the war against ISIS but has been coerced into submission by the international community’s muted response to Ankara’s military intervention. It is also not clear whether the formation of an independent Kurd state would put an end to the Middle East’s problems or even be beneficial to the Kurds themselves. Apart from fanning similar movements based on an ethnic basis, an independent Kurdistan would most definitely be in a state of perpetual war with states where significant Kurdish communities now exist. Only the true democratisation of the Middle East based on the ethos of multicultural pluralism can guarantee that the Kurds along with other regional minorities, such as the Yazidis and Christians, can peacefully co-exist with majoritarian groups. Democratisation is undoubtedly a gradual process, but only the transformation of authoritarian post-colonial nation states in the region into true democracies can provide all oppressed peoples with political and cultural emancipation.