The Kurds Story

Who are Kurds: A largely Sunni Muslim people with their own language and culture. The Kurds are one of the indigenous people of the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands in what are now south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and south-western Armenia. The Kurds are often called the world’s largest nation without a state.

Why don’t they have a state: In the early 20th Century, many Kurds began to consider the creation of a homeland – generally referred to as “Kurdistan”. After World War One and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies made provision for a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres.

Such hopes were dashed three years later, however, when the Treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of modern Turkey, made no provision for a Kurdish state and left Kurds with minority status in their respective countries. Over the next 80 years, any move by Kurds to set up an independent state was brutally quashed.

In America’s dealings with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, Iraq’s Kurds have been a tragic side show. For decades, they looked to the U.S. for support in their struggle against Saddam’s government. Washington’s response has been classic realpolitik – using the Kurds when it wanted to hurt Saddam and then dropping them when their usefulness had run out.

Their Population Strength:

In Iraq: Overall, Arabs represent 78% of Iraq’s population, while Kurds are 16% and other, smaller ethnic groups constitute the remainder

In Turkey: There is deep-seated hostility between the Turkish state and the country’s Kurds, who constitute 15% to 20% of the population.

In Syria: Kurds make up between 7% and 10% of Syria’s population. Before the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011 most lived in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and in three, non-contiguous areas around Kobane.

Their Struggle in Iraq:

There are two parties in Iraq:

  • Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and
  • Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The two parties co-operated with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein and have participated in all national governments formed since then. They have also governed in coalition in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), created in 2005 to administer the three provinces of Dohuk, Irbil and Sulaimaniya, and sought to maximise Kurdish autonomy by building a pipeline to Turkey and exporting oil independently.

After IS captured large parts of northern Iraq in 2014, the KRG sent the Peshmerga (Fighting arm of Iraqi Kurds) into disputed areas claimed by the Kurds and the central government, and then asked the Kurdish parliament to plan a referendum on independence.

In February 2016, Massoud Barzani – who became president of Kurdistan in 2005 – reiterated the call for a referendum. However, he stressed that it would be non-binding and would simply allow Kurdish leaders to “execute the will of the people at the appropriate time and conditions”.


Their Struggle in Turkey:

There two parties of Kurds in Turkey:  Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), a largely Kurdish party with seats in the national parliament but without the PKK’s mass base. Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a radical group fighting for Independence from Turkey.

In 1978, Abdullah Ocalan established the PKK, which called for an independent state within Turkey. Six years later, the group began an armed struggle. Since then, more than 40,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

In the 1990s the PKK rolled back on its demand for independence, calling instead for greater cultural and political autonomy, but continued to fight. In 2012, the government and PKK began peace talks and the following year a ceasefire was agreed, although clashes continued.

The ceasefire collapsed in July 2015, days after a suicide bombing blamed on IS killed 33 young activists in the mainly Kurdish town of Suruc, near the Syrian border. The PKK responded by attacking Turkish soldiers and police, and the Turkish government launched what it called a “synchronised war on terror” against the PKK and IS. Since then, hundreds of people have been killed in clashes in south-eastern Turkey and in air strikes on PKK camps in northern Iraq.

Why are Kurds at the forefront of the fight against IS?

In mid-2013, IS turned its sights on three Kurdish enclaves that bordered its territory in northern Syria. It launched repeated attacks that until mid-2014 were repelled by the Popular Protection Units (YPG) – the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD). The turning point was an offensive in Iraq in June 2014 that saw IS overrun the northern city of Mosul, routing Iraqi army divisions and seizing weaponry later moved to Syria.

Alarmed by the IS advance and the threat of genocide against the Yazidis(Iraqi Kurds) fleeing Sinjar, a US-led multinational coalition launched air strikes in northern Iraq and sent military advisers to help the Peshmerga. The YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), previously active in Turkey, also came to their aid.

Although the IS advance on Kurdish territory in Iraq was eventually halted by the Peshmerga and their allies, it did not stop trying to capture the Kurdish enclaves in Syria. In mid-September 2014, IS launched an assault on the enclave around the northern town of Kobane, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee across the nearby Turkish border.

Despite the proximity of the fighting and the threat posed by IS, Turkey refused to attack the jihadist group’s positions near the border or allow Turkish Kurds to cross to defend it, triggering Kurdish protests. In October, Ankara partially relented and agreed to allow Peshmerga fighters to join the battle for Kobane, after US-led air strikes helped halt the IS advance.

Fighting under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the YPG has emerged as a key ally of the US-led coalition, which considers it one of the few effective partners on the ground in Syria.

What does the international community say?

The PKK is officially considered a terrorist organisation by the EU and the US but Turkey has failed to convince its Western allies to regard the YPG likewise.

The US state department and Pentagon have in the past pressed Turkey to stop shelling the YPG and urged Syrian Kurds not to expand their areas of operation.

The EU has also called on Turkey to stop shelling Syrian territory and refrain from further complicating the efforts of world powers to halt the hostilities.

The UN has urged Turkey to comply with international law in Syria.

Turkey’s Dangerous Moves

Turkey and the other regional powers in West Asia, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran, have been active players (by providing ammunition and money to the rebels who are fighting against the Assad regime) in the Syrian conflict since 2011, but this is the first time one of them(Turkey) has sent its army into Syria to join combat. Turkey says the move is to fight the Islamic State. But there is little doubt that the real target of the Turkish forces are the Kurdish militias.

Over the last few years, Turkey had largely ignored IS activities on the Syrian side of the border. The IS had been active in Jarabulus(the border town) since 2013, and used the town as a key supply route for men and materials. Turkey moved into action only after the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces recaptured Manbij, another town close to the border, from the IS. After taking positions in Manbij, Kurdish rebels had moved towards Jarabulus. If Kurds seize Jarabulus as well, it would allow them unprecedented control over the Syrian-Turkish border region and also cut Turkey off from the last remaining cross-border supply routes.

Within days of Turkey rolling its tanks into Syria, Turkey declared that it had cleared the border town of Jarabulus of IS fighters. After taking control of Jarabulus, Turkish aircraft and ground troops started attacking Kurdish positions in Manbij, demanding that they retreat to the east of the Euphrates(deep East of Iraq and Iran).

Why Turkey aggressively pursuing, now?

  1. If it loses cross-border access to Syria, the Ankara-backed rebels would be in a weaker position in the Syrian civil war, which would in turn jeopardise Turkey’s plans for a future Syria.
  2. If Kurdish militias are allowed to further consolidate in the semi-autonomous Syrian Kurdistan, that would pose a direct strategic threat to Turkey, given the Syrian Kurds’ deep ties with their Turkish counterparts who are at war with Ankara. So Turkey wants to rupture the Kurdish momentum.

Given their recent battle history, Kurds won’t give up their position easily. This means that if Turkey persists with its operation, the border towns could witness another spell of war, while making the task of resolving the Syrian conflict more difficult.