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PoliticsMiddle East

Kurds in the Middle East: Why are they under fire?

November 23, 2022

A recent escalation of violence by Turkey and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has targeted Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan. As so often, the reasons for the attacks are strategic.

A burnt truck in the aftermath of airstrikes, which Turkey's defence ministry says it carried out, in Derik, Syria
Turkey has stepped up its anti-Kurdish attacks and rhetoric after a bomb attack in Istanbul on November 13Image: North Press Agency via REUTERS

The Kurds, who number about 35 million, make up the world's largest ethnic group without their own state. Most of them are concentrated in a vast territory, which is split across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia.

While they share a common ethnic identity and are predominantly Sunni Muslims, Kurds in this area do not have cross-border representatives, common policies or a joint military defense unit.

This puts them at further risk of attack from states in the region, which have their own strategic reasons for targeting the minority. DW takes a look.

Why is Turkey targeting Kurds in Syria?

In recent years, Kurds in northeast Syria have come under regular attack from Turkey, which says that it is fighting terrorism.

Last weekend, Turkey increased its offensive and launched operation "Claw Sword" against Kurdish separatists in Syria and against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, whom it holds responsible for a terrorist attack in Istanbul on November 13 that killed six people and injured more than 80.

Both the PKK and their Syrian affiliate, the Kurdish Syrian People's Protection Unit (YPG) have denied any involvement in the bombing.

After Turkish air strikes killed at least 184 Kurds, including fighters and civilians, in Syria and Iraq last weekend, the Turkish-run Anadolu news agency accused the YPG of firing rockets into the Turkish border town of Karkamis on Monday.

The agency said that at least three people were killed.

While Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider the PKK as a terrorist group, they differ on the issue of the YPG.

This ambivalence towards the Kurdish factions is particularly true for the US, as the YPG successfully joined forces with US-troops against the "Islamic State" in Syria in 2016

The same day, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped up his rhetoric. "The operation [Claw Sword] is not limited to just an air operation," he told reporters on his flight home after the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Qatar.

A military aircraft of Turkish Air Force similar to the ones that attacked Syria earlier this week
Turkish President Erdogan recently said that the strikes against Syria would not be limited to the air Image: Eren Bozkurt/AA/picture alliance

He then suggested that Turkey might launch a fourth ground offensive into Syria. It has already launched three such attacks since 2016 and now effectively controls large swaths of the border region, which is home to around 4 million, mainly Kurdish, people.

A civil war has raged in Syria since 2011. After initial major losses by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops, Syria  joined forces with Russia  in 2015 and has since won back control of the majority of the country.

The northeast, however, along with the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria, remains one of the the last remaining strongholds against al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.

Observers think that Erdogan might be planning an offensive to force the Kurdish inhabitants of the region further from the border in order to clear territory to resettle Syrian refugees who originally fled the war in Syria.

This move could address the rising resentment towards Syrian refugees in Turkey, which has contributed to Erdogan's decreasing popularity at home, amid an economic crisis, ahead of next year's presidential election

Why is Turkey targeting Kurds in Iraq?

Turkey's 'Claw Sword' air raids on Iraq last weekend focused on the Qandil mountain region on the Iraq-Iran border, which is said to be home to the PKK's headquarters. 

According to Iraqi Kurdish officials, more than 30 PKK militants were killed in 25 air raids.

The US criticized the raids: "We continue to oppose any uncoordinated military action in Iraq that violates Iraq's sovereignty," Ned Price, spokesman for the US Department of State, said in a statement.

Why is Iran targeting Kurds in Iraq?

On Monday, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also increased its attacks on what it described as the "headquarters and centers of conspiracy, establishment, training and organization of anti-Iranian separatist groups," in a statement.

According to the semi-official Tasnim News Agency website, 26 people were killed.

Tehran blames the exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition in the Iraqi semi-autonomous Kurdish border region, also called Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), for the ongoing protests in the country, which were sparked by the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, who had reportedly not been wearing "suitable" attire.

The initial protests against the authorities have turned into a wider movement calling for human rights and women's rights in particular, as well as regime change, with Kurdish cities leading the charge. The Iranian regime has reacted with a brutal crackdown on the protesters.

Some Kurds have fled to Iraq from Iran. But very few experts believe that the protests are being organized from Iraq as some Iranians have maintained.

Edited by: Anne Thomas

Iran protests: When will Tehran listen?

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa