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Who are the Kurds?

Chase Winter
January 24, 2018

The Kurds have advanced to a position in which they may determine the future of the Middle East. But they are riven by historic rivalries and blocked by regional powers.

Kampf um Kobane 08.11.2014
Image: picture-alliance/AA/A. Deeb

Known as the largest ethnic group without a state, some 25-35 million Kurds are spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Armenia. While sharing a broader sense of "Kurdiyeti" (Kurdishness), the Kurds have traditionally been divided by ideological, political, social and personal rivalries both within their respective states and across greater Kurdistan.

Kurdish identity, society and politics have been heavily influenced by the state-building projects of the countries within which they live. As a result, while many Kurdish nationalists may dream of a greater independent Kurdistan, Kurdish political parties' demands for greater rights and autonomy have traditionally been directed towards the states within which they live, even as Kurdish movements in one part impact those in another part.

Denied a state

At the end of World War I, the Kurds were promised a state by the victors, but the Treaty of Sevres was ultimately overturned by the new Turkish state that emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

The young Turkey faced resistance from vested powers and religious leaders in Kurdish areas keen to protect local interests in the face of the centralizing state. From the foundation of the republic in 1923 to 1938, Turkey faced 18 revolts, 16 of which involved Kurds.

After 1938, Turkey faced no Kurdish rebellion until the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) started an insurgency in 1984. While Turkey was able to control Kurdish nationalism internally -- through assimilation, co-option, divide and rule, and force -- it was unable to do the same with Kurds beyond its borders.

Infografik Kurdische Siedlungsgebiete ENG

Kurdish nationalism across the border

The Iraqi Kurds have been the pacesetters of Kurdish nationalism, fighting governments in Baghdad for most of the 20th century. After decades of war, the Iraqi Kurds gained a quasi-state in northern Iraq by riding on the heels of two US-led wars in Iraq.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has many characteristics of a state. However, KRG institutions are weak and fractured by intra-Kurdish rivalries and control over sources of patronage.

Iraqi Kurdistan has traditionally been dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of former KRG President Masoud Barzaniand the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), each of which has separate peshmerga forces. The KDP holds sway over Erbil and Dohuk, while the PUK and its reformist offshoot, Gorran (Change), are dominant in Sulaimani. The PUK, in turn, is split into at least three main factions. 

Infografik Tabelle Abkürzungen Kurdischer Gruppen ENG

Turkey's Iraqi Kurdish U-turn

Turkey looked on with concern at Iraqi Kurdish gains in northern Iraq in the 1990s and early 2000s, fearful of a knock-on effect on its own Kurdish minority and the possible dissolution of Iraq.

However, by 2007 Iraqi Kurdistan, and in particular Barzani, had been transformed from a perceived hostile actor into a Turkish ally. Turkey gained influence over the Iraqi Kurds, particularly through its heavy economic footprint. Turkey has an effective veto over any Iraqi Kurdish bid for independence and has been able to enlist the KDP against the PKK.

The Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum in September 2017, however, has strained relations between the KRG and Turkey, who coordinated a response with Iran and Iraq to thwart Kurdish ambitions.  

Türkei Erdogan & Masud Barzani, Präsident der Autonomen Region Kurdistan im Nordirak
Barzani (L) has close relations with Turkey.Image: picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency/K. Ozer

The KDP and PKK are the main rivals for leadership of the nationalist movement. The PUK and Gorran, in turn, are closer to the PKK. This web of alliances plays out in Syria. The KDP sides with Turkey against the PKK's Syrian affiliate, the PYD/YPG. The PUK and Gorran, which are closer to Iran, back the PYD.

"Iraqi Kurdish politics have been divided into different wings, and those political wings have been divided along the lines of regional political forces, particularly Iran and Turkey," Kamal Chomani, a Kurdish affairs analyst in Iraqi Kurdistan, told DW.

Turkey and the PKK

Turkish security perceptions are dominated by a myopic focus on the PKK and squashing any Kurdish drive at autonomy. Since 1984, fighting between the PKK and Turkish state has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and killed more than 40,000.

The burning conflict has added to a growing chasm between Kurds and Turkish state and society. Still, roughly half of Turkey's 15 million Kurds, especially the religious and integrated, have traditionally supported the government.

Led by imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan, who holds God-like philosopher status among supporters, the PKK is not only a guerrilla force. It is a transnational social and political movement with millions of supporters and a number of front organizations. The PKK has separate but affiliated parties and armed wings in the four parts of Kurdistan and a strong presence in the Kurdish diaspora.

Zitat Zagros Hiwa

The PKK abandoned calls for an independent Kurdish state over a decade ago and now seeks greater cultural, linguistic and political rights. In PKK parlance, the "struggle" incorporates women's rights, human rights, environmentalism, communalism, and ''democratic autonomy,'' a grassroots form of governance viewed as a model for the Middle East.

Organically separate, although sharing the same political base, the legal pro-Kurdish Peoples Democracy Party (HDP), the third largest party in the Turkish parliament, also strives for greater cultural, linguistic and political rights through constitutional and legal change. The HDP's political stance has made it the target of accusations it is a legal front for the PKK.

Since the failed coup in July 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey, several HDP parliamentarians have been arrested, more than 80 HDP mayors replaced by government trustees and thousands of HDP members arrested. 

Rise of the Syrian Kurds

The Syrian Kurds have been the most disenfranchised of all the Kurdish populations. Historically, they have also been the most quiescent.

From the 1980s to late 1990s, the PKK operated out of Syria and Lebanon with the support of Syrian President Hafiz Assad. Syria kicked out the PKK in 1998 after Turkey threatened to invade. What followed was budding relations between Ankara and Damascus until 2011, when the Syrian civil war began to rip the country apart.

Turkey backed various rebel factions, first in a bid to oust President Bashar Assad, then to counter Syrian Kurdish gains.

Led by the PYD and its armed wing, the YPG, the Syrian Kurds have sided neither with Assad nor Islamist rebel factions. In effect, they have had a tacit understanding with the regime and focused on fighting jihadist forces, particularly the "Islamic State" (IS) and Turkey-backed groups.

Syrien Al Qamishli Salah Muslim Mohamed
One of the PKK's demands is for Turkey to release Ocalan from prison.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Debets

The Syrian Kurds have created facts on the ground and carved out an autonomous zone along the Turkish border since the regime strategically withdrew from Kurdish areas in 2012.

The Kurds have been boosted by US backing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a joint Arab and Kurdish force dominated by the YPG, to fight IS on the ground in Syria. The SDF controls roughly 25 percent of Syrian territory.

Turkey's main concern is that in prioritizing the fight against IS, the United States will empower the Syrian Kurds. 

The PYD is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK. The US considers the PKK a terrorist organization, but not the PYD/YPG.

Syrien SDF Kämpfer in Raqa
A SDF fighter waves a flag after the US-backed force defeated IS in its former de facto capital, Raqqa, in Syria. Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Kilic

Turkey considers both to be terrorist organizations, leading to major tensions in relations between Washington and Ankara. 

Turkey fears Syrian Kurdish gains will embolden its own Kurdish population, strengthen the PKK, and lead to the ethnic and sectarian breakup of Syria. The combined military, political and territorial strengths of the Syrian Kurds gives them a major bargaining chip in any political solution in the country in which they demand recognition of Kurdish rights and decentralization of state power. 

Turkey seeks to prevent this development in Syria. However, by opposing the Syrian Kurds, Turkey is also alienating its own Kurdish population and exacerbating its own Kurdish problem at a time violence is spiraling since the breakdown of peace talks with the PKK in 2015.

"The Kurds of Turkey and Syria are two halves of the same apple," Mutlu Civirolgu, a Kurdish affairs analyst, told DW. "The vast majority of Kurds are sympathizing with what is happening in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan)."