Kurdish Fight for Independence


Overview

The Kurdish people are an ethnic group native to western Asia whose population of around 30 million people is divided chiefly between four Middle Eastern countries – Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. Having been split between the Ottoman Empire and a succession of Iranian dynasties throughout the early modern period, the end of the First World War and the resultant dissolution of the former entity presented a unique opportunity for the realisation of Kurdish independence. This chance looked set to be taken when, in 1920, the victorious allied powers met with the defeated central powers in the Parisian commune of Sèvres to discuss the post-war settlement and division of the Ottoman territories. The proposed settlement, signed by all parties (including representatives of the Ottoman Empire), stipulated for the ceding of large swathes of Ottoman land to the Allied administration together with the creation of a sovereign Kurdish entity in the former Empire’s east. This entity would include only those Kurds currently living in what is modern day Turkey – Iraqi and Syrian Kurds would be included within British and French Mandates.

Nevertheless, this proposed autonomy was never to be realised. The terms outlined in the Treaty of Sèvres provoked the ire of Turkish nationalists, instigating what would later become known as the Turkish War of Independence. The nationalists’ victory saw the recapture of much of the land of which it would have been stripped by the settlement of Sèvres, including Kurdistan. The final settlement, reached by the Treaty of Lausanne three years later, had no room for an independent Kurdish entity after the region’s recapture by the forces of Kemal Atatürk. The Kurds in the east of what was formerly the Ottoman Empire would be subsumed into the Republic of Turkey, declared in October 1923, while those further south were split between the British Mandate for Mesopotamia and the French Mandate for Syria.

The Kurdish desire for independence began in earnest largely as a reaction to the Turkish ethno-nationalism which had become increasingly prevalent throughout the First World War and in its aftermath, expressing itself most tragically in the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian Genocides. During the war, over half a million Kurds had been displaced by Turkish military forces, partly with a view to frustrating their political unity. Several Kurdish agitations against Turkish rule ensued throughout the 1920s, culminating in the brief declaration of the Republic of Ararat in October 1927 – an entity which would only last for three years before being defeated by Atatürk’s forces (a similarly short-lived Kingdom of Kurdistan existed from 1922-24 in what is present-day Iraq, before the British defeated its forces and included the territory within its Mesopotamian Mandate). Continued revolts against Turkish rule throughout the 1930s led to the declaration of martial law and further displacement of Kurds before, during the 1950s, Kurdish parties began to integrate themselves into the Turkish political system. It was at this time, in 1946, that the Kurdistan Democratic Party – which would come to dominate Iraqi Kurdish politics from the 1990s onwards – was founded in Mahabad in Iran.

With increasing prohibitions placed on Kurdish communities and enforced resettlement in both Turkey and Iraq after the Second World War, Kurdish nationalism grew more prominent throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In the former, this culminated in the founding by Abdullah Ocalan of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978, which raged a prolonged guerrilla war against the Turkish state from 1984 until Ocalan’s capture in 1999. In the latter, after continual strife throughout the 1960s produced a peace agreement ostensibly granting greater autonomy to Kurds, it seemed that similar conflict could be avoided. However, the failure to implement this agreement and its replacement with a weaker Law of Autonomy in 1974 reignited tensions. After the Iran-Iraq War erupted the following decade, the Iraqi army would soon turn brutally against its Kurdish citizens, displacing them, sending them to detention camps, and using chemical weapons against them. Eventually, autonomy would be realised in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) following the First Gulf War in 1991. A brief intra-Kurdish civil war would follow between the two parties administering this region – the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – before reconciliation was achieved.

The KRI remains the only legally mandated autonomous Kurdish region in the world having been recognised as such in the 2005 Iraqi constitution which followed the Anglo-American invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein. Since 2012, de facto autonomy has also existed for Rojava in Syria – a region with a substantial Kurdish population – since being established during fighting against the Syrian government and ISIL during the country’s ongoing civil war. Despite low-level guerrilla warfare being waged by a secessionist Kurdish group in western Iran since 2004, the relationship between Kurds and their central government here has been much more cordial (although there is still a considerable desire for greater autonomy). Tensions between the government and the Kurds continue in Turkey, as do concerns that Iraq could face further disruption in the wake of a 2017 Independence Referendum which demonstrated an overwhelming desire within the KRI to secede.

Facts

Where:
Kurdistan (crossing borders of Turkey, Iran , Iraq, Syria, Armenia)

Population: 36.4 million

Deaths: 500,000

Displaced Peoples: 40,000

Key Actors

Hosts the largest Kurdish population in the Middle East with 25% of the population being Kurdish (estimated at 14 to 20 million). Turkey in 1934 tried to rid its population of Kurds.  Ever since, Kurds have been marginalized and the PKK was formed in opposition to the population’s marginalization. Turkey has conducted numerous military operations, with the help of the US and the EU, to defeat the PKK. This conflict shows no signs of abating, as recent engagements by Turkey have re-ignited decades’ old tensions. 

Founded in 1974 by a group of students, the PKK is the primary Kurdish rebel group. They have carried out numerous attacks in Turkey with the hope of creating an independent Kurdish state. They have been in conflict with the Turkish state since 1984, with brief ceasefires in the early 2000s and mid 2010s. They are listed as a terrorist group by the US and EU.

Formed in 2011, the YPG is a primarily Kurdish militia that was formed to defend areas of Kurdistan that lie in Syria. The YPG fought against al-Qaeda and ISIS along with the Free Syrian Army to keep Syrian Kurds safe. Some western sources have described the YPG as the “most effective” force fighting ISIS in Syria.

Oppose the PKK, labelling them a terrorist organisation. The US sent troops to repel the PKK during the second insurgency.

However, the US had a close relationship with the YPG, as they were fighting ISIS effectively. The YPG was abandoned by the US in 2019 after US troops were suddenly withdrawn. This withdrawal allowed Turkish forces to begin attacks on YPG positions.

The EU’s relationship with Kurdish peoples is complicated by Turkey’s regional importance. This leads the EU to act with caution and generally avoid interfering in what it considers Turkey’s internal affairs.

Northern Iraq was where the majority of PKK forces moved in 2006-2007 to flee from the threat of Turkish forces. In northern Iraq the PKK grew. In 2016, the Iraqi government pledged to help Turkey by cracking down on the PKK and PKK-affiliated groups.

Kurds comprise roughly 10% of Iran’s population. Iran is implacably opposed to Kurdish separatism. It is not as harsh as Turkey in opposing and suppressing Kurdish activists. There are low-level skirmishes between Iranian forces and forces loyal to the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) –  a group of Kurdish Guerrillas based in Iran. Generally, Iran has kept clear of much of the recent conflict, with those aforementioned skirmishes occurring in 2016.

In Syria, Kurds compromise between 7-10% of the population. Currently, the North Eastern region of Syria is self-governed by Kurds. This self-governing area came under attack by Turkish forces once the US withdrew its military from the region in 2019. Successive Syrian governments have had a poor human rights record when dealing with Kurdish peoples.

In 2019, Israel supported Syrian Kurds against the Turkish attack on their autonomous region, seeing the Kurds as a counterweight to Iranian influence. There are rumours of a long-standing relationship between Kurds and Israel, as Israel sees the minority group as aligned with its interests.

Deeply adversarial towards Kurdish militias. A variety of Kurdish militias, namely the YPG, engaged in direct combat against ISIS in Syria and surrounding regions and were widely considered to be among the most effective forces in this conflict. This led to US support for Kurdish militias, as the US saw these groups as the best way to defeat ISIS without intervening more directly in the region. Once the threat from ISIS waned, US support disappeared, and President Trump withdrew his country’s troops in 2019.

Timeline

The HEP is banned by the constitutional court of Turkey, limiting Kurdish representation. The court claimed that the HEP conducted actions that was against the Turkish constitution.

Turkey and Iran sign an agreement in order to tighten border control and prevent Kurdish rebels from illegally roaming across borders.

Turkey was largely violence free for 5 years. Pro-Kurdish party, HADEP, is able to win a sizeable amount of seats in the Turkish government.

Two Kurdish political parties, the Democratic Union Party and the Kurdish National Council form the YPG in order to protect Kurds in Syria

YPG defend Syrian Kurdistan from Al-Qaeda

YPG joins forces with the Free Syrian Army in order to battle ISIS

YPG engaged in further offensive attacks on ISIS with the monetary and military support of the United States

Turkey will carry out an operation east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria, in an area controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday.

Tehran said it would internationally recognize three border crossings between the Kurdistan Region and Iran for trade and tourism.

Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria say their forces have started to withdraw from outposts along the Turkish border after the United States and Turkey reached a deal to establish a “safe zone” there earlier this month.

Turkey will launch its own operation to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria if talks with the United States fail to give Turkish troops control of the area “within a few weeks”, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said.

The President of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Masoud Barzani, has called on his party deputies in the Iraqi Parliament to defend the interests of the people of Kurdistan. Barzani on Sunday received a delegation from the Iraqi Council of Representatives which consisted of KDP members in the Iraqi government.

Political concerns among Kurds and Turkmens in Iraq may impede the country’s census, set to be held by late 2020, especially in the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Iraq’s last population census in 1997 put the country’s population at 16 million, excluding Iraqi Kurdistan. It was estimated there were 3 million Kurds. Those figures are now out of date, and the real population unknown.

U.S. President Donald Trump has given Turkish President Erodgan the greenlight to begin a military operation in northern Syria and create a safe zone” in the area by withdrawing U.S. troops from the area, in a statement released on twitter. The area is currently controlled by the Kurdish forces and their allies, and is home to the ethnic Kurdish population.

Turkey’s army has launched an offensive in northern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Wednesday, as part of an operation to move US-backed Kurdish forces away from its border.

The Syrian army has begun deploying its troops to northern Syria battlefronts to “confront a Turkish aggression” on Syrian territory, after the Kurds asked the Syrian government in Damascus for support.

The United States is poised to withdraw some 1,000 troops from northern Syria, its defense secretary said on Sunday, after learning that Turkey planned to extend its military incursion against Kurdish militia further south than originally planned.

Turkish forces approached a key Kurdish-held town in northern Syria on Sunday, setting off clashes that allowed hundreds of ISIS supporters to escape from a camp for displaced people near a U.S.-led coalition base.

Germany and France said Saturday they would not export any more weapons to Turkey that could be deployed in the country’s military operation in Syria.

Washington and Ankara have agreed on a five-day ceasefire in Turkey’s attacks on Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria. The U.S. said Ankara would pause its offensive, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, for 120 hours in order to allow the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG) to pull 30km back from the Turkey-Syria border.

A senior Syrian Kurdish official has said his forces will pull back from a border area in accordance with a US-brokered deal after Turkey allows the evacuation of its remaining fighters and civilians from a besieged town in northeast Syria.

Russia has warned Kurdish forces to quickly withdraw from the Turkey-Syria border – after a deal between Moscow and Ankara – or be crushed by the Turkish army, adding that the United States had “betrayed and abandoned” the Syrian fighters.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have not fully withdrawn from the Syria-Turkey border territory as agreed in a Russia-brokered accord, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said, as Turkey prepares to discuss its next steps with Russia.

One-hundred-and-fifty delegates representing Syria’s government, opposition and various sectors of civil society are meeting in Geneva to try to draft a new constitution. The UN says the talks will be “Syrian-owned and Syrian-led”, and could pave the way for reforms and elections. It suggests they might, eventually, lead to peace negotiations.

Russia and Turkey on Friday began jointly patrolling north-eastern Syria after a deal that stopped Turkey’s military offensive in the region and forced the withdrawal of Kurdish forces.

At least 13 people were killed by a car bomb in the northern Syrian border town of Tal Abyad, Turkish authorities said.

United States Vice President Mike Pence has arrived in Iraq on an unannounced visit to US troops at the al-Asad airbase in Anbar province in the western part of the country rocked by weeks of anti-government protests.

Pence, on his first visit to Iraq, on Saturday also spoke on the phone with the embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and met the president of the autonomous Kurdistan region, Nerchirvan Barzani, in Erbil. According to a source at the premier’s office, the phone call involved a discussion around ways to strengthen bilateral relations between the US and Iraq, and possible solutions to the current crisis in the oil-rich country.

Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has reached an agreement with Baghdad on the budget and oil, which includes providing Baghdad 250,000 barrels of oil per day for the first time since 2014, said the region’s finance minister on Thursday in a conference.

Mazloum Kobani, commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has expressed the group’s readiness for dialogue with Turkey.

Iraq’s Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi is set to announce his new government, but he has not consulted major Kurdish and Sunni parties about the formation of his cabinet. Kurdish and Sunni leaders met to call for an Iraqi government which is representative of Iraq’s culturally diverse population.

In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), a dispute between the Sur Gas Company and Golden Jaguar – each aligned to opposing factions in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) – leaves many in the region without gas for cooking or heating as temperatures drop below zero. Public anger leads to some anti-corruption protests across the region.

Nine people are killed in a terrorist attack carried out by white supremacist Tobias R in the German city of Hanau. The 43-year-old strikes two shisha lounges frequented by Turkish and Kurdish communities, who number among the victims.

A report commissioned by the UN finds that rebels allied to Turkey committed abuses in Kurdish-held areas of Syria which could see Turkish commanders held liable for war crimes.

As 80 cases of Covid-19 are confirmed across Iraq, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq scraps Friday prayers in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus.

The Turkish defence ministry attributes the deaths of two soldiers to mortar attacks allegedly carried out by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Turkey boasts of “neutralising” PKK targets in retaliation.

US-led forces pull out of K1 airbase from which they had been launching attacks on ISIL forces and Iranian-backed militias. The surrounding area remains disputed territory between the Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdish region.

The director of the National Iranian Gas Company, Medhi Jamshidi-Dana, accuses activists from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of carrying out a “terrorist attack” on a gas pipeline inside Turkey, halting gas exports to the country from Iran.

After rejecting the candidacy of Adnan al-Zurfi, Nechirvan Barzani – the president of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq – confirmed his backing for Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

In the Kurdish-run areas of north-east Syria, medical personnel are forced to fashion protective gear out of rubbish bags amid a shortage in supplies. The provision of UN shipments via Iraq had previously been vetoed by Russia.

A fuel truck explosion in the Turkish-controlled northern Syrian town of Afrin claims the lives of at least 46 people. The Turkish government blames the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) for the attack. 

Turkish warplanes launch a series of strikes against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) strongholds in northern Iraq. More than 80 sites are hit, drawing condemnation from Iraq’s Joint Operations Command which condemned the strikes as “provocative”.

Turkish fighter jets continue to bomb Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq and claim to have hit more than 500 of their targets in the country. Iraq has called upon Ankara to stop violating its sovereignty and bring an end to the strikes immediately.

A Kurdish shepherd has been revealed as the first known casualty of Turkey’s air strikes against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq. Turkey’s “Operation Claw-Tiger” has ostensibly been launched in response to increased cross-border terrorist activity by the PKK. Iraq has condemned the actions.

One is killed and 6 wounded as a Turkish air strike hits a car in northern Iraq. The strikes are part of the continuing operation ‘Claw-Tiger’ purportedly targeting Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in the region. At least 5 civilians and 3 soldiers have so far been killed during the operation.

The Turkish defence ministry confirms the death of a soldier during clashes with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) forces in northern Iraq. The death comes following days of heavy aerial bombardment of the area by Turkey in an operation dubbed “Claw-Tiger”.

Three Kudistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters are killed by Turkish jets in northern Iraq, according to a statement released by the Turkish defence ministry. Military equipment belonging to the group is also purportedly destroyed.

The Turkish-held Syrian town of Ras al-Ain is hit by an explosion at a vegetable market. The blast kills 8 people and wounds a further 19, with Turkey’s defence ministry blaming the attack on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

A car bomb targeting a checkpoint operated by forces supported by the Turkish government results in the deaths of five people in north-eastern Syria. The bombing in the village of Tal Halaf leaves a further 12 people wounded, with Turkish officials suggesting Syrian Kurdish fighters may have been responsible for the blast.

The Syrian government has accused the US of trying to steal its oil, after one of its oil companies signed an agreement with the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Statements in recent days indicate the US government was both aware and in favour of the deal, which Syrian officials have described as “without legal basis”.

The Iraqi army has claimed that a Turkish drone strike has killed two border guard battalion commanders in the Bradost area of northern Iraq. The strikes form part of a weeks’ long raid on the area, which is intended to stifle Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militiamen who allegedly operate in the area.

Iraq has responded angrily to the apparent violation of its sovereignty by Turkish military forces attacking Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in the north of the country, which saw two high-ranking Iraqi military officers killed in a drone strike. Iraqi officials are set to provide the ambassador with a letter of protest and will no longer welcome the Turkish defence minister for a scheduled visit later in the week.

Turkey vows to continue its assaults against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq, despite heightened tensions over the violation of its neighbour’s sovereignty. Turkish officials have remained defiant, claiming it is Baghdad’s duty to deal with the “terrorist threat” represented by the PKK’s presence in the country.

How can you help?

Due to the plethora of displaced Kurds, organizations like the Centre for Kurdish Progress and the Kurdish Human Rights watch have been cardinal in helping provide resources to Kurdish refugees. The former helps advocate for Kurds in various countries, helping legitimize their struggles, while the latter assists in providing economic assistance to displaced Kurds.

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