A Kurdish Nation State? It Might Still Be A While

With an estimated population of 35 million, Kurdish people remain the world’s largest ethnic group without a set of recognized boundaries inside which to call home. Since the European-influenced division of the Middle East after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which neglected to set aside territory for the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle Eastern region, Kurds have struggled as a minority in at least four countries while partaking in a seemingly futile struggle for statehood. Today, Kurds claim sizeable portions of Turkey, Northern Syria, Iraq and Western Iran as their homeland. All attempts to establish an autonomous Kurdish republic have been met with severe backlash by other nations involved, usually with conflict and high death tolls.

Although today’s Kurds are spread as far as Turkey and the Mediterranean, their lineage is traced back to Iranian shepherds who travelled west. But despite the common ancestry, Kurds have diverged into a number of separate groups which have developed distinct variances between one another, depending on the country in which the Kurdish group resides. Nowadays, the Kurds play a critical role in the current ISIL crisis, particularly in Syria where their experience on the ground has helped them become the most effective ally of the West in the fight against terrorism.

Kurds in Turkey  

Turkish Kurds have been oppressed since the birth of modern Turkey. Throughout the last century, Kurdish secessionist movements have been brutally opposed by the government and anti-Kurd policies enforced decades ago are recognized to this day. Bans were imposed on Kurdish language and cultural practices, despite around 20% of the nation’s population identifying as Kurdish. In Turkey, Kurds are known as “Mountain Turks”. Kurdish uprisings in Turkey have historically resulted in swift government retaliation, and deaths seen in the previous century of Kurdish-Turkish conflict surpass 100,000. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) was established in Turkey in 1978 by Kurdish leaders to fight for a self-governing, socialist Kurdistan occupying the Anatolian plains. The PPK is today seen as a terrorist group by Turkey and is hated by the government.

There is a denialist, anti-Kurd rhetoric in Turkey. Statements such as “Kurds are simply a branch of the Turks” or “Everyone in Turkey is a Turk” or even “Kurds do not exist” are generally accepted anti-Kurd arguments and are used to minimize the presence and plight of the people group. This fuels the prevailing anti-Kurd sentiment, which does not seem to weaken among ethnic Turks.

Turkey is criticized for shrugging off large-scale human rights breaches. In addition it is clear that the historical narrative of Turkey by Turkish and Western scholars are at odds with each other about events such as the Armenian genocide and the “Turkification” of Cyprus. The acceptance of Kurds could be added to this list, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan deflating Turkey’s crimes against Kurds, stating in January: “Turkey has no Kurdish problem but only a terrorism problem.” The President’s argument could be supported Kurdish splinter activity such as TAK, who was reported to have set off a bomb in Istanbul in June, killing eleven.

Kurds in Syria

Syrian Kurds have a similarly disheartening story. Currently the largest ethnic minority in Syria, many have been stripped of their Syrian citizenship and, like their Turkish counterparts, hold less rights than the Syrian Arab majority. But amidst the tangle of Syria’s civil war, the ISIL threat and Turkey’s intervention, Syrian Kurds have begun to solidify the autonomous northern Syrian region of Rojava. This de facto state is controlled by PYD and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), comprised of ethnically mixed militias. Theoretically, Rojava covers borderland along the Syrian side of the Turkey border, from the PYD controlled canton Afrin, stretching to Manbij and capital Al-Qamishli in the far eastern corner of Syria.

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the PYD’s militant arm YPG has gained notoriety by providing Western forces ground support against ISIL, which it has begun seeing relative success. Because of this, new allies have been created in the West. However, larger and stronger Turkish forces would not consider fighting alongside each other despite YPG having clear regional strengths against ISIL. In fact, Turkey sees no real difference between Syrian Kurds and their own, viewing both groups as terrorists.

In August, Turkey began “Operation Euphrates Shield”, aimed at keeping a controlled zone which would act as a buffer between the border and ISIL territory, and forcing the SDF to stay on the Eastern side of the Euphrates. Turkey advised the US to strictly prohibit the YPG from crossing the Euphrates. After the SDF disobeyed the request and advanced, US threatened to cut supplies to Kurdish forces. The SDF retreated, and Turkey’s interests were met. Turkish forces were able to strengthen a partition in the strip of land that connects Afrin Canton with the rest of Rojava, consolidating Afrin as an enclave. This political manipulation set Kurdish forces back and reveals the complex, delicate web of relations in the region. Finally, Ankara openly admitted that the offensive was as much against Kurdish forces as ISIL.

The tract of land that Turkey currently occupies in Syria is coveted by Syria’s Kurds—full Kurdish control over it will strengthen the security of the region and protect the predominately Kurdish Afrin Canton. It will also strengthen cross-border relations with Turkish Kurds. Unfortunately, Turkey has extended its reach to Al-Bab—a real threat to both ISIL and Kurds. As Turkey pushes in the direction of Aleppo and western Syria, and begins to claim Kurdish land, intentions will be clear—not forgetting of course, that Turkey still views the YPG as terrorists. This quagmire also still involves the US and Russia—on one hand, the US wants to keep relations diplomatic with Turkey. But the US also needs to rely on YPG to fight a weakening and erratic ISIL. However, if Turkey reaches too far, the West will be forced to step in, as indicated by an existing international frustration to Turkey’s forcefulness in targeting YPG and SDF over the last month. With Russia entering the picture, Turkey may find a partner in the superpower, despite tense relations after shooting down a Russian aircraft last year.

It is clear that the Syrian crisis is reaching new levels of international involvement. Discussions and decisions made between nations involved must evaluate the effectiveness of Turkey’s further actions in the region. With Syria’s Kurds strengthening Rojava and Turkey unwilling to share its border with “terrorists”, a ceasefire or treaty must be instigated. US’s involvement should continue in support of Kurds. Turkey and allies would be a powerful force against the already oppressed Kurds, and whispers of Turkish pushing across the Euphrates and into the east will continue to stir up violence in the Northern Syrian region. And what will become of the Kurds once ISIL is defeated, the West retreats and tensions of the Syrian civil war and Turkish intervention remain?