Immediately following Donald Trump’s October decision to pull US troops out of Syria and seemingly abandon the Kurdish people, the Turkish military launched an invasion into northern Syria, where the Syrian Democratic Forces, an organization led by the majority Kurdish group, have acquired land for themselves. Turkey’s stated objective is to establish a “safe zone,” along the Turkish-Syrian Border, however their main objective is to remove the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, which is the largest Kurdish militia in Syria, who Turkey calls an extension of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, a terrorist organization.
The situation is clearly complex, so in order to understand what is happening in the Middle East, we need to understand who Turkey is targeting: the Kurds.
The Kurdish people are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. They live in the mountains of the Middle-East across four different countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and have most likely existed for millennia under different names. The Kurds aren’t a unified people however and fight for a multitude of different ideologies, goals and purposes. These range from Jihadist groups looking to create their own caliphate, Marxist-Leninist groups fighting for autonomy and their way of life, and those who just want more representation within their host nations and to be able to teach their culture and language.
Every Kurdish group fights for similar end goals: being allowed to practice and represent themselves in public, but that’s where their similarities end and the divisions begin.
In Turkey, the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, have been in a decades-long insurgency against the Turks. This group with more communist leanings was formed in the 1970s by Abdullah Öcalan to set up a sovereign Kurdish state. Obviously, the Turks would not allow a sizeable chunk of their land and population to secede so the PKK launched their resistance in the 1980s. The actions of the PKK and the Turkish government have caused the deaths of roughly 40,000 people, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds, and the destruction of thousands of villages. Currently, PKK has been named a terrorist group by Turkey and the US and has become focused less on outright independence and more on regional autonomy and equality.
In Syria, a Kurdish group called the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, was formed as a branch of the previously mentioned PKK in 2003, but instead, fighting for autonomy in Syria. It has an armed militia, the People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, which it uses as a military force. It is thought to number in the tens of thousands. However, with the Syrian Civil War and the sudden and quick rise of ISIS, the Kurds looked for allies in for their cause and, in 2015, formed an alliance with Arab, Turkmen and Armenian militias and created the Syrian Democratic Forces. The main objectives of the group was to fight and defeat the Islamic State, and with the help of US funding and aid, they successfully ended territorial rule of the IS. Now that the mainly Kurdish-led organization controls nearly a quarter of Syria, they have decided to switch their goals from defeating ISIS to creating a democratic and decentralised Syrian state and are currently in opposition to Assad’s government. However, with the start of Operation Peace Spring, they decided to work with Assad to defend against the Turkish invasion.
In Iraq, the Kurdish Democratic Party or KDP, are one of the oldest Kurdish political groups active today. They control the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan and are currently led by President Masoud Barzani, the son of the founder, Mustafa Barzani. The party was founded back in 1946, when, after the fall of the short-lived Republic of Mahabad, contact with many of the branches were cut off and a large amount of the Mahabadi officer corps, along with Barzani, fled to Iraq to evade capture. There they established a powerbase and were initially offered autonomy, but Barzani refused and launched a guerilla war which ended in a ceasefire after 10 years. Then in 1974, Iraq made it clear that the Kurds would get their autonomy. Iraqi Kurds had now gained a relatively peaceful existence all the way until the rise of ISIS. The Kurds assisted Iraq and America in that fight, using their militia, the Peshmerga, and gaining control over a large amount of territory previously owned by Iraq. But after the defeat of ISIS in 2017, the Kurds called for a referendum of independence, which backfired and caused the Iraqi army to push into and retake territory occupied by the KDP. Now in 2019, the KDP is seemingly at peace and even prospering in Iraq, being the only group to have pretty much achieved their goals of autonomy, if not outright independence.
The Kurds while united in culture, language, and ethnicity, are now more divided than ever. From the start of the first modern political party, the KDP, to now, the differences in ideologies, allies and enemies have split and weakened the Kurdish people. With all the conflicting factions, it will be hard for the Kurds to unite under one banner and fight, which works to the benefits of their enemies. While they have managed to carve out their own autonomous region in Syria, it is currently under constant threat from Turkey to its northern border. In this fractured state, it may be a long time before we see the Kurds get anything meaningful in Syria and Turkey.