The predicament of Turkey and the Kurds

Map of historic Kurdistan superimposed on today’s Middle East
Most Kurds live in the historic Kurdistan – which lies within the borders of today’s states of the Middle East region (source: macpixxel for GIS)

This is a new editorial offering of GIS, an expanded viewpoint essay by our founder, Prince Michael of Liechtenstein and some of our other top experts. Look for these on most Fridays.

The Kurds live mostly in northern parts of Iraq, Syria and Iran, and in eastern Turkey. Until the end of World War l, most Kurds lived in the Ottoman Empire. Throughout history, the Kurds rarely had a state of their own and their diaspora constantly lacked unity. These conditions seem hard to change.

Lately, however, Kurds have created a functional state, with its capital in Erbil, in their autonomous zone in northern Iraq. This state is not yet recognized by Baghdad and the international community, but it enjoys a high degree of autonomy. The Iraqi Kurds have been a leading force in the fight against Daesh (a terror group also known as Islamic State, or ISIS). The Erbil government is also interested in maintaining good relations with Ankara.

Turkey for a long time has been haunted by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization. The PKK’s terror campaign relented about 15 years ago, at a time when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power. In the years that followed, Ankara tried with some success to ease the conflict with Turkey’s Kurds.

Matrix of conflicts

When the civil war in Syria started, the Kurds in the north of the country defended their territories. At the beginning, they mainly fought against the Sunni Arabs (who were part of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad), and later also against Daesh. As in Iraq, the Kurds in Syria courageously confronted Daesh. They now control sizable enclaves of Syrian territory running along the Turkish border. In this context, however, the PKK insurgency within Turkey, which had subsided for a long while, has revived. The vicious circle of PKK terrorist violence and Turkish government repression is taking its tragic toll again.

Turkey’s military pressure against Daesh has prompted a wave of terrorist attacks inside Turkey

Kurdish leaders in northern Syria appear to see it as in their interest to align with radical Kurdish elements in Turkey and to supply them with war material. Ankara perceives the idea of a Kurdish state in Syria, along its border, as unacceptable.

From the beginning of the Syrian war, Turkey supported the Sunni Arab rebels against President Assad and demanded his resignation. Ankara also felt threatened by Daesh. As the conflict escalated, Turkey decided to intervene in Syria. It has begun a two-front war against Daesh on the one side and the Syrian Kurds on the other. Although the Turks continue to insist that President Assad must go, Syrian government forces and Turkish troops have avoided engaging each other.

  • With a population of more than 22 million, the Kurds are among the most populous nations in the world not to possess their own state
  • Most Kurds live in the historic territory of Kurdistan – which lies within the borders of Turkey, Iran and Iraq, with small parts also belonging to Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan
  • In the 21st century, a sizeable Kurdish diaspora formed in the main cities of Turkey, Iran and in Western Europe
  • Turkey’s 10 to 12 million Kurds comprise some 15 percent of the total population
  • Iran has 5 to 6 million Kurds – close to 10 percent of the population
  • In Iraq, Kurds number more than 4 million – about 23 percent of all the Iraqis

Source: Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)


Turkey’s military pressure against Daesh has prompted a wave of terrorist attacks inside Turkey. In late 2016, radical elements of the PKK struck at Turkish police and military units in Kayseri and Istanbul. These attacks appeared to have been carried out with the use of material supplied by the Kurds of north Syria – who, for other reasons, receive support from the West.

This terror campaign threatens to backfire on all the Kurds in the region. Sound efforts to find sustainable political solutions will be frustrated as international opinion begins to link Kurdish aspirations with extremism.

The Kurds have many friends in the West, and understandably so. There is evident hesitation in the public sphere to criticize Kurdish extremism against Turkey. People are afraid that this could be understood as excusing the current policies of President Erdogan.

A U.S. official gives medals to four Kurdish soldiers
Erbil, Dec. 11, 2016: four Kurdish Peshmerga fighters receive U.S. medals for bravery during a ceremony in the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq (source: dpa)

It is in the interest of the Kurds not to continue antagonizing Ankara. Their only realistic path to living in peace and self-determination leads through good relations with Turkey. That could lead to the creation of autonomous Kurdish zones within that country, and possibly also a close association with Kurdish territories outside Turkey.

Kurdish opportunity

The Kurds could be on a promising path. Northern Iraq will soon start to consolidate as Daesh no longer poses an existential threat. For war-ravaged Syria, the only solution is a federalization, which could include a high degree of Kurdish autonomy. The Turkish policy of 2002, which sought accommodation with the Kurds, could be reactivated – providing that the Kurds inside and outside Turkey refrain from taking radical measures. Finding a solution now hinges on pragmatism and wisdom. These should be displayed both by the different Kurdish groups and by Ankara.

Today’s Syria is a geopolitical conundrum. It borders and overlaps with Turkish and Kurdish areas. Syrian government troops, supported actively by Russia and Iran, are fighting a whole range of Sunni Arab rebel groups – several of which are supported by the United States and some Arab countries. Daesh, in its turn, is resisting Syrian government troops, the Russians, the Iranians and some of the Arab rebels. It is under attack from U.S. warplanes and a U.S.-led coalition on the ground in Iraq. The Kurds are fighting against Daesh and clashing with Turkish troops in Syria. Also, they continue to combat some of the Arab anti-Assad rebels.

Both Turkey and the Kurds must brace for chaos as the inevitable fragmentation of two failed states, Iraq and Syria, approaches. This common problem could help them create an association of common interest.

Add your comment