Why are Turks and Kurds waging war?
Moritz A. Mihatsch
Dr. Moritz Mihatsch (born 1981) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the British University in Egypt (BUE) in Cairo. As a political historian, he primarily deals with the Arab world, especially Sudan and Egypt. As part of political education projects, he was involved in trainings and conferences in Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The current situationBetween 2013 and 2019, the Kurds made a significant contribution to the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS). In the meantime, however, this has turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory, since afterwards they were no longer needed as partners by the anti-IS coalition, which was largely led and supported by the USA and other western states. As a result, international support has decreased substantially.
In Turkey, President Erdoğan continues to take massive action against the moderate Kurdish opposition, such as the People's Democratic Party (HDP). Since the regional elections in 2019, the pro-Kurdish mayors have been removed from office in 47 of a total of 65 cities; six others had already been refused inauguration. Although many prison inmates were released in connection with the Corona crisis, this does not apply to the majority of political prisoners. The removal of text passages about Kurdish history from official school books indicates a renewed increase in cultural oppression in Turkey.
The main focus of the government is on military operations against the PKK units that have withdrawn to Syria and Iraq. This was most recently justified by the allegation by media close to the government that PKK fighters would support Armenia in the conflict with Azerbaijan. According to the International Crisis Group, over 5,000 people have died in northeastern Turkey and northern Iraq over the past five years, around a quarter of them Turkish security forces and 60% PKK fighters. 
In Syria, the Kurds are increasingly on the defensive. Turkey invaded northern Syria as early as 2018. After US President Trump announced in October 2019 that America would withdraw from northern Syria, Turkey extended its control further with Operation "Friedensquelle". In Syria, Turkey is primarily taking action against the PKK's sister party, the "Democratic Union Party" (PYD) and its armed arm, the "People's Protection Units" (YPG).
Because of the Turkish advance, the Kurds in northern Syria were forced to share control with Assad's army in the areas they controlled. In addition, Russia's influence in the border area has increased significantly. Putin is trying to replace the withdrawing Americans as partners of the Kurds in Syria. In order to strengthen their position, 25 Kurdish organizations, including the PYD and the "Kurdish National Council" (ENKS), have joined forces with France to form the "Kurdish National Unity Parties".
In Iraqi Kurdistan, the long-time President of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Masud Barzani, resigned in 2017 after the Iraqi central government forced him through the use of the army to invalidate the independence referendum. Since the beginning of 2020, the "Patriotic Union of Kurdistan" (PUK) has been promoting administrative and financial decentralization in the eastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan it controls. The rival "Democratic Party of Kurdistan" (PDK) fears that this could lead to a split in the Kurdish region.
Differences between the central government and the KRG have disrupted payments from Baghdad. As a result, the KRG is currently unable to pay its officials. The resulting demonstrations were partly broken up by police force. The social and economic situation is now worsening due to the Corona crisis and the associated low oil price. In addition, the regional government of Baghdad is accusing of specifically promoting the settlement of Arabs in the disputed settlement areas around Kirkuk.
The situation in Iran remains unstable. In 2016 the "Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan" (PDKI), the "Kurdish Freedom Party" (PAK) and the "Komalah"  declared the end of the ceasefire and since then have carried out various attacks on Iranian institutions. Fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were killed in particular. At the same time, there are always irregular clashes between Iranian troops and units of the "Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan" (PJAK). In 2018, the Iranian government executed several Kurdish activists and bombed the PDKI headquarters. According to the PDKI, the humanitarian situation in the Kurdish areas has worsened massively due to the corona crisis.
The fragmentation of the Iranian Kurds into various movements continues to prevent any relevant political influence. The Kurdish conflict cannot be viewed in isolation, however, as Iran is also interfering in Kurdish affairs in Iraq, and recently increasingly using drones against PDKI fighters who have withdrawn to Iraq. In September 2020, an agreement was reached between Rohani and Erdogan to work together in the future in the fight against the PKK and its Iranian sister party PJAK.
Causes and backgrounds of the conflictThe origins of the Kurdish problem go back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The establishment of a Kurdish state was initially carried out by the English, but was then given up again in 1923 when Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk grew stronger. The demarcation between the successor states of the Ottoman Empire primarily followed the power interests of the great and colonial powers of the time. The settlement areas of the Kurds were thus divided among several newly created states. The new borders disrupted existing family and economic ties.
The Kurds (approx. 24-27 million) who call themselves the "largest people without a country" are now at home in five countries (Turkey approx. 13 million, Iraq approx. 4 million, Iran approx. 5.7 million ., Syria approx. 1 million and Armenia approx. 400,000). There are three Kurdish languages and different religions, mainly Sunnis, Shiites, Yazidis, Alevis and Assyrian Christians. In many cases, the question of who is a Kurd is not easy to answer. The same applies to the borders of the Kurdish areas and historiography. The fact that the Kurdish conflict remains virulent to this day is mainly due to the fact that none of the four states made any real efforts to integrate the Kurds into the central state, the state idea and national identity. The Kurds' national will to assert themselves has also contributed to this.
Processing and solution approachesTurkey continues to rely on a repressive "solution". Even the representatives of the moderate pro-Kurdish HDP are massively persecuted. Several parliamentarians are in prison or in exile. The government has announced that it intends to completely destroy the PKK. The reduction in the intensity of the conflict in the last two years has only to do with the fact that the forces of the Turkish army are currently very strongly tied up in northern Syria. Opening up prospects for a solution to the conflict requires a change in strategy on the part of the Turkish government. However, this is not in sight.
Since Turkey set up a buffer zone in Northern Syria in the "Olive Branch" and "Peace Source" operations, the Kurds have been increasingly dependent on cooperation with Assad's troops, which are gradually expanding their control over the Kurdish areas. A unilateral declaration of independence or substantial autonomy therefore seem less promising. Negotiations with the aim of partial autonomy are most likely. The Kurdish commander in chief, Mazloum Abdi, has already indicated willingness to compromise with the Assad regime and Russia: "If we have to choose between compromise and genocide, then we choose our people."
In Iraq, the conflict between Iraqi Kurdistan and the central government is overshadowed by internal conflicts on both sides. At the moment there are no negotiations at the official level, rather individual Kurdish parties are trying to coordinate with selected groups in Baghdad. This serves to strengthen one's own position and is not conducive to a sustainable institutional solution. The EU in particular has an interest in preventing another escalation. The current economic emergency could give Europe the necessary leverage to initiate negotiations.
President Rouhani's promise in the 2016 presidential election to stand up for ethnic minorities has largely remained unfulfilled. Rouhani's limited influence on Kurdish politics has continued to wane after the Conservatives' victory in parliamentary elections in February 2020. The interference of Iran in Iraq and the very precarious regional situation in the common border area make it difficult to resolve the Kurdish conflict. The fact that expectations are waning on the Iranian-Kurdish side is particularly evident from the fact that the PDKI, PAK and Komalah have terminated the ceasefire with the government. The key to solving the Kurdish question is currently in neighboring Iraq.
History of the conflictSince its foundation in 1923, the Republic of Turkey has been creating a Turkish nation under the slogan "How happy is he who can say: I am a Turk". Although the founder of the state and President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had initially guaranteed the Kurds limited autonomy, the status of a protected minority was ultimately only granted to the Greeks, Armenians and Jews. Since then, Kurdish traditions, their language and culture have been largely negated and suppressed. Various regional uprisings occurred between 1920 and 1931. It was not until the 1970s that the Kurdish question became a topic of national politics again; In 1978 the Marxist PKK was formed.
After the 1980 military coup, repression intensified and the PKK began armed struggle in 1984. In addition to kidnappings and armed robberies, the PKK's repertoire also included murders and suicide bombings. The Turkish army responded with air strikes on Kurdish positions, and in phases also on retreat areas of the PKK in northern Iraq. After the arrest of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999, there was a ceasefire. However, peace negotiations did not begin until 2009 under the then Prime Minister Erdoğan.
In Syria, after independence in 1946, the Kurds came under increasing pressure from growing Arab nationalism. After a period of political instability, Syria merged with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic (1958-1962) under the leadership of Egyptian President Gamal Abd-al-Nasser in the late 1950s. Nationalist propaganda portrayed the Syrian Kurds as tools of imperialism and Israel, as well as a threat to national sovereignty.
During the unscheduled census in 1962, around 120,000 Kurds were unable to provide evidence of their nationality and were henceforth classified as foreigners. From 1965 the ruling Ba'ath Party practiced the "Arab Belt" policy. Kurds who lived near the border were expropriated, resettled and displaced by Arab Syrians. The policy of marginalization continued under President Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000) and his son and current President, Bashar al-Assad. Taking advantage of the weakness of the regime and the chaos of war, the Kurds were able to establish an autonomous region ("Rojava") under their administration in the north-east of the country.
In Iraq, the Kurdish party KDP was founded in 1946, fourteen years after the country's independence, under the leadership of Mustafa Barzani. After the coup of the Iraqi Free Officers in 1958, an alliance was formed between their leader Abd-al-Karim Qasim and Barzani. This alliance was also directed against leftist currents among the Kurds, including the later Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. After Qasim had successfully suppressed the influence of the communists, he increasingly distanced himself from his Kurdish partners, who now more emphatically than before called for an autonomy regulation. There were repeated riots in the 1960s and 1970s. Peace treaties, which also provided for autonomy regulations, were never implemented. Renewed armed conflicts between the Iraqi army and the KDP and PUK in 1974/75 were answered by Baghdad with an Arabization campaign, especially in the oil-rich areas around Kirkuk.
In 1987 the various Kurdish groups formed an alliance. The then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein reacted to this with the Anfal campaign, in which around 180,000 people were killed, among other things, by poison gas; over 1.5 million fled. Because the Kurds supported the Americans in the Gulf War in 1990, Saddam again ordered punitive actions - with more than 2 million displaced people. In response to the humanitarian disaster, the Kurdish areas were declared a no-fly zone by the UN Security Council. Since then, the Kurds have effectively managed themselves and since 2003 have also been actively intervening in the fate of Iraq as a whole. As part of the fight against IS, the Kurds were also able to gain control of disputed areas around Kirkuk at times.
Kurdish uprisings already broke out in Iran during World War I. In 1946 the short-lived "Kurdish Republic of Mahabad" was proclaimed. But after only eleven months, Iranian troops had the area back under control. After 1951 the Kurds supported the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh. After the 1953 CIA-backed coup, they stood on the wrong side and fell victim to repression. When the Islamic revolution began in 1979, the Kurds supported the uprising in the belief that greater freedoms would be possible for them too. Ayatollah Khomeini made promises to this effect, but broke them after his rule was established.
literatureAbd al-Jabbār, Fāliḥ / Mansour, Renad (2019): The Kurds in a Changing Middle East: History, Politics and Representation, London: I.B. Tauris.
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Dolzer, Martin (2011): The Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Human rights - peace - democracy in a European country, Bonn: Pahl-Rugenstein.
Gunes, Cengiz (2020): The Political Representation of Kurds in Turkey: New Actors and Modes of Participation in a Changing Society, London: I.B. Tauris.
Löwer, Hans-Joachim (2015): The hour of the Kurds: How they are changing the Middle East, Vienna: Styria Premium.
McDowall, David (2010): A Modern History of the Kurds, London: Tauris.
Schmidinger, Thomas (2014): War and Revolution in Syrian Kurdistan: Analyzes and Voices from Rojava, Vienna: Mandelbaum.
Steinberg, Guido / Albrecht, Aliosa (2019): Kurds under pressure: The consequences of the US troop withdrawal for the PKK offshoot in Syria (SWP-Aktuell). Science and Politics Foundation -SWP- German Institute for International Politics and Security.
Strohmaier, Martin / Yalcin-Heckmann, Lale (2017): The Kurds. History, politics, culture, Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck.
Wörmer, Nils / Lamberty, Lucas (2018): The Kurdish (nightmare) dream: The independence referendum, the fall of Kirkuk and the effects on Kurdish and Iraqi politics, Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
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LeftInternational Crisis Group (2020): The Fragility of Northern Syria, May 26, 2020.
International Crisis Group (2019): After Iraqi Kurdistan’s Thwarted Independence Bid, Report No 19927, March 2019.
Kurdish news agency Rudaw (affiliated with the KDP).
Official website of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq.
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