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Kurdish gains of more than a decade are under threat from latest Middle East crisis

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Issue 2410
Kurdistan Workers Party soldiers

Kurdistan Workers’ Party soldiers (Pic: Flickr/James Gordon)

The Kurdish people have a lot to lose from the crisis in the Middle East. The emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) is a direct threat to the Kurds, against which all Kurdish forces have mobilised.

But there is also a recurring threat that the major states will use the chaotic circumstances to deal with the Kurds, as they often have in the past.

The Kurds live in a well?defined area, where they are the overwhelming majority. But this is divided between four countries—the south-eastern corner of Turkey, and the adjacent parts of Syria, Iraq and Iran.

The fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, after Arabs, Persians and Turks, and numbering 30-40 million, the Kurds have never had a state of their own.

Their history in each of the countries where they live has been one of oppression, sometimes more brutal, sometimes less, and revolts, always put down bloodily.

In modern Turkey, for example, their very existence was officially denied. They were claimed to be “mountain Turks”, and their language to be a dialect of Turkish. But Kurdish is an Indo-European language while Turkish is Altaic, with its roots in central Asia.

There were a number of Kurdish uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s, put down with extreme violence. In the 1980s, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) launched a guerrilla struggle. After 30 years and more than 40,000 dead, it has finally forced the Turkish state to the negotiating table.

Today, Turkey’s rulers have two main aims in the region.


One is to talk about an imaginary golden age under the Ottoman Empire, and become the main force in the Middle East. The other is to stop anything that could lead to Turkey’s Kurdish minority breaking away.

Turkey is a majority Sunni country and its government likes to play the Sunni card. It both sympathises with Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, and would like to use them for its own purposes. 

It is thought likely that the government secretly supported Isis, at least at the beginning. If they did, they bitterly regret it now, as Isis attacked the Turkish consulate in Mosul and is keeping dozens of diplomats and staff hostage.

In Iraq and Iran, Kurdish history was similarly bloody, with genocidal campaigns against them both by the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein.

However, in Iraq, an uprising against Hussein in 1991 and the First Gulf War saw guerrilla forces drive the Iraqi army out of the Kurdish northern parts of the country. 

A period of self-rule was followed in 2005 by the recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan—or South Kurdistan, as Kurds prefer to call it—as a federal part of Iraq. The region is now effectively an independent state.

The US-led occupation forces and the government it set up preferred to accept the Kurds’ autonomy rather than risk generalised resistance from across Iraqi society.

Similarly, the chaos in Syria has also allowed the Kurds there to create an autonomous region as Bashar al Assad’s regime focused on putting down the broader uprising. But these bastions of Kurdish rule are precarious in the shifting political sands of the Middle East. 

Kurdish successes have alarmed Iran and Turkey, while the Syrian and Iraqi governments are in no state even to be alarmed. No ruler feels in control, and the gains made by the Kurds in the past decade or so are under threat.

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