The Kurdish question: from the fight against Daesh to its international neglect

Turkey continues its various offensives against the Kurds, waging an open war that is further blurring the dream of Kurdistan

AFP/SAFIN HAMED  -   Kurdish flags during celebrations of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in the town of Akra, about 100 kilometres north of Arbil, in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, on March 20, 2021.

History of the Kurds

With an estimated population of 25-35 million, the Kurds represent the fourth largest ethnic minority in the Middle East. Despite having their own language, Kurdish, and their own culture, traditions and history, the Kurds continue to struggle for an independent state.

The Kurds are currently divided into five areas in north-western Syria, northern Iraq, north-western Iran, south-western Armenia and south-eastern Turkey. This territorial division is the result of demands for an independent state, a demand that goes back millennia. However, it was not until the 20th century that the Kurds began to consider the creation of a homeland under the name "Kurdistan". After the end of World War I and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the Western allies, France, the UK and Russia, pledged to grant the Kurds a state in a stipulation enacted in the Treaty of Sévres in the 1920s. 

AFP/ SAFIN HAMED - Iraqi Peshmerga officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, on 21 June 2021.

Three years later, however, Kurdistan's dream was dashed when the Treaty of Lausanne established Turkey's boundaries. With the restructuring of a modern Turkish state, no clause was envisaged to proclaim a Kurdish state and thus the Kurds remained in their respective countries.

Subsequently, after the Kurds' attempts to gain statehood in the 1980s, political movements multiplied. However, their demands went unheeded and were brutally repressed. As an example of revolutionary movements that tried to consolidate a Kurdish state, in 1927 there was a rebellion in south-eastern Turkey that ended with the proclamation of the Kurdish Republic of Ararat. This vestige of an officially Kurdish territory was defeated three years later by the Turkish army. Similarly, in 1947, Kurdish groups in Iran founded the Republic of Mahabad, known as the Republic of Kurdistan, a political project that managed to survive for only a few months. 

AFP/AFP - Map showing the location of Ain Issa in northern Syria.

After its demise, there have been no similar attempts on a large scale. Thus, the Kurds gradually divided themselves into different parts of the territory. It was not until the 1970s that Kurdish insurgencies reappeared on the Turkish scene with intensity during the rise of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). This formation was born as a political organisation after the various revolutionary movements in the 1970s, and its aim was to build democratic autonomy in the various regions where the Kurdish people exist.

From the beginning, the PKK has been led by Abdullah Ocalan. Based on the principles of Marxism-Leninism, its initial aim was to confront the Turkish state through guerrilla warfare offensives with the aim of building a unified, independent and socialist Kurdistan. After the coup d'état in Turkey in 1980, many PKK members went into exile in the Beeka Valley where they took refuge under Syrian supervision and prepared to continue fighting Turkey. International support has been of paramount importance for the PKK's survival. In this sense, one of the most important forms of support came after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, especially from the United States, which saw the fight that the Kurds began to wage against Daesh as an opportunity to arm them in order to make their mission more effective.

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REUTERS/RODI SAID - Kurdish female fighters from the Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) take part in a military parade as they celebrate victory over Daesh, in Qamishli, Syria March 28, 2019
The Kurds' fight against Daesh

The Kurds have played a crucial role in the fight against Daesh.  After the Islamic group's offensives in 2013 and 2014 in northern Iraq and northwestern Syria, a significant Kurdish resistance managed to group together independently or as part of the Free Syrian Army, managing to resist and wage a counter-offensive in the fight against jihadism. These attacks managed to change the course not only of the Syrian war, but also of terrorism in the region.

By the beginning of October 2014, Daesh managed to besiege 350 towns and forced 300,000 Kurds to move towards the neighbouring Turkish province of Sanlurfa. On 13 September of the same year, Daesh launched an offensive on the Kobane canton, resulting in a humanitarian disaster for those fleeing the battle towards the Turkish border. This offensive expanded dizzyingly and in just a few days, Daesh managed to seize around 21 provinces near Kobane, a crucial enclave which, thanks to the defence by the Kurdish resistance, managed to change the course of the fight against jihadism in Syria. 

PHOTO/REUTERS - A man wears a Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) mask as people protest in front of the German Foreign Ministry during a visit of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu with his German counterpart Heiko Maas, in Berlin, Germany, July 2, 2020
The battle of Kobane: key to the fall of Daesh

Thus, the beginning of the Battle of Kobane is usually dated from 13 September 2014 to 15 March 2015, with the recovery of the villages besieged by Daesh and the expulsion of the terrorist group from Kobane. Thus, this battle would last a total of 6 months and 2 days. On 21 September, the offensive continued and Daesh managed to advance and position itself just 8 kilometres from Kobane, despite the US air strikes launched against the jihadist offensives. At this point, Kurdish forces only held Kobane itself and 15 towns to the west. Thus, the start of the battle for Kobane began with a huge mismatch as more than 10,000 Daesh jihadists were mobilised against a few hundred Kurds armed with only light weapons

In the siege of Kobane, Daesh managed to concentrate numerous tanks and a plethora of tanks around the perimeter to sustain the siege with heavy fire attacks to incite a battle of attrition. Compared to Kurdish weaponry, Daesh was at a far superior level. In the face of the attacks, the YPJ and the YPG responded with small arms fire, trying to economise their ammunition stocks before the US military's arms supply arrived.

PHOTO/AP - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

In addition to deficiencies in their weaponry, the manpower of the Kurdish forces was also restricted. The Turkish authorities refused to allow Turkish Kurds to enter Syria to repel the assault, nor did they allow Syrian Kurds who had previously been evacuated from Syria to Turkey to return home. Turkey's refusal to allow the YPG to be assisted or resupplied by nearby sympathisers provoked protests by the Kurds that ended in a violent crackdown by Turkish police in Mürsitpına. The police reportedly used tear gas and powerful water cannons to forcibly disperse YPG supporters.

However, in the first instance the air strikes and the various offensives were not enough to make Daesh withdraw. As the bombardment increased, Daesh fighters reinforced their presence through their pool of recruits from Raqa and Aleppo, leading to an increase in vehicle-borne suicide bombers. As a result, Kobane began to attract international and media interest as they gained access to the area through Turkey's Sanliurfa province

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AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN - A US armoured vehicle drives past a billboard of the Syrian Kurdish Kurdish Women's Protection Units (YPJ) during a patrol in the northeastern Syrian town of Qahtaniyah, on the border with Turkey, on October 31, 2019

In just one month of fighting, at least 553 people were killed in Kobane. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, of this total number, 298 Daesh terrorists were reportedly killed. However, the Women's Units and the YPG claimed that the number could be higher. Even so, official figures put the number of dead in the total course of the battle at between 1,068 and 5,000. Of these, an estimated 609 militants were Daesh terrorists and 363 of the dead were members of the YPG, as well as 16 Kurdish volunteers and 24 civilians. However, it should be noted that no official data could be found on the number of YPG women killed during the battle for Kobane.

Similarly, according to the report, since 2019, women in the region have reportedly faced "acts of intimidation" by Syrian soldiers, which has led to "a generalised climate of fear that has caused women to confine themselves to their homes". The YPJ as well as the YPG, the SDF and the rest of the self-defence groups under the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria continue to carry out their self-defence functions because the threats to the territory have not ended. In 2018 the Turkish state with FSA groups conquered the Afin canton and in 2019 in the Tel Abyad and Serekaniye regions producing more than half a million displaced persons. Threats from the Turkish state expanding militarily in the Middle East (Syria, Libya, Armenia) are a constant source of concern. Many of the murdered women have been mutilated and their corpses have been displayed on social media. According to Dror Zeevi, professor of Middle East studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the perpetrators of these crimes are not Turks but rather "jihadists who have gradually become mercenaries" in the service of Turkey. This transformation from jihadists to mercenaries stems from Turkish support by rewarding them with the spoils of war. With this strategy, Turkey would be exempted from direct responsibility for the conflict. 

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AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN - US military vehicles, part of a joint convoy with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), patrol near the town of Al-Muabbadah, in the northeastern Syrian province of Hasakeh, on the border with Turkey, on November 9, 2019

Since the withdrawal of US troops and Turkey's takeover of the area, attacks on the Kurdish population, especially women, have continued to increase.
According to the NGO Rojava Madrid, an alleged Turkish drone attack last June killed three women. Among them was activist Zehra Berkel, known for fighting for women's rights in the village of Helince, just outside Kobane. Zehra's sister Delia Berkel said in a video that Turkey is trying to "undermine our hope and our will" and stressed that they will not give "the enemy the pleasure of saying that they have killed a woman or a Kurdish politician and thus destroyed the women's movement".

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the Kurdish defenders in the city were being co-led by a 40-year-old Kurdish woman, Mayssa Abdo, from the Afrin region of Aleppo province known by the fighter’s name Narin Afrin. She led the defences alongside YPG commander Mahmoud Barkhodan in Kobane. In the Kobane resistance, 80 per cent of the fighters were YPJ women, from the coordination units to the front line.

AFP/BAKR ALKASEM - A Turkish-backed Syrian fighter holds a light machine gun as he watches during military drills in the Sheikh Hadid district of the Afrin region of northwestern Syria on August 5, 2021
Rivalry between Kurdistan and Turkey

The enmity between Turkey and the PKK, the party through which the YPJ emerged, is due to the fact that it is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, as well as by the United States and the European Union. As such, the YPJ is considered an enemy of Turkey, and thus the Turkish presence constitutes a threat to its structure. According to Rojava Madrid, "the Turkish government considers all Kurdish organisations that do not accept its colonial policy as terrorists. Turkey's policy is mainly anti-Kurdish", they point out.

Since 2015, one of the main peculiarities that has characterised Kurdish-Turkish offensives has been that these attacks have been waged outside the country's borders. For Turkey, the enemy is no longer just the PKK but encompasses all other Kurds living in Turkey, regardless of their ideology, as well as those around the region, with a special focus on those located in Syria. According to Turkish discourse, the Syrian war and its power vacuum was the ideal scenario for the Kurds to launch their independence project based on the democratic confederalism of Ocalan. 

AFP/ BULENT KILIC - Young leftists gathered to protest on the anniversary of a suicide bombing that killed 31 people in Suruc, where activists had gathered to prepare for an aid mission to the nearby Syrian city of Kobane.

Turkey is home to more than 15 million Kurds, which would represent 20 per cent of the total population.  In this sense, they represent the most representative ethnic minority in the country. Their importance in demographic, strategic and economic terms, as well as their own cultural and religious peculiarities, means that attempts to claim an independent state are abruptly repressed.

Clashes between the Kurds and the Turks continue unabated. A few days ago, we learned that two Turkish policemen and two others were injured in a missile attack on Azzaz in northern Syria. The attack was launched from the Tal Rifaat area by the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units. Following these attacks, Turkish security forces retaliated after five mortars fell in Gaziantep province. In response to these attacks, Turkish President Erdogan said that "Turkey would take the necessary measures in Syria as soon as possible"

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AFP/DELIL SOULEIMAN - A Syrian Kurdish woman waves the flag of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) during a demonstration against Turkish threats in the town of Ras al-Ain, in Syria's Hasakeh province, near the border with Turkey, on October 6, 201

DurDuring a press conference Erdogan said that "their patience had run out. Turkey is determined to eliminate the threats emerging from northern Syria, either together with the forces active there or by our own means". In this regard, the Turkish president said that last month two Turkish soldiers were killed, and three others wounded in Idlib, the last major opposition stronghold in Syria. 

The current situation

No sooner had Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US forces from Syria than Turkey began the 'Spring of Peace' offensive against the Kurdish authorities in the area themselves. These authorities have been and continue to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been labelled a terrorist organisation by Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan justified this mission by stating that the objective "was to prevent the creation of a corridor of terror along our southern border and to bring peace to the area". From this moment on, Turkey's enmity towards Kurdistan manifested itself in its crudest and most violent form to this day

AFP/ SAFIN HAMED - Supporters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) celebrate with KDP party flags during Iraq's parliamentary elections in Arbil, the capital of northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, on October 10, 2021

Just a few days ago we learned of Turkey's intention to "end the terrorist threat in Syria" by doing what is necessary "to eliminate the terrorists". For Turkey both the YPJ and the YPG as well as the PKK are considered terrorist groups and their own goal of creating a Kurdish state clash head-on with Turkish interests in defending the unity of the Turkish state.

After Erdogan's statements about "eliminating the threats from the north", the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has underlined Erdogan's intentions, which predicts new offensives against the Kurds through the same means.

With Turkey's attacks and threats, the Kurds are trying to keep their customs and their own identity alive in the face of an offensive that does not cease and is gradually eroding the Kurds' claims for the creation of an independent Kurdistan. For the Kurds, the struggle continues unabated, provoking the anger of Turkey, which sees the Kurdish presence as endangering its political intention to unify the entire territory into a common Turkish state.

Europe's relations with Turkey continue to be complicated. In its resolution on the preparation of the Helsinki European Council, the European Parliament stated in its resolution that "no relations will be established with Turkey as long as it does not respect the Copenhagen political criteria". However, Turkey's geostrategic position maintains the Union's interest in pursuing cooperation, regardless of differences. 

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File photo - Kurdish fighter

Moreover, Turkey's rapprochement with both Russia and the US for military arsenals leaves aside the Kurdish people in the area, who with the departure of US troops now have no international military support.

It is very difficult to think of a quick solution to the Kurdish question, given the growing number of refugees in Asia and Europe, victims of an escalation of violence towards the community that seems to have no end in sight. Having succeeded in defeating Daesh, the US has decided to withdraw, fulfilling its mission but leaving the Kurds to their fate, as it did in the 20th century.  If we look at the evolution of the process against Ocalan in Turkey, as well as the insufficient actions of the United Nations and other international organisations regarding the situation of the Kurds, we can see that they seem to be destined to fight for other goals than the creation of a Kurdistan. In the face of the incessant Turkish offensives against the PKK and the Kurdish people as a whole, the Kurds are trying to resist in a context that does not favour their aspirations and they are gradually being swallowed up to make way for their pretension