The Kurdish quest for freedom and independence has been long, dramatic and complicated. Here’s a potted history of the past century.
Secretly negotiated by Britain and France, the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement draws up plans for the modern Middle East. After World War One, the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres dissolves the defeated Ottoman empire and proposes the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state. But Turkey’s new leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, rejects Sèvres. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, negotiated by the Allies with Turkey, makes no refence to a Kurdish homeland. The opportunity is lost and the Kurds are dispersed over the newly delineated states of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. A major Kurdish rebellion around Mount Ararat is crushed in 1930.
In January 1946, Iranian Kurds establish the Republic of Mahabad, a short-lived independent state in the Kurdish-inhabited areas that came under Soviet control during World War Two. While in exile in Mahabad, the Iraqi tribal chief Mustafa Barzani – dubbed the ‘father of Kurdish nationalism’ – creates the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iraq (KDP). After the Soviet withdrawal in December 1946, Iran reoccupies Mahabad.
In Iraq, prime minister Abd al-Karim Qasim reneges on promises of autonomy and the Kurds launch a rebellion that continues through successive regimes. In 1970 the new Ba’athist government makes plans for Kurdish autonomy but they are not implemented and fighting resumes in 1974.
Syria strips citizenship from 120,000 Kurds who cannot prove their residence before 1945, rendering them unable to travel, vote, own property or business, or legally marry. Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad establishes an ‘Arab belt’ along the border, displacing Syrian Kurds and weakening Kurdish presence in fertile and resource-rich areas.
Iraq’s Ba’athist regime displaces hundreds of thousands of Kurds from the country’s oil-rich north and replaces them with Arabs from central and south Iraq. Iraqi Kurds, supported by Iran and the US, revolt against the Ba’athist regime. But in 1975 Iran and Iraq sign the Algiers Accord under which Iran agrees to stop assisting Iraq’s Kurds. The US also withdraws its support and the Iraqi Kurdish rebellion collapses.
In Turkey, Abdullah Öcalan, Sakine Cansız and others found the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with the aim of establishing an independent Kurdistan in the country’s southeast. The PKK gains support but not all Kurds want independence or leftwing politics.
In Iraq, rival tribal leader Jalal Talabani denounces Barzani, splits off from the KDP and establishes the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). KDP leader Mustafa Barzani dies and is succeeded by his son Massoud.
In Iran, the Kurds initially support the 1979 Islamic Revolution, hoping to achieve greater autonomy under Ayatollah Khomeini. When their demands are not met, they rebel against Khomeini, who declares ‘holy war’ against them. Hundreds are arrested and killed, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran is banned.
After Turkey’s military coup in 1980, the PKK leadership flees to Syria and in 1984 takes up arms against the Turkish state. Turkey designates the PKK a terrorist group. Its tactics include sabotage, assassinations, kidnappings and forced recruitment. Representatives of the Turkish state and even Kurdish landowners are targets. Turkey’s retaliation includes imprisonment, torture, killings and prohibition of the Kurdish language in public and private life.
During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, Iraq armed Iranian Kurds against Tehran, while Iran backed Iraqi Kurds against Baghdad. In 1988 Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein wreaks terrible revenge during the al-Anfal (the spoils) campaign, also known as the Kurdish Genocide. Between 50,000 and 180,000 Iraqi Kurds are killed, tens of thousands are displaced; villages are destroyed and chemical weapons are used against civilians. A sarin and mustard-gas attack on the town of Halabja claims around 5,000 Kurdish lives.
Following the partial defeat of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds spontaneously rebel only to be crushed by Iraq’s still formidable army. More than one million flee to Iran and Turkey; hundreds of thousands more are internally displaced, triggering a humanitarian crisis. The US-led coalition creates a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan, allowing the Kurds to return. Iraqi Kurds gain de facto autonomy, electing the first Kurdistan Regional Government and National Assembly in 1992. But in 1994 rival Kurdish factions descend into civil war, the PUK party led by Talabani clashing with the Barzani-led KDP. The conflict, which claims 2,000 Kurdish lives, ends four years later.
In Turkey, PKK leader Öcalan declares a unilateral and unconditional ceasefire, promising to down arms and seek a political solution. The sudden death of Turkish president Turgut Özal puts paid to peace negotiations as more hard-line elements gain control. The Turkish military redoubles its efforts against the PKK, interpreting willingness to negotiate peace as a sign of weakness. Three million Kurds are internally displaced during the 1990s. In 1995 the PKK attacks Massoud Barzani’s Iraqi KDP because of its support for Turkey.
Since 1995 the PKK has been moving away from the nationalist demand for a separate state. In 1998 Öcalan visits Europe seeking support for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. Under threat of war from Turkey, Syria expels the exiled PKK leadership. With help from the US, Turkish operatives abduct Öcalan in Nairobi. Kurds in Turkey and in 30 cities across Europe protest. His death sentence is later commuted to life imprisonment.
US-led coalition forces invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. The Kurds play a central role in drafting the interim Iraqi constitution, which recognizes the autonomy of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) within the new federal system. Talabani becomes the first Kurdish president of Iraq. Kurdish parties participate in the 2005 election and are included in the unity government in 2006.
Turkey, eyeing EU membership, introduces legislative and constitutional reforms that expand Kurdish political and cultural rights.
In Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD) is born. Affiliated with the Turkish PKK, it calls for the recognition of Kurdish rights and regional autonomy.
Syrian Kurds stage mass protests in Qamishli after Syrian forces open fire on a procession mourning nine Kurdish youths who died in a football brawl between Kurds and Arabs in March. Protests spread to Aleppo and Damascus and to Kurds in Europe.
The Party for Free Life (PJAK) emerges in Iran and takes up arms against the Iranian state. The PKK-inspired guerrilla group claims to have 3,000 fighters. The Iranian government launches a military campaign against it and in 2011 the PJAK signs a ceasefire agreement.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government announces a ‘Kurdish Initiative’ for further reforms in 2009, but this provokes a strong nationalist backlash and is stalled.
In 2011 in Syria, during the uprising against his regime, leader Bashar al-Assad courts the Kurds by offering more rights of citizenship. Kurds who were registered as foreigners in the 1962 census can now be citizens, but those who never registered remain stateless.
Turkey deepens ties with the Iraqi Kurds of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), having agreed to build three pipelines to bring oil and gas from KRG territory to Turkey. Direct peace talks between jailed PKK leader Öcalan and Turkey are renewed in 2012 with the hope of ending three decades of conflict that have cost an estimated 40,000 lives and displaced millions.
In 2013, as Syria’s civil war rages, the Kurdish PYD unilaterally declares autonomy in three cantons in Syria’s north, also known as Rojava or Western Kurdistan.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS or Daesh) takes control of large swathes of Iraq, including territory controlled by the KRG. Iraqi national forces and the KRG’s Peshmerga fighters buckle in the face of IS advances, but in June the Peshmerga gain control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
IS attacks Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish town on the border with Turkey. The Syrian Kurds hold out against a gruelling IS siege and defend the town, eventually with the help of US airstrikes and armaments airdrops.
Syrian Kurds consolidate their territory by capturing Tel Abyad from IS, expanding the territory controlled by the Kurds in northern Syria from three non-contiguous zones to two.
Turkey bombs IS positions in Syria as well as PKK targets in Iraqi Kurdistan, ending a two-year ceasefire. Inside Turkey, the PKK calls for self-rule zones in urban districts across the southeast. Heavy fighting resumes between the PKK and Turkish security forces; civilians are caught in the crossfire.
A failed coup against Erdoğan’s government results in a fierce clampdown on civil and political rights. Kurdish and pro-Kurdish groups and individuals are targeted. Turkey intervenes directly in northern Syria, backing Arab fighters against IS – but also with the goal of stopping Syrian Kurds connecting their two cantons. The Turkish deployment of troops and advisors halts the Kurdish advance and creates a complex frontline that includes US allies opposed to each other and Russia- and Iran-backed forces loyal to Assad.
In May the US decides to arm the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia dominated by the Kurdish YPG, to seize Raqqa, the IS’s ‘capital’ in Syria. The move angers Turkey.
In Iraq, Kurds overwhelmingly vote for independence in a referendum held by regional officials despite objections from the Iraqi government, which threatens to isolate the KRG, as do Turkey and Iran, with chilling effect. The referendum results are shelved.
After a long battle, in March 2018 the Kurdish autonomous city of Afrin falls to Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies. Tens of thousands of civilians flee their homes. It’s a serious blow to Syrian Kurds and the Rojava project.
Syrian Kurds declare victory over IS as the Kurdish-led SDF takes control of areas around Baghouz, near the Iraq-Syria border. While applauding Kurdish achievements, the international community leaves the SDF alone to deal with thousands of captured IS fighters and families.
In October, President Trump suddenly announces the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria. Turkish forces cross the border to launch an offensive against the SDF with the aim of pushing Kurds out of the border area and creating a 30-kilometre deep so-called ‘buffer zone’. Thousands of Kurdish citizens are forced to flee and become refugees. Turkey’s offensive also forces the Kurds to yield control of some areas to the Syrian government.
Sources: Michael M Gunter, The Kurds: A Divided Nation in Search of a State, Marcus Weiner Publishers, 2019. David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, IB Tauris, 2019. The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan, Pluto, 2017. Council for Foreign Relations, ‘The Kurds’ Quest for independence’, cfr.org Minority Rights Group International, minorityrights.org