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All Eyes on The Kurds

July 14th, 2015

By Ari Maniatakis – Junior Fellow

In the midst of the current Middle Eastern upheaval, the countries involved struggle to maintain their national sovereignty and halt the spread of terrorism. Among the sovereign states, a nation without a country is claiming a protagonist role. The Kurds have drawn the attention of the international community with the way they protect their homes and land, in a region mired in a vicious cycle of conflict.

The Kurds, an ethnic group currently numbering more than 30 million people, live in an extended area comprising of parts of Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Even though their struggle for independence started around a century ago, only in Iraq have they so far managed to form an officially recognized region of Kurdistan and set up a stable government.

The Anatomy of the Kurdish Problem

The Kurds are believed to have inhabited the same region of the Middle East for millennia. The Greek historian Xenophon in his Anabasis talks about the “Kardouchoi” in 401 BCE[1]. They had formed their own societal system, mostly nomadic, resisting the influence of Islam, until they eventually succumbed, but avoided Arabization. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Kurdish tribes were threatened by the expansionary tensions of the Shiite Persians. The Sunni Kurds recognized the dominance of the Ottoman Sultan who had made sure to let them hope for their eventual independence.  However, in the mid-19th century, the last independent Kurdish principality, that of Bohtan, collapsed and the Ottoman authorities chose to follow an oppressive policy against minorities[2].

After World War One, the Kurds had their greatest chance to lay the foundation of their country. Even before the end of the conflict, the Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain, with the assent of Russia, had defined the borders of the countries that would be founded after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Russia would pay off the Armenians and Kurds for their support during the war and would include Armenia and North Kurdistan in its sphere of influence. However, the Bolshevik Revolution changed the Middle-Eastern landscape, as the government of the Soviet Union condemned all imperialistic practices and published the (up to then secret) Sykes-Picot Agreement. The gap that the Soviets left in the region when they backed off was to be exploited by the Turks as their leader, Mustafa Kemal, arising from the nationalist circles of the Young Turks, took over [3].

The Treaty of Sevres in 1920 also dealt with Kurdish affairs in Articles 62-64. More specifically, Article 64 recognized the possibility for an independent state in Kurdistan, at least in those parts formerly belonging to the Ottoman Empire. The treaty was not recognized by the government of Kemal and never ratified, while Kemal’s initiative to sign an agreement with Iran and Iraq not to provide the Kurds with an independent status, had a major impact on the foreign policy of the three countries and on how they dealt with the Kurdish issue ever since[4].

Situation of the Kurds in the Middle East


As soon as the Turkish nation-state was established by Kemal, the Kurds were deprived of their Kurdish identity, with the government designating them as “Mountain Turks”, outlawing their language and forbidding them to wear traditional Kurdish costumes in the cities, as part of a Turkification policy. The government also encouraged the migration of Kurds to the cities to dilute the population in the uplands[5].

In 1978, the nascent Kurdistan Workers Party, or P-K-K, raised the banner of Kurdish claims for an independent Kurdish state in southeast Turkey. Eventually, after multiple acts of violence, the party was classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU. Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan was arrested in 1999 and transferred to a prison island off the coast of Istanbul.[6]Later in the year, however, the government signed a ceasefire with the PKK after discussions with its imprisoned leader, and initiated a new era of talks over the Kurdish issue[7].

In the Turkish elections of 7 June 2015, the Kurdish-friendly party HDP (Halkların Demokratik Partisi), succeeded in acquiring 80 seats in parliament. The success of the HDP raises hope for the solution of the Kurdish issue (now probably to be called by its name in the Turkish parliament and not as the “Southeastern Issue”) and undermines the power of Turkey’s President Erdogan, who has been widely criticized for his authoritarian practices. The Kurdish pro-European and pro-social justice leader of HDP, Selahatin Demirtas, is a defender of human rights, democratization and solidarity, and is now engaging himself and his party in promoting those values in Turkey as a whole.


In Syria, the Kurds comprise of around 10 per cent of the population, making them the largest ethnic minority in the country. Many of them have been denied the right to exercise their culture, speak their language, register their children with Kurdish names and even claim the Syrian nationality. In 1962 the Syrian government pursued an Arabization policy in the Kurdish region of Northeast Syria. The policy included expropriations of land which was subsequently offered to Arab settlers. It also included “Decree 93”, which put Kurds under investigation by government officials as to whether they should keep their Syrian nationality. The result of the investigation was to deprive 120,000 of the Jazira Kurds of their nationality, a situation which continues until today with their children and grandchildren who are born in Syria still being classified as “foreigners”[8].

 After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war the Kurds started filling the voids left by Syrian government troops in the northern and eastern regions of the country. Without taking any side in the war, the Kurds seized areas rich in oil resources, including Kobani in 2014 and most recently  Ain Issa, just 50 km north of the proclaimed ISIS capital, Raqqa.

Terrified of the possibility of an independent Kurdish state developing as a result of  the destabilization of Syria, Mr Erdogan has recently authorized the Turkish army to strike at the Islamic State, as well as the Assad regime. The purpose of this decision is to create a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria, preventing immigrants from entering the Southeastern Turkish border. The plan is to seize a line 60 miles long by 20 deep, creating refugee camps outside the Turkish legal borders, as well as preventing Kurdish fighters seizing further territory from the jihadists.


The Kurds have also failed to find support to form their own state in Iran. In 1943, the Committee of Kurdish Youth (Komala-i-Zhian-i-Kurd) was established in Mahabad, later to become the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI). In 1946, the Kurds established the republic of Mahaba in the Iranian regions that were held by the Soviet Union during the Second World War. The KDPI declared the region as independent and appointed Qazi Muhammad as president. However, in December of the same year, the Soviet forces left the region and Iranian troops occupied Mahaba. They executed Qazi Muhammad and restored Iranian sovereignty in the region.

 Unrest and conflict between Kurdish rebels and the Iranian central government has become an unresolved, diachronic issue. Government troops suppressed Kurdish rebellions in 1967, 1968, 1972 and 1979. The conflict was turned into a crisis again in 1979 when a clash in the town of Sanandaj led to the death of 200 Kurds and the arrest of another 2000 in the town of Paveh in Kermanshah. Government troops seized Mahaba, again capturing and executing more than 500 Kurds. No ceasefire took place until 1981, when the KDPI joined the National Council of Resistance (NCR), only to be expelled in 1985. Its leader, Rahman Ghassmlou, was assassinated in 1989 by Iranian intelligence agents and many of the KDPI’s members were executed by the Iranian government in the following years. The most recent conflict phase started in 2004 by the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) costing the lives of several hundred government soldiers and PJAK rebels until a ceasefire was announced in 2011[9].

The Constitution in Iran recognizes religious minorities and provides a clear distinction between religious and ethnic minorities. In Article 12 it is explicitly stated that “‘The official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Ja’fari school, and this principle will remain eternally immutable”. Whereas religious minorities are recognized in Article 13, there is no official recognition of the ethnic minorities, reflecting an old governmental policy of resistance towards ethnic minorities since the beginning of the twentieth century. Therefore the Kurds are not officially recognized as a minority in Iran and while there is a significant number of Kurdish MPs in parliament, they hold their seats as independent candidates and are unable to form a pro-Kurdish party[10].


Things were no better for the Kurds in Iraq, either. In 1946, a Kurd leader, Mulla Mustafa Barzani (considered the father of Kurdish nationalism), founded the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). Barzani launched a rebellion in 1961, after the promises of the Iraqi government to grant autonomy to the Kurds came to nothing, and a fight which lasted for more than a decade and faced successive Iraqi regimes followed. After the Kurds supported Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein retaliated, adopting a particularly aggressive stance against the Kurds. The Iraqi military used chemical weapons against the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, causing shocks throughout the international community. The ‘Al-Anfal Campaign’ followed, aiming at the Arabization of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and replacement of the Kurds with Arab Iraqis from central and south Iraq.

After the Persian Gulf War the Kurds rebelled only to be crushed again by Iraqi troops. About 2 million fled to Iran. The situation provoked concerns of the international community for the safety of the Kurds in Iraq. Resolution 688 of the Security Council demanded the respect of human rights from the Iraqi government, while it was used by the US and the UK in order to establish a no-fly zone on the north of the country[11].

 In March 2003, US-led forces invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power. The US administration in Iraq formed the Iraqi Governing Council, an interim government of 25 officials widely representing the religious and ethnic groups of the country. The government drafted the interim Iraqi constitution, which recognized the autonomy of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The interim constitution paved the way for the participation of KRG in the Iraqi government after the 2005 elections[12].

 The new constitution of 2005 established the autonomous Kurdistan in Article 113, which reads: ‘This Constitution shall approbate the region of Kurdistan and its existing regional and federal authorities, at the time this constitution comes into force.’  Moreover, Article 4 recognizes the Kurdish language as an official language of Iraq, along with Arabic. The same article guarantees the right of all Iraqi residents to educate their children in their mother tongue, no matter what it may be[13].

The tensions and conflict have been appeased since 2005 in the Kurdish region of Iraq. However, frictions have been caused between Kurdistan and the central government, based on territorial and economic grounds, infiltrated by the prosperity that KRG enjoys from oil exports. In 2013, Baghdad blocked the 17 per cent share of Kurdistan in federal revenues, causing a fiscal crisis in the region. In 2014, an agreement with the central government obliged the Kurds to sell oil only through Iraqi mediation and not independently.

When in the summer of 2014 the Islamic State seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and a key geopolitical location, it was clear that the Kurdish capital Erbil was facing a serious threat. Soon after the Kurdish army, Peshmerga, rallied pushing back the jihadists; up to the point where they found themselves seizing Kirkuk. This recent achievement means that the oil resources of this city are likely to prove crucial for the Kurds’ bargaining power claiming their piece of land in the Middle East[14].


The Kurds have been among the greatest victims of history. Their territory has been subject to annexations by some of the great powers of the Middle East, as they have been victims of oppressive ethnic clearing policies and even genocide. Having resisted utterly aggressive policies, the Kurds are achieving important milestones on their way to establishing their independence. They achieved a constitutional approbation of their autonomy in north Iraq, where they started to build their own economy.

Self-determination has been a long-standing principle for all peoples of the international community. Therefore, an exception for the Kurds is unsupported and the respect of their human rights is an erga onmes responsibility for all members of the community. It is likely that the after-crisis era in the Middle East will experience an independent Kurdish state; should that be the case, this nascent country would benefit from receiving international support to establish democratic institutions and achieve economic and social prosperity.

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica. Kurd. N.d. 12 June 2015

[2] Kendal NEZAN. A brief survey of The History of the Kurds. The Kurdish Institute of Paris. N.d. 11 June 2015

[3] Salah Bayaziddi. The Kurdish National Question. A Historical Perspective. Global Research. 25 October 2010.

[4] Sonia Roy. The Impact on the Politics of Iraq and Turkey and Their Bilateral Relations Regarding Kurds Post-Saddam Hussein Regim. Foreign Policy Journal. 22 April 2011.

[5] Sonia Roy. The Impact on the Politics of Iraq and Turkey and Their Bilateral Relations Regarding Kurds Post-Saddam Hussein Regim. Foreign Policy Journal. 22 April 2011

[6] Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Federation of American Scientists. N.d. 01 July 2015

[7] Daniel Dombey. Turkish government and Kurds in bid to revitalise peace talks. Financial Times. 28 February 2015

[8] Syria: The silenced Kurds. Human Rights Watch. October 1996

[9] Iran/Kurds (1943-present).University of Arkansas. Department of Political Science. Retrieved 22 June 2015

[10] Nazila Ghanea-Hercock. ETHNIC AND RELIGIOUS GROUPS IN THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN: Policy suggestions for the integration of minorities through participation in public life. United Nations Group on Human Rights. Bishkek. October 2004.

[11] Who are the Kurds? The Washington Post. N.d. 13 June 2015.

[12] Iraqi Governing Council members. BBC News. 14 July 2003

[13] Full Text of Iraqi Constitution. The Washington Post World. 12 October 2005.

[14] Christian Caryl. The World’s Next Country. Democracy Lab. Foreign Policy Journal. 21 January 2015.

About Ari Maniatakis

Ari Maniatakis is a Junior Fellow in the Security and Defence Division. He is currently pursuing an ALM in Management at Harvard University; in the past he studied Civil and Structural Engineering at Democritus University in Greece and at Stanford University in the United States. He has worked for the International Staff of NATO in Brussels, Belgium as well as for the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps-GR in Thessaloniki, Greece, under military capacity.