Raggini Sharma,  Research co-ordinator


  1. Abstract

Kurds as an ethnic group have always demanded creation of a Kurdish nation-state, and with it, the democratic and territorial autonomy and cultural rights. Presently, the Kurds are stateless and battling for their mere survival. Three of the most potent factors in the Levant region today – the rise of ISIS / ISIL, the Syrian civil war, and political flux in Turkey, have placed the Kurds in an especially precarious position with consequences for the fate of one of the Middle East’s largest ethnic groups in the lurch (Bohn, Lauren, 2015). Michael Gunter claims, ‘Kurdish nationalism largely developed in the 20th century as a stateless ethnic reaction against the repressive “official state nationalisms” of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria’ (Tezcur, 2009).

The durability of Turkish-Kurdish peace and the very future of Turkey is at stake in the fight (Bohn, Lauren, 2015). In the following paper, I would examine the issues concerning Kurds – what is the genesis of their problem? Have the Kurds not been given rightful place in Turkey, if not then why? Is Turkey’s nationalism overbearing and partial to Kurds? Does Turkey consider Kurds as a security problem?  What is the status of Kurds imbroglio presently and is there any viable solution in near future? This paper will analyse the Kurds conundrum considering the intrinsic factors mainly driven by Turkey’s nationalism and extrinsic factors in the Levant region to control ISIS.

  1. Background: Kurds in Turkey

Kurds are an ethnic group that has been staying in the mountainous region of Western Asia known as Kurdistan, bound by geography and common cultural and historical ties. This geo-cultural historical region of Kurdistan spans across south eastern Turkey, north western Iran, northern Iraq and north eastern Syria. For more than a thousand years, the bulk of the Kurds defied invasion or assimilation with the three main populations threatening them: the Turkish Ottomans to the northwest, the Persians to the east, and the Arabs to the south and southwest.

Regional Kurdish leaders- Aghas, Mirs, Begs, Shaikhs, however, often recognised power and battled in the name of neighbouring states’ sovereignty.

Kurdish sense of nationalism arose sometimes in the last quarter of 19th century and there were sporadic revolts against strong Ottoman empire demanding separate ethnic status and a nation. Kurdish ethno-nationalist movement gained momentum during the 20th century with watershed events being the first world war and the fall of Ottoman empire. Though the Sevres Peace Treaty signed on 10 August 1920  between Allied Powers and Central Powers carved out a Kurdish state, the Treaty of Lausanne (Mansbach, Shana, 2019)  signed on 24 July 1923 between Allied Powers and Turkey reversed this position, granting Turkey sovereignty, its current borders, and no obligation to create a nation for the Kurds (Mansbach, Shana, 2019). Turkey became a republic on 29 October 1923.

Some Kurds were drawn to the Turkish nationalist dream of creating a society in which Turks and Kurds had equal standing. Yet, freedom was an independent idea from the Turkish point of view: Kurds were forced to integrate into Turkish society; their distinct heritage was dismissed. When the last vestige of Ottoman rule, the caliphate, was abolished in March 1924, “all public vestiges of separate Kurdish identity were crushed. Kurdish schools, associations, publications, religious fraternities and teaching foundations were all banned (McDowall, The Kurds, 2004, p.36). Mustafa Kamel Ataturk, founder of Turkey supressed all the revolts by Kurdish people soon after the republic of Turkey was born and Kurds were denied their statehood.

Between 1924 to 1990, as part of the effort to create a unitary Turkish country and state, the independent nationality of Kurds was always rejected. The alienation of Kurds within state of Turkey, atrocities against them and non-acknowledgement of their culture resulted in Kurds’ resentment and sowed seeds for an organization which masters the art of guerrilla warfare – PKK (Partiya Karkara Kurdistan), referred as Kurdistan Workers Party, (Barkey and Fuller,1998; McDowall,1997). Since World War I, Kurds in Turkey have been the victims of persistent assaults on their ethnic, cultural, religious identity and economic and political status by successive Turkish governments (Callimanopulos; Dominique, 1982).

In 1982, Turkey adopted the constitution, in which they forbid the Kurdish identity and implemented martial law in all the areas dominated by Kurds. Since its founding, Turkey has always neglected the inclusion of minorities, both religious (Kilinc, 2014) and especially ethnic minorities (Yegen, 2007). Kurds were left out from the constitution as Turkey believed that they could threaten the nationalist model of the state. Kurds as an ethnic group was never recognized by Turkey within its borders. Since the formation of modern Turkey, the Kurds have been in tension with the state and have experienced the state’s severe military and political oppression to various degrees (Çifçi, D, 2019)

Kurds are separated predominantly by language from their neighbours. Amongst Kurds, dialectical variations advocate against ethnic origin in common sense. They are also split by religious beliefs. The overwhelming majority are Sunni of Shafii faith, a version of Islam which is not widely practised in this region by others. Nonetheless, large divisive impulses come into play at the level of customs of tribal groups and adherence to spiritual orders. The Kurds seem overwhelmingly attracted to different dervish society and unorthodox Islamic sects. This results in distinctions amongst Kurds.

  1. Formation of PKK & Other Major Kurdish Factions

In 1970’s when there was a military coup, a sense of anti-Kurdish feelings started to engrain; it was during this period there was a revival of Kurdish nationalism. In fact, the period witnessed the formation of more than 15 Kurdish radical parties and movements in the 1970’s advocating Kurdish political, cultural and social demands – either through peaceful means or through armed force (Simon Hadad, 2001).

Founded in 1974 by Abdullah Ocalan, the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, (PKK), also referred as Kurdistan Worker’s Party, sought to create an independent Kurdish state encompassing (Mansbach, Shana, 2019) area of south eastern Turkey, as well as parts of northern Iraq and north eastern Syria in the later stages. The members of PKK were drawn from the lower section of society who were then radicalised. In the early 1980s, favourable relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party allowed for the movement of PKK militants into camps in northern Iraq, from which the PKK launched an armed campaign against Turkey in 1984 (Britannica, 2019).

Turkey has been at odds with the PKK, since the time it started a militant separatist campaign in early 1980’s. Turkey and the US classify the PKK to be a criminal group.  PKK has conducted insurgency against Turkish authorities since 1984 for greater cultural and political freedom, specifically with the intention of forming an autonomous Kurdish state. The current war has led to nearly 40,000 deaths. The PKK, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) (the left-wing pro-Kurdish party) and the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) (the Syrian Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) militant branch with links to the PKK) have been steadily agitating against the regime, carrying out various assaults on the Turkish authority in the southeast.

Source – Al-Jazeera

The PKK has always been seen as a security issue by the (Natalie, Martin, 2018) Turkish government. The PKK’s struggle is also part of the turmoil in Iraq and Syria, where Turkey is trying to assert its influence on a battlefield with many rival forces. PKK’s military leader Cemil Bayik said “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state”, “We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely……The struggle will continue until the Kurds’ innate rights are accepted,” he said (BBC, 2016). PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 was arrested and in 2013, a ceasefire was called between Turkey and Kurds. Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the separatist PKK who was a pro Marxist- Leninist leader mobilised the Kurds to go against Turkey to fight for their rights and the repression they were facing by establishing democratic and united Kurdistan. In 2015, the ceasefire broke off. Their goal of independence has de-escalated to demands for autonomy in recent years, with its leaders seeking some degree of organization and sovereignty for the roughly 35 million stateless Kurds, rather than an internationally recognized state (Mansbach, Shana, 2019).

  1. Kurds, a Threat to Turkey

Around 35 million Kurds live in the Middle East primarily in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The Kurds make up almost one-fifth of Turkey’s seventy-nine million population. With such a large percentage, Kurds are still stateless and marginalised in every state where they reside. The idea of nationhood that was germinated in late 18th century, did not get translated, rather the Kurds have been completely relegated in Turkey resulting in armed revolts against the state since 1984.

The ‘Securitization Theory’ was formulated by Copenhagen school of thought after cold war. According to this theory, when a state labels something as a security issue, it gives the state a sense of urgency that justifies extraordinary measures to deal with it, outside of the political arena (Buzan, Waever and de Wilde, 1998; Geri, Maurizo, 2016). Aligning itself to this theory, Turkey treats Kurds as a major security issue.


The term “terrorists” for the Kurds has been in use since 1980’s (Barrinha, Andre, 2011). Even in United States Department List since 1997 (U.S. Department of States, 2016) as well as in European Union List since 2001 (E.U Terrorist List, 2016), PKK has been claimed as a terrorist group. The beginning of insurgency attacks by the PKK has ever since been labelled as security threat for the country. Also, with the expansion of different militias in neighbouring countries is an instance of securitization of “terrorism” (Barrinha, 2011; Natalie, Martin, 2018) by the Turkish state. Relationships have long been tensed between the Turkish government and the nationless Kurds. The PKK activities, Kurds plight and Turkey’s iron hand to deal with Kurds has caught global attention.


Turkey is one of the Middle East region’s most critical countries: A western ally surrounded by the chaos of the Levant states, a bridge country between Europe and Asia, and a key player of the NATO security system. Turkey started intervening in the sovereign domain of Iraq and Syria in the beginning of 21st century. But few scholars believe that the tension lies within, which means the root cause of the conflict is within the borders of the state. In 2005, in a press conference in Ankara, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, the pressing issue or the problem for Turkey is “Kurds”. Under the Erdogan regime, popular discontent has steadily increased, as seen in the June 2013 Gezi park protests and a July 2016 coup attempt, but tensions have also risen between Turkish authorities and Kurdish groups. (Global Conflict Tracker, 2019).


Turkey suffers from major internal security challenges, ranging from, on one hand groups which support Kurdish independence like Marxist-Leninist inspired PKK, its breakaway faction, Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) and several other such groups, and on the other hand, ultra-nationalist fascists including the Grey Wolves who fight against a peaceful solution to Kurdish nationalism. Turkey has also existed in a state of permanent democratic transition since its founding. The securitization of Kurds in Turkey, has been claimed as a threat to country’s integrity by the Orientalists (Hisyar Ozsoy, 2013). Historically, the identity of Kurds was constructed with reference to a changing set of discourses shaped according to different social and political circumstances (Yeğen, 1999).


Presently, the Turkish government is led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan; the first executive president aligned with presidential system who is in power since 9 July 2018. He is also the leader of the ruling party, Adalat ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, also referred as Justice and Development Party), a seemingly moderate and conservative Islamist party. AKP has recently, almost completely repressed the freedom of speech and press; those who try to investigate or harshly criticize the government are either put in jail or under state control. Zaman, the country’s biggest selling newspaper, was recently subjected to this treatment.


Erdogan government has dealt the Kurds with an iron hand, branding them as terrorists who must be defeated. The government follows historical approach towards Kurds rejecting any political and cultural inclusion of the Kurdish minority into modern Turkey. All Kurdish groups outside of government’s control are considered (Dag, Veysi, 2019) ‘terrorists’ unrepresentative of the country’s Kurdish minority. Branding the Kurds groups as terrorists and using this as an ideological discourse, assists the Erdogan regime in tarnishing the image of the Kurds and demonising their groups to gain ascendency in the international political landscape on one hand and on the other hand justifies their undemocratic, repressive and hostile policies against Kurds, facilitates them in undermining Kurdish voices and effectively silencing Kurdish demands for democratic rights, instead assists Turkey to pursue their own national and regional interests (Dag, Veysi, 2019)


  1. Turkey, Kurds & The Regional Dynamics

In 2018, Turkey with its proxy forces invaded into Afrin, Northern Syria waging a violent attack on all the towns which were controlled by Kurds. With United States supporting Syrian Kurds and providing arms and ammunitions since 2014, created tensions between Ankara and Washington as, USA is ally to both, with Turkey in NATO and with Syrian Kurds in fighting against ISIS.

The situation in Syria has become more chaotic and complex because of several angles, firstly its civil war with Syrian Forces, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on one side and SDF, Kurds, US & its allies on other side; secondly, ISIS with its terrorist and expansionist ideology has different designs in Levant region and thirdly, Turkey with its aim to prevent spill over of Syrian refugees in its region and along with it sympathisers of Kurds who may fan the flame of nationalism in Kurds. In this political melee, more complications grew among Turks and Kurds, with United States as a common ally. Kurds as a group have been a consistent ally for the United States to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) whereas Turkey has been the member of NATO. United States supported Kurdish People Protection Unit (YPG) which is an offshoot of PKK in Syria. YPG joined the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in north eastern Syria to fight against the ISIS. This alliance which is led by the Kurdish fighters has become a crucial group in toppling the Islamic State and thus became important for the United States mission. The dispute between Turkey and the Kurds has deep roots in regional power dynamics that have created a tangled web of interests (Megan Specia, 2019).

With greater influence of SDF near the borders, Turkey became fearful of its presence as the alliance of YPG and SDF became strong. It was perceived by government of Turkey that with growing influence, this alliance might sway the Kurdish people residing in Turkey who were already in a conflict with the government. Within its borders, Turkey government has always tried to counter the PKK which has launched attacks in Turkey in the name of Kurdish nationalism. Currently, Turkey believes that its nationalism and sovereignty is at stake because of the PKK and its with alliance of YPG and SDF.

Taspinar by countering the PKK said “There is no real nationalist anger against ISIS, but there is nationalist anger against PKK” (O’Grady; Berger, 2019)[1]. Turkey believes that the Syrian Kurds’ struggle was elevated to being not only a burgeoning centre of newly empowered Kurdish nationalism (Natalie, Martin, 2018) which is rising and might affect the Kurds in Turkey which are the PKK, but they are also, a major flashpoint in the internalization of the political conflict in northern Syria because of “demonstration effect”, structural factors, strategic interaction and flow of refugees (Natalie, Martin, 2018)  in the neighbouring countries specially in Turkey leading to ethnic civil war diffusion and interstate conflicts as well (Lawson 2016, 479–483).

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said the goal of the incursion in northeast Syria was “to destroy the terror corridor” that he said Kurdish forces were trying to establish on his country’s southern border, and to bring peace to the region (Megan Specia, 2019). The Syrian Kurds, whom the US has supported with weapons and training in its fight against the Syrian regime and ISIS, is considered by Ankara as inseparable from the PKK, the officials said (Mehul Srivastava, 2016).

United States and Turkey have been allies for more than six decades, but in recent years their relationship has been repeatedly strained by disputes. A Turkish military offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia allied with the U.S has created the largest disorder (Selcan Hocaoglu and Bloomberg, 2019). This has culminated to, dramatic shifts in U.S. and Turkish policy toward Kurdish political and military actors, both within Turkey and in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. During this period, Turkish policy has oscillated from engagement with Kurdish players in pursuit of peaceful rapprochement to hard-edged repression at home and military intervention abroad. (Max Hoffman, 2019).


5.1 Safe Zone – the Creation of a Security Zone.

The Northern Syria Buffer Zone or Safe Zone or Peace Corridor was established by USA as a temporary Civil War demilitarized zone on the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2019 to maintain security along the border and to dissuade a prospective Turkish invasion as also to contain the Syrian Kurdish refugees from entering Turkey. However, the establishment of this zone could not be completed and rather the arrangement collapsed in October 2019 when the US president announced the withdrawal of US troops.

Turkey exploited the situation and launched an operation called Op Peace Spring conducting an incursion on 9 October 2019 to serve two motives, one to block the refugees and second to break the connection between PKK and YPG and PYD. With the creation of safe zone by Turkey and Russia between Turkey and Northern Syria, in a way has eased the tension within the borders. On the other hand, Syrian Kurds still fear the movement of Turkish ground and aerial forces in their domain could lead to assault on the country’s minority population. This region of Kurds, Turkey sees in general as a threat, which is one of the reasons why Turkey build a safe zone/dubbing zone/buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and Kurds in Syria (Leah West, 2019).

Currently, Turkey is facing economic crisis, with Turkey accommodating millions of Syrian refugees from the Syrian civil war, President Erdogan now is confronting pressure to resolve the refugee and unemployment crisis.  These Syrian refugees are mostly living in the areas of Kurds.

  1. The Question of Turkey’s Nationalism

Nationalism that arose in the making of the Turkish state amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago is one of the main reasons that most Turks support the government’s “wars on Kurds”, writes Stephen Star in the Arab Weekly (Ahval News, 2018). Many scholars argue that Turkish nationalism, which is perceived to promote Turkic ethnicity at the expense of other ethnic groups, fostered and radicalized ethnic Kurdish nationalism (Tezcur, 2009). The Turkish state’s discriminatory, violent, and exclusive policies have had a decisive influence in shaping contemporary Kurdish nationalism (Yavuz 2001: 1; Smith 2005).

Turkish nationalism has traditionally imagined the Turkish nation as a culturally homogeneous unified whole. The most visible and serious challenges of the unitary ideal offered by the official state nationalism have been both the violent campaigns of the PKK from 1984 onwards, and the activities of a series of legal pro-Kurdish political parties from 1990 onwards (Tezcur, 2009). In 2009, Prime Minister Erdogan, tried to accommodate Kurds in Turkey, but it failed. The opposition party revolted along with citizens and asked the PM about the identity of Kurds’ “Turkishness”. On the other hand, many Turkish Kurds accused the government of supporting the Islamist militants against Kurdish fighters in Syria – an allegation the Turkish government denies (Bohn, Lauren, 2015).

Turkey sees the Kurds as an intolerable threat to its policies of territorial integrity and affiliated vision of Islamic Turkishness. Hence, Kurds in Turkey have constantly faced xenophobic, repressive and discriminatory treatment at the hands of Turkish nationalists. The Turkish government fears a distinct Kurdish ethnicity and sentiments of nationalism rising given the success of the Kurds in Northern Syria, and these run counter to the Turkish narrative and strategic vision. Its proponents are therefore perceived as a threat (Dag, Veysi, 2019).

Some intellectuals and scholars consider the old method of denial and oppression by Turks towards Kurds has resulted into creating turmoil in the political, social and cultural landscape of Turkey and so far, has resulted into environment of mutual distrust and has backfired. The Turkey government’s refusal of Kurds integrating in the country is because they consider that Kurds might modify their political ideology of cultural enrichment towards radicalisation which might usher to separation and division of the Turkey.

  1. Conclusion

Kurds may play a vital role in solving the crisis in Levant region. The credit to the Kurdish struggle against the IS offensive in Syria and Iraq is a significant reference point for understanding how the process of re-writing the “map of the Middle East” (Hill 2014; Haas 2014; Baykal 2015), reimagining and reproducing the Kurdish political geography is shaped (Natalie, Martin, 2018) and could eliminate the global terrorists.

Recent years have seen the PKK grow weaker, at least in sheer numerical terms. Originally boasting a force of 50,000 fighters, the PKK force is now estimated to number between 3,000-4,000. The guerrilla tactics that the PKK found so effective in the 1980s and 1990s have been stymied by an intense effort from the Turkish military, culminating in the capture of Ocalan, leaving the movement largely declawed and enfeebled. Despite these setbacks, support among Kurds remains high (Mansbach, Shana, 2019). The Turkish government and PKK should declare a ceasefire for minimum three years to create the necessary conditions for political dialogues to be held and pursued by both the parties.

International involvement and mediation to solve this burning issue of Kurds in Levant region by the UN, and the pressure from USA and EU bringing countries of Levant region and Russia on board are likely to trigger initiation of peace process. The peace may be brokered on the promises by Kurds to disarm PKK and restrict its demand to autonomy without endangering Turkish sovereignty whereas Turkey recognise Kurds as a minority and grant them limited autonomy to begin with.

State policies that ignore the Kurds in official historiography and impose the symbols of Turkish nationalism over Kurdish landscape have stimulated a chauvinistic Kurdish nationalism (Canefe 2002; Öktem 2004). To get back on track on its path of democratization, towards a real liberal and meaningful democracy for all, Turkey needs to respect minority rights and be inclusive with its biggest ethnic non-religious minority, as otherwise not only will the integration in the EU have to wait, notwithstanding the help that Turkey may receive in the fight against DAESH-ISIS or the refugee crisis, but the complete integration of Turkey into the international community of democracies will also have to be postponed to an uncertain future (Geri, Maurizo, 2016).

Turkey till date refuses to give any regional autonomy to the Kurdish region. If Turkey wants to be serious in solving the Kurds issue, the military solutions will not achieve the aims; mere mouthing of platitudes by Turkish government won’t make peace; and political moves to build mutual trust and tolerance without being substantiated will not work. Turkish government has to treat this conflict under political domain rather than securitizing the issue and Turks have to recognize Kurds as a minority group bringing them into their folds, earn their trust by respecting their culture, traditions and language. Meanwhile, the government should grant Kurds limited autonomy that may be scaled up seeing the response of Kurds to embed themselves into the main stream, it seems to be a viable and logical solution at hand as it will be a win-win situation for both, Turkey will gain confidence in international political arena and Kurds will feel sense of liberty as also proud to be a part of Turkey.


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