Approximately thirty million Kurds live in the Middle East—primarily in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—and the Kurds comprise nearly one-fifth of Turkey’s population of seventy-nine million. The PKK, established by Abdullah Ocalan in 1978, has waged an insurgency since 1984 against Turkish authorities for greater cultural and political rights, primarily with the objective of establishing an independent Kurdish state. The ongoing conflict has resulted in nearly forty thousand deaths.
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. In particular, the PKK, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) (a left-wing pro-Kurdish party), and the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) (the armed wing of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) with ties to the PKK) have increasingly agitated against the government, conducting numerous attacks against Turkish authorities in the southeast.
In July 2015, a two-year cease-fire between Turkey’s government and the PKK collapsed following a suicide bombing by suspected self-proclaimed Islamic State militants that killed nearly thirty Kurds near the Syrian border. Following the coup attempt in July 2016, Erdogan cracked down on suspected coup conspirators, arrested an estimated fifty thousand people, and increased air strikes on PKK militants in southeastern Turkey. He also began conducting military operations in Syria against the YPG and the self-declared Islamic State.
Beyond Turkey, Syrian Kurdish fighters have been combating the Islamic State, largely as part of the SDF—an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters backed by the United States—and have created a semi-autonomous region in Northern Syria. In September 2014, PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called for the Kurds to start an “all-out resistance” in the fight against the Islamic State; later that month, the Kurdish-controlled town of Kobani was besieged and eventually captured, resulting in the exodus of tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds to Turkey. The ensuing battle for Kobani resulted in more than 1,600 deaths, but the Kurdish-led SDF forces eventually regained control of the city in January 2015. The SDF also liberated the strategic Syrian city of Manbij from the Islamic State in August 2016, though YPG forces (part of the SDF coalition) clashed with Turkish-backed rebels attempting to gain control.
After the YPG and SDF consolidated control over territory captured from the Islamic State in northern Syria, Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian militias, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), moved to recapture cities and expel the Kurds. Turkish troops and the FSA launched an assault on the city of Afrin in January 2018, eventually capturing the city in March 2018. Turkey continues to threaten assaults on other Kurdish-held areas inside Syria, including Manbij, and despite sharing a common enemy, many of Turkey’s air strikes have targeted Kurdish fighters rather than Islamic State militants.
The alliance of Kurdish fighters has also converged in Iraq, where the Islamic State had advanced toward the autonomous Kurdish region in the northern part of the country. The Peshmerga—armed fighters who protect Iraqi Kurdistan—have joined with Iraqi security forces and received arms and financial assistance from the United States.
If the Kurds do succeed in establishing an independent state in Syria amid the chaos gripping the region, it could accelerate secessionist movements in other Kurdish areas of the Middle East. Heightened terrorist activity by Kurdish separatists is also a growing concern for the United States— and its allies—which designated the PKK a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.
U.S.-Turkey relations have faltered since Erdogan renewed calls for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen—a Turkish political and religious leader in self-imposed exile in the United States—whom Erdogan believes to be an organizer of the July 2016 coup. Relations have also suffered because of the United States’ close relationship with Kurdish groups—the United States continues to supply arms to Peshmerga troops fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and has provided arms to the Syrian YPG—and the increasingly close relationship between Russia and Turkey.
The Turkish military regularly targets Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) bases in Iraq and in 2018, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he would launch a formal operation against Kurds in Iraq. The Iraqi government has issued formal complaints against Turkish incursions into its sovereign territory. In January 2019, the Turkish government claimed that separatist Kurdish militants tied to the PKK conducted an attack on a Turkish army base in northern Iraq that resulted in damage to military equipment and no casualties.
After U.S. President Donald J. Trump announced in December 2018 that the United States would begin withdrawing troops from Syria, Syrian Kurds, who have largely fought as members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), expressed concerns that Turkey would increase its attacks against them. Ilham Ahmed, the leader of the Syrian Kurds’ largest political organization, asked western governments to create an international observer force along the Syria-Turkey border. In January 2019, Trump threatened to sanction Turkey should the Turkish military attack U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria and U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton indicated that the United States would continue to seek reassurances from Erdogan that the Syrian Kurds would not be attacked. As the Syrian civil war winds down, Erdogan and Trump have continued to discuss options for establishing a safe zone and whether the United States will retrieve the weapons it provided to the Syrian Kurds.