The Resurgence of the Kurds

by Christopher de Bellaigue, 'The New York Review of Books,' June 6, 2013

The fortunes of the Kurds started to look up as a result of events beyond their control…

One of the most surprising aspects of this success is the change it has brought about in Turkey’s attitude toward the Iraqi Kurds…

The Turks seem to be backing away from Iraq’s federal government, looking to the Kurds to provide a buffer between them and the Iran-dominated Shia zone. State-backed Turkish energy companies are competing for a stake in Iraqi Kurdistan’s big oil and gas fields and there are plans for a pipeline that would pump oil to Turkey without passing through Iraqi federal government territory. That would demonstrate Iraqi Kurdistan’s growing detachment from Baghdad—and the short distance between the Kurds and outright independence.


bellaigue_1-060613.jpgNikos Economopoulos/Magnum PhotosAbdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), at a PKK training camp, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 1991. He is now imprisoned on the Turkish island of Imrali. The paintings in the background are of Öcalan, left, and a PKK soldier killed in battle.

The announcement on March 23 by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of a cease-fire with Turkey is only one sign among many that the fortunes of the Kurds may be taking a new, more hopeful direction. For almost a century, they have inspired sympathy for the underdog. Jonathan Randal’s book After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?: My Encounters with Kurdistan (1997), for example, describes the brave, inept, and inevitably doomed efforts of the Kurds to gain recognition as a nation. After more than three hundred pages, Randal ends rather abruptly, as if he has had his fill of Kurdish misery.

Randal was writing in the mid-1990s, when things were no more than usually awful for the Kurds in the four states that had incorporated, between them, the Kurdish-inhabited parts of the Ottoman Empire. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the militias loyal to the main leaders there, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, fought over the autonomous territory they had unexpectedly gained from Saddam Hussein as a result of the first Gulf War in 1991. Across the border in Turkey, fighters from the PKK were pounded by the Turkish military, and the Kurdish population of Turkey was deprived of elementary rights, including the right to teach and broadcast in Kurdish. Iran’s ablest Kurdish leader had been assassinated, and in Hafez al-Assad’s Syria the small Kurdish community was suppressed almost to the point of invisibility.

Today conditions for many Kurds have improved dramatically. Indeed, of the four big Kurdish communities, only Iran’s is neither seizing an opportunity nor sizing one up. The Kurds are in a period of accelerating change.1

Ten years ago, Iraq was freed from the genocidal Saddam Hussein, who saw the Kurds as a subversive group that had to be suppressed. They are now free to run their own affairs there, amid growing prosperity. In Syria, the Kurds are experiencing autonomy for the first time—albeit in ghastly and uncertain circumstances. Perhaps most important of all, emancipation of a less tangible kind is coming to the Kurds of Turkey.

On March 21, the Kurdish (and Persian) new year, a large crowd gathered in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan, to hear a message by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, which was read out by another veteran of the Kurdish struggle. Öcalan announced the withdrawal of the PKK’s armed militants across the border into Iraq, where it has a network of camps. Withdrawal, the message went on, signaled the beginning of a new “political struggle,” replacing the military one the PKK has been waging for the past twenty-nine years. Two days later, Öcalan announced a cease-fire as part of a deal he had worked out with the government of Recip Tayyip Erdoğan.

Back in 1984, the PKK took up arms with the aim of gaining territory from Turkey, while the Turkish army resolved to extinguish, once and for all, the Kurds’ claim to be a separate nation. But the PKK’s new “peaceful struggle” aims at a quite different outcome. If it ends successfully, and it still has some way to go, Turkey’s Kurds will have achieved recognition through a revised constitution that does not discriminate against them and does not fracture Turkey itself. The Turkish state is preparing to reconstitute itself in order to accommodate the politicized, self-aware Kurds in its midst.

Great cheers punctuated the reading of Öcalan’s message in Diyarbakir—cheers for peace after three decades of war. On April 25, in the mountains of Iraq, Murat Karayılan, the commander of the PKK forces, announced the withdrawal of all PKK fighters from Turkey starting on May 8, though he rejected Turkey’s demand that they lay down their arms before doing so. That, he has made clear, will only happen once Kurdish rights have been guaranteed in a new constitution and thousands of political prisoners have been released from Turkish jails.

The Kurds are a people of Indo-European origin, speaking languages from the Iranian family and concentrated, for at least the past two and a half millennia, in the Zagros Mountains above Mesopotamia. Unlike other minorities at the close of the Ottoman era (such as the Armenians), the Kurds did not have Western support for their claim to a national home, and so, when the new borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran were drawn up by the great powers in the 1920s, the Kurds found themselves distributed across them (see the map below). (The Armenians, who had lost at least one million people in the Ottoman massacres of 1915—in which the Kurds participated—were awarded a homeland.)

The Kurds and their aristocracy of feudal lords and religious sheikhs had contributed to the Ottoman system of rule; the end of the empire led only to hardship. They were the object of one of the first aerial bombardments in history (in 1919, by the Royal Air Force, when Britain, which had occupied Iraq after World War I, put down a Kurdish revolt). Thousands of them were killed by Saddam Hussein seven decades later. Meanwhile they were reviled as savages and brigands, persecuted, and forcibly resettled. Their very existence was denied, particularly in Turkey, where the authorities described them as “mountain Turks” and banned not only the public use of the Kurdish language but even Kurdish names.

From the 1920s onward, the Kurds were in a state of semipermanent insurrection. They set up a short-lived nation in northwestern Iran (the Mahabad Republic, in 1946), but their leaders were disunited and the world statesmen whose attention they craved were inconstant. Henry Kissinger encouraged a revolt by Iraqi Kurds against Saddam in the early 1970s. When, in 1975, such a revolt ceased to be in America’s interest, the US did nothing to prevent it from failing, with the result that Saddam started another campaign to destroy the Kurds.

For all that—perhaps because of all that—the Kurds did not die out. Victimhood on a grand scale hardened their sense of identity, which pours forth in epic, ululating dirges and is preserved in a distinctive religious culture, cuisine, and codes of honor and revenge. The Kurds have shown scorn for the frontiers that theoretically divide them, smuggling fuel, consumer goods, and political ideas over the mountain passes, as well as more traditional commodities: men for combat and young women for marriage.

Counting Kurds isn’t easy, since it is complicated by rates of internal migration and intermarriage between Kurds and non-Kurds. Nonetheless, there is no dispute that Turkey contains the most—an estimated 15 million—while Iraq and Iran are thought to have five and seven million respectively, and Syria between two and three million. There are also expatriate communities in Western Europe and small groups of Kurds in Armenia and Azerbaijan. For obvious reasons, the Kurds have always been at the mercy of their “host” states—they have felt safe only when those states have been weak.

The fortunes of the Kurds started to look up as a result of events beyond their control. In 1991, the US and its allies expelled Saddam from Kuwait, and Iraq’s Kurdish north—once again encouraged by Washington—rose in rebellion against his misrule. The revolt collapsed when it became clear that the US was not interested in bringing down Saddam. Anticipating bloody retribution, Kurdish civilians flooded across the Iraqi border into Turkey. The world’s attention was suddenly drawn to a people that had suffered horribly in the past and would do so again—if Western leaders sat on their hands.

But the West acted on this occasion (prodded by journalists such as Jonathan Randal, then a reporter for The Washington Post). First, the United Nations Security Council resolved to send humanitarian aid to the Kurds. Then Britain and France encouraged a reluctant President George H.W. Bush to help set up safe havens for them, protected by a no-fly zone; a line was drawn preventing Saddam from recapturing and laying waste to Iraqi Kurdistan. This humanitarian operation prepared the way for the autonomous Kurdish government of today.

The Iraqi Kurdish leaders Barzani and Talabani ended their internal conflict as the US prepared to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraq’s postwar constitution recognized a regional Kurdish government that, although tarnished by corruption and a growing intolerance of dissent, has worked relatively well, showing, in the words of a new book by a Kurdish scholar, Mohammed Ahmed, “that the Kurds were capable of self-rule and of developing their own region independent of the rest of Iraq.”2

For the most part, Iraqi Kurdistan under self-rule has escaped the civil sectarian conflicts that bedevil the rest of Iraq and has now become a relatively stable, quasi-independent state. It has its own armed forces and is visited by world leaders—as well as the CEOs of major energy companies bidding to exploit its oil and gas reserves. As Ahmed writes, “Despite their own internal disputes, the Kurds demonstrated to the world that they were nation-builders…not a bunch of thieves, highway robbers, and illiterate people, as their neighbors had described them before.”

One of the most surprising aspects of this success is the change it has brought about in Turkey’s attitude toward the Iraqi Kurds. Back in the 1990s, Turkey’s generals and senior politicians were allergic to the word “Kurdistan” even when it was used outside their borders. They showed their contempt for Kurdish autonomy in “northern Iraq” by launching big and destructive military operations in pursuit of PKK guerrillas who took refuge there.

But since 2003, and especially once Iraq’s Arab regions fell into violence after the US invasion, the Turks have grown more respectful. Turkey now has a consulate-general in Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, headed by a diplomat who speaks of “Iraqi Kurdistan” and refers to Massoud Barzani as its “president.” Since 2005, Talabani has been the federal president, in Baghdad, though he is now incapacitated after suffering a stroke. Iraqi Kurdistan has turned into a valued neighbor. In 2012 Turkish exports to Iraq were worth $10.8 billion, 70 percent of which went to the Kurdish north.

Turkey’s relations with the Kurds have improved while their relations with the Iraqi central government of Nouri al-Maliki have deteriorated. There is a sectarian angle to this: Maliki and his allies are Shia, and close to Iran, while the Turks and the Kurds are mostly Sunni. The two governments are also backing different sides in Syria’s civil war. Turkey supports the Sunni-dominated opposition, and Maliki, less overtly, but consistent with Iranian policy, is supporting President Bashar al-Assad.

The Turks seem to be backing away from Iraq’s federal government, looking to the Kurds to provide a buffer between them and the Iran-dominated Shia zone. State-backed Turkish energy companies are competing for a stake in Iraqi Kurdistan’s big oil and gas fields and there are plans for a pipeline that would pump oil to Turkey without passing through Iraqi federal government territory. That would demonstrate Iraqi Kurdistan’s growing detachment from Baghdad—and the short distance between the Kurds and outright independence.

The fighting in Syria has also presented an opportunity to the Kurds there, permitting them to take control of several enclaves in which there is a Kurdish majority. The Democratic Union Party, a well-armed Syrian branch of the PKK, has set up councils and security checkpoints, and even seized oil fields. But this experiment may not end in Iraq-style autonomy—however the civil war ends. Syria’s Kurds are fewer and even more divided than their cousins across the border in Turkey, and their enclaves are surrounded by non-Kurds. Kurdish groups like the Democratic Union Party have cooperated with Assad’s government in the past, and have edgy relations with the Arab opposition, although that may now be changing with reports of coordination between the two. A solid alliance between the Kurds and the Arab opposition in Syria would please Turkey because it would place constraints on the Kurds’ separatist aspirations. For that reason, it may not happen.

Kurdish nationalism in Turkey has evolved under different circumstances. The Kurds of Turkey occupy a much bigger area than those in Iraq, Syria, or Iran. Poverty and the PKK rebellion have pushed millions of them from their homeland in the southeast of the country into the calmer, more prosperous western and central provinces. Over the years, the rebellion has become one of identity, not land. To date, the war has cost some 40,000 lives, mainly Kurdish, and several hundred billion dollars, mainly Turkish.

The Turkish state lost much prestige as a result of its tactics. In the 1990s, Turkish security forces emptied villages across the war zone; Kurds suspected of PKK links were murdered by the thousands. Turkish judges filled the jails with Kurds and many journalists applauded the generals’ “military solution,” while some of those who were in touch with the PKK were sent to prison. But this hard-line policy turned out to be no solution at all. It devastated the southeast of the country, unbalanced the economy, and corrupted the state—including many members of the security forces, who developed links to the criminal underworld. Again and again, top army commanders announced a “final” offensive to crush the PKK leader, the “baby-killer” Abdullah Öcalan. Again and again, they sent jets screaming over the mountains in pursuit of a foe too dispersed, too fleet of foot, to be pinned down and beaten.

Öcalan’s capture by the Turks in 1999 was not the coup de grâce the authorities had been hoping for. On the contrary, his continuing support by Kurds during his incarceration (on the prison island of Imrali, in the Sea of Marmara) has confirmed his central importance to the conflict—and to any solution. It is hard to observe the PKK for years, as I have, and not recoil from Öcalan’s cult of personality, as well as the brutal practices of “self-criticism” and enforced celibacy that he uses to enforce his hold over his followers. Over the years, many PKK members have been executed for the crime of romantic relations with a militant of the opposite sex. “No theoretical judgment is sufficiently commodious to accommodate Abdullah Öcalan” runs a typical line from one of his execrable books. His organization has committed many atrocities over the years, including the murder of noncombatants. And yet many Kurds believe that Öcalan is a man of genius.3 If he complains about prison conditions, they take to the streets to demand an improvement. Last November, at his command, hundreds of his jailed supporters broke a hunger strike in its sixty-ninth day and asked their jailers for food.

The road to peace passes through Imrali, the prison that holds him, but until recently it was unclear whether Turkey’s prime minister intended to take it. Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) come from Turkey’s long-oppressed Islamist tradition; they have little love for the secular, unitary state established in 1923 by Atatürk. Since coming to power in 2002, the AKP has raised the visibility of Islam in public life and cut sharply the power of the army. Hundreds of officers, serving and retired, are currently behind bars on charges of plotting against the government.

Some of Turkey’s Islamists feel nostalgia for the multiethnic Ottoman Empire, and are sympathetic to the idea of a multiethnic Turkey. Erdoğan has made concessions to the Kurds, ending torture and funding Kurdish- language classes and broadcasting. Still, his commitment to peace has been in doubt. Thousands of Kurdish noncombatants have been jailed since he came to power. Until the recent cease-fire, the war with the PKK had actually become bloodier in recent years—according to the International Crisis Group, more than seven hundred people were killed between June 2011 and August 2012.

Turkey’s intelligence chief and Öcalan have agreed on a “road map” to peace, which Öcalan was allowed to show to colleagues from the PKK’s political arm, the Peace and Democracy Party. They, in turn, showed it to the PKK’s current military leaders, who are based in Iraqi Kurdistan. In view of Öcalan’s dominance over the movement, it was always very likely that these commanders would approve the road map—which they did, leading to his announcement of a withdrawal from Turkey.

There have been negotiations, withdrawals, and cease-fires in the past—all without lasting results. What distinguishes the new détente, for which Öcalan has long indicated his support, are Erdoğan’s reasons for encouraging it.

Turkey’s prime minister is keen to forestall fallout from the war in Syria—and, one presumes, to limit the threat posed by PKK-dominated enclaves if Assad is overthrown. Domestically he has long wanted to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system of government with an executive presidency, occupied by himself. But Turkey’s other mainstream parties have withheld support for his plans, which will, they fear, turn him into an elected dictator.

This is where the Kurds come in. The Peace and Democracy Party has twenty-six parliamentary deputies. If, as now seems likely, they vote with the prime minister’s AKP in favor of a new constitution, that would lead to a referendum on the question—which Erdoğan, Turkey’s most powerful politician in half a century, thinks he can win. Öcalan favors an Erdoğan presidency, as long as the new constitution contains the main terms of a Kurdish settlement.

From the Kurdish perspective, the new constitution (the details of which have to be negotiated during the coming months) would have several beneficial features. The old ethnic definition of Turkish citizenship would be dropped, as well as the current ban on Kurdish as a language of instruction. Election rules would be modified to help small—i.e., Kurdish—parties enter parliament. At the same time, Kurdish activists would be freed from jail. Only when all this had happened would Öcalan—who might by then be under comfortable house arrest—order his militants to give up their arms.

As many commentators in Turkey have noted, the process will be long, and violent groups on both sides want to derail it. (That seems to have been the motive behind the unexplained murder of three PKK activists in Paris, including a founder of the organization, in January.) Others worry about Erdoğan’s ability to convince his supporters to back a deal. But if he can’t, nobody can. Although many Turks distrust him for his obvious ambition, Erdoğan continues to enjoy great authority among the mildly Islamist voters who dominate the country’s politics—an authority he’s acquired by political success and by showing that he has staying power.

The deal now being worked out in Turkey could alter the unitary nature of the state in ways that can only be guessed at. No one is promising the Kurds an independent, or even a semidetached, Kurdistan. This leaves open the question of Kurdish nationalism elsewhere, and whether it can be satisfied within those hated colonial-era borders.

Unification, at least in rhetoric, remains the common dream of millions of Kurds around the world. But none of their current leaders seems to be working toward it. Provided that the Kurds are recognized as a legitimate group, and have the freedom to trade and visit, many argue that they are better served if they are divided among four states—each with its own seacoast (which an independent Kurdistan would not have), infrastructure, and resources.

And yet there is no telling how far the Kurds’ current impetus will take them. In Iraqi Kurdistan, for instance, Massoud Barzani has hinted that the Kurds will strike out for independence if Maliki continues in power past 2014 (when his opponents hope to force him to stand down). Federal and Kurdish fighters glare at each other across the oil-rich territory of Kirkuk, claimed by both. Last December, the prime minister of the Kurdish region, Nechirvan Barzani—Massoud’s nephew and son-in-law—told Time that the Kurds now had a “very good opportunity” to achieve independence, but “being landlocked we have to have a partner, a regional power to be convinced.”4 His reference to Turkey was unmistakable.

For all the Turks’ change in attitude toward the Kurds, it seems unlikely that they would tolerate a Kurdistan completely independent of Iraq, let alone one that would include southeastern Turkey. Hubris and overconfidence have undone the Kurds in the past and today’s risks, including war with federal Iraq and the loss of Syria’s self-governing Kurdish enclaves, are high.

Then there is the hostility of Iran, which regards its mainly Sunni Kurds as challenging the Shia nature of the state. In 2001, the Iranians dealt with the immediate threat posed by the PKK’s Iranian offshoot, the Party of Free Life for Kurdistan (PJAK), by attacking it militarily and confining it, through diplomacy, to Iraqi Kurdistan. But the future attitude of the PJAK—like that of the Democratic Union Party in Syria—depends on what happens in Turkey. If Turkey were refounded on a partnership of Turks and Kurds, that would put more pressure on the Iranians, who subordinate the Kurds (particularly the Sunni ones) to a centralized state.

For all the uncertainties, after a century of struggle, the Kurds have a new opportunity to consolidate their place in the world. Their tenacity and their leaders’ adroit exploitation of outside events have given them a louder voice, and more room for maneuver, than at any time in their modern history.

May 7, 2013


1. The International Crisis Group’s report “Iraq and the Kurds: The High-Stakes Hydrocarbons Gambit” (April 19, 2012) describes the bitter dispute between the government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government over control of the Kurds’ oil resources. “Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement” (September 11, 2012) suggests ways to achieve a lasting settlement of the Kurdish issue in Turkey. “Syria’s Kurds: A Struggle Within a Struggle” (January 22, 2013) describes the Kurdish nationalist movement in Syria and the prospects for Kurdish autonomy if Bashar al-Assad is removed from power. I have also found Jordi Tejel’s book Syria’s Kurds: History, Politics and Society (Routledge, 2009) very informative. 

2. Iraqi Kurds and Nation-Building (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 

3. In this way, Öcalan, an autodidact with Leninist proclivities, enjoys the sort of veneration that many religious Kurds give to their sheikhs. I am grateful to Djene Bajalan, of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, for this insight. 

4. Jay Newton-Small, “An Interview with Nechirvan Barzani: Will There Be an Independent Kurdistan?,” Time, December 21, 2012. 

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