Rufat Ahmadzada
Observing the Caucasus, Iran and Middle East

What next for the Kurds in the Middle East?

Source: Council on Foreign Relations


As Turkish President Erdogan’s northern Syria offensive goes ahead, the future of Kurdish politics in the Middle East is uncertain. Having suffered strong setbacks, the Kurds are facing a dilemma regarding their political aspirations in the region.

Following the 2015 Turkish parliamentary elections, President Erdogan chose a total clampdown on Kurdish politics inside and outside Turkey. Despite being a non-violent, democratic entity and having seats in the Turkish parliament, the pro-Kurdish HDP party was suppressed by Erdogan’s AKP government. President Erdogan accused the HDP leader, Turkish MP Selahattin Demirtas, of organizing riots to protest against the ISIS offensive on the Kurdish city of Kobane. Sending troops to the country’s south-east region reignited military clashes between the Turkish security forces and PKK militants.

Perhaps a golden opportunity for Erdogan was the 2016 failed coup attempt by a small part of the Turkish military. Although the HDP strongly opposed the coup attempt, Erdogan used it to silence all of his critics and particularly the HDP and its leaders. Today, some HDP MPs have been stripped of their immunity and jailed.

When the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum was declared, Erdogan made it clear that he was not going to watch in silence, and if the referendum declared Iraqi Kurdistan independent he would cut off the oil flow through Turkey to Western markets. With Turkey flexing its military muscle and coordinating with Iran against the Kurdish independence referendum, the Kurds could not find international support for independence and the result of the referendum was nullified.

President Erdogan’s AKP has recently faced multiple political setbacks in Turkey. Losing mayoral elections in Istanbul and Ankara, the two biggest cities, to the opposition CHP, economic stagnation, the growth of unemployment and inflation, strained relations with its NATO allies due to human rights abuses and Syrian policies have all diminished Erdogan’s popularity. Former AKP members such as former PM Davutoglu and former Turkish president Abdullah Gul have publicly denounced Erdogan’s policies and created a new party. In addition, the high number of Syrian refugees in Turkey – around 4 million – has combined with economic frustration to make Turkish society intolerant of the Syrians. Clearly the opposition gains in the Istanbul and Ankara mayoral elections are linked to this factor.

Now President Erdogan is looking to cut his recent losses by invading northern Syria and settling around 3 million Syrian refugees there. Erdogan wants to achieve three objectives: getting rid of the Kurdish SDF which is considered the Syrian branch of the PKK; settling Syrian Arabs in northern Syria to reduce domestic public anger; and rallying nationalistic/Islamist sentiments behind him to boost his political power in Turkey.


Washington’s Syrian policy was heavily invested in the PYD/YPG Kurdish groups, which are ideologically and politically close to the PKK. Erdogan’s calls to establish safe zones in northern Syria are nothing new, as he has done this since the start of the conflict in Syria. PYD/YPG co chairman Salih Muslim used to visit Ankara and hold meetings with the Turkish Foreign Ministry in 2013/14. When Washington was looking for a ground force to use in the fight against ISIS, the PYD/YPG become a natural ally. To reduce Turkey’s concerns the Obama administration rebranded the Kurdish groups as the Syrian Democratic Forces by recruiting a small number of Arabs. With American military help and especially air cover, the SDF was eventually able to defeat ISIS, but it resulted in the gains of Arab territories. Some clashes between Arabs and Kurds happened due to the SDF’s control of Arab areas, and as a result some of the Arab population was displaced.

President Trump, unlike his predecessor, is unwilling to stay in Syria, and Erdogan’s current military offensive is connected to this factor. A problematic part of America’s Syria policy was ignoring Turkey’s long-term conflict with the PKK and its allies in Syria. Choosing a militia over Turkey could not be interpreted as a solution, considering the fact that the US forces cannot be stationed in Syria and the SDF is incapable of controlling the entire area forever. Without the US air cover the SDF cannot hold its ground against the militarily superior force of Turkey and their defeat is certain, as happened in Afrin.

Kurdish politics is facing strong pressure on multiple fronts. Turkey’s inability to transform into a liberal democratic country makes it difficult for the Kurds to survive politically. Erdogan’s purchase of the democratic HDP in a way emboldens the PKK to recruit the Kurdish youth. The past 50 years have shown that Turkey cannot solve the PKK issue military. Kurdish political aspirations will have to take into account the importance of having common ground with Turkey. In this process non-violent, secular-democratic struggle is becoming a necessity. The Kurds need to framework a new strategy for the future existence of their political aspirations in the region. The creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq would perhaps reduce the tensions in the region, but again it requires the blessing of neighbours such as Turkey and Iran.

About the Author
A native of Azerbaijan, I write extensively on political developments in the Caucasus, Iran and the Middle East. City, University of London graduate.
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