After five years of war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (better known in those countries as Daesh, a derogatory term), the Kurdish people had to face the problems of their past, starting with the division among the geographical borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. One of the consequences of the war against Daesh is the process of internal displacement and often radicalization of people. These individuals often move from areas formerly controlled by the so-called Islamic State: they’re often women and children of jihadists that were killed or detained by the Kurds, who captured them in the areas they had liberated. Some of the women and children have arrived in Syria and Iraq over the years (almost always crossing the border illegally from Turkey), traumatized by Daesh’s propaganda.
Their original countries ignored them, perhaps to put pressure on foreign governments, so much that in October 2020 the Kurdish-Syrian authorities announced that they intended to free about 25,000 civilians incarcerated for years in Al-Hol detention camp – considered as a real lager by the journalists who visited it. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic impacted all the countries touched by Kurdistan: often they did not even a real vaccination plan (except Turkey, although doses were not enough for the entire population in any case, and systematically denied to the Kurds) and where the health system is often deficient or inaccessible to many. This applies especially to Iran under the Ayatollahs, isolated from the West and subjected to a decades-long international embargo; but also to Syria, just out of 10 years of civil war that left several areas of the country in economic and social destruction. On 21 May 2021, French non-governmental organisation Médecins Sans Frontières denounced the surge in Coronavirus infections in Syria due to people facing considerable difficulties in accessing diagnostic tests and health services.
In the rich autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan (dominated by the oil industry), the Covid-19 pandemic has instead worsened the existing tough economic crisis caused by a long and costly war with Daesh. Unpaid wages have been added to endemic corruption and nepotism, generating discontent among the population. Since the end of November 2020, numerous demonstrations against the work of Prime Minister Masrour Barzani were violently repressed by the executive, resulting in many casualties.
What is being fought for
The Kurdish people are carrying out an armed fight on several fronts for the recognition of their self-determination, autonomy, identity, and civil and political rights still denied within the four states in which they are forced to live. Indeed, governments of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq of Saddam Hussein have always tried (albeit in different ways and stages) to deny the very existence of the Kurdish people, erasing their culture, history and language by often carrying out bloody repressions. Activists of human rights organisations (such as Human Rights Watch) or the European institutions support them. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has repeatedly denounced the fact that basic rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and association are not guaranteed in Turkey. It is also for this reason that, in November 1978, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (better known as the PKK) was founded by Abdullah Öcalan. He was imprisoned by the Turkish government in early 1999 and sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
Now, active groups and fighting units inspired by the ideals of this paramilitary organization are basically supported by the popular masses throughout the Kurdish region. However, the PKK is designed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union because of its armed struggle carried out principally via suicide bombing attacks.
The Kurds are an Iranian people speaking an Indo-European language. They make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, living in a largely mountainous region. The majority of Kurds, about 12 million people, live in an area of about 250 thousand km2 – equivalent to almost 30% of the Turkish territory, whereas 6 million live in Iran, 4 million in Iraq, a million in Syria. Additionally, about 300,000 Kurds are scattered in the neighbouring former republics of the Soviet Union, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan.
A few more million Kurds support the diaspora from abroad, mainly (but not only) in Germany and Austria: their number has grown enormously in recent years, due to migrants and asylum seekers who flee their country because of conflicts. If the Kurdish region, made up of four different countries, was united politically, managing to put an end to internal political divisions, it would be the richest nation in the Middle East. The Kurdistan territory has an abundance of raw materials such as oil, minerals, and water resource, a factor that explains why the countries of the Kurdish region do not want to give up those territories.
By the end of the First World War, it seemed possible to declare an independent Kurdish state: according to the Treaty of Sèvres, a peace agreement signed on 10 August 1920, the regional conflict was to be ended by establishing an autonomous Kurdistan in Eastern Anatolia. The Treaty was not respected, however, mainly due to the power of the Turkish Republic emerging from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which superseded the Treaty of Sèvres, formalized the de facto division of Kurdish-inhabited lands among Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Following the First Gulf War (1991), conducted by an international coalition against the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the US established a ‘no-fly zone’ intended to prevent Baghdad’s military reprisals. The US action gave the Iraqi Kurds the opportunity to embrace self-governance. The Second Gulf War, once again driven by a US-led international coalition, marked the fall of Hussein’s regime pushing Iraq to officially recognize the independence to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2003.
In 2005, Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomy was recognised by Baghdad in the new national constitution. A non-binding referendum on independence for the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan was held in 2017. Iraq, Turkey, the United States and Iran opposed it, but 93% of votes were cast in favour of independence. The reaction of the Iraqi Federal Government was quick: the regular army occupied the disputed territories, isolating the area and thus making the vote’s outcome ineffective. On October 25, 2017, the Kurdish government had to concede, settling for the autonomy it already obtained.
It is precisely on the basis of what happened in Iraqi Kurdistan that in 2012 the conditions were favourable enough to create an autonomous region in Syrian Kurdish territory, the so-called Rojava. This success was long-awaited: it came after a civil war first, and then the withdrawal of government forces from the areas of the country inhabited by the Kurdish minority, including the subsequent advent of the self-styled Islamic State. The self-organization model of the Rojava,opposite to that of Iraqi Kurdistan, is a unique experiment of secular democratic confederalism throughout the Middle East.
Since the beginning, Rojava was considered a threat by its powerful neighbour and NATO member, Turkey. Turkish military forces entered Rojava shortly after the US military withdrawal from the area, filling the “power gap” in the aftermath of the war to salafi-jihadism (Daesh): in 2018, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch occupying the Afrin canton. The following year, was launched the largest Turkish military offensive, known as Operation Peace Spring and intended to create a safe zone, 30-32 km wide and 480 km long, along the border between Turkey and Syria – as established in the 2019 agreement between Ankara and Washington. Unofficially, instead, Operation Peace Spring aimed at launching a an offensive against the PKK founded by Öcalan (accused by Ankara of living in the free Rojava in recent years), and the affiliated Syrian Kurdish militias of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). All this prevented the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria with which, unlike the Iraqi one, Turkey has never had relations or, worse still, has never made business.
Key figure or organization:
Hevrin Khalaf (15 November 1984 – 12 October 2019), a Syrian Kurdish female politician, was the leader of the Future Syria Party. On 12 October 2019, in the first days of the Turkish military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces (FDS) in Rojava, Hevrin was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalist militias supported by the Ankara Government in the North of the country. She was one of the nearly 1,000 ‘terrorists’ that the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan boasted to the West he had been able ‘to neutralize’. Hevrin had a clear political vision: finally free from the Islamic State, which had militarily occupied and socially oppressed the territories in which she lived, and strong from the Rojava experience, Hevrin did not wish to return to the old Syria of Assad. Rather, she dreamt of a secular state where Muslims (Sunnis and Shiites), Alawites (the Assad sect), Jews and even Christians could have the same rights and coexist peacefully.
FOCUS 1 – The end of the HDP in Turkey?
In March 2021, the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals filed an indictment order at the Constitutional Court in Ankara to erase the Democratic People’s Party (HDP) from the political scene of Anatolia. Founded by the union of pro-Kurdish and Turkish leftist political forces in 2012, following the Greeks of Syriza, the HDP is based on participation, egalitarianism, feminism and protection of the LGBT+ rights of minorities and young people. The government’s closure of political parties and its efforts to control the judiciary is not new in Turkey, so much so that the Constitutional Court has so far banned six pro-Kurdish political parties. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s assault on HDP started after the party’s electoral success in June 2015: over 6 million votes were won (13.12%), granting them 80 seats out of 550. Such an outright victory jeopardized the position of the Sultan of Ankara, in power almost continuously since 2003. Shortly after their remarkable achievement, HDP members of parliament were detained and released on probation. Five months later, Erdoğan was reconfirmed in the new elections.
FOCUS 2 – Attacks on Iranian minorities
“Since December 2020, there has been a clear increase in targeted attacks against minorities in Iran, with regular reports of arbitrary detentions and brutal executions of minority rights defenders, in particular from the Kurdish, Arab and Baluch communities.” The Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRCG) of the Islamic Republic of Iran were responsible for these attacks in the vast region of South-West Asia formally divided among Iran, Afghanistan, and Baluchistan in Pakistan. This is the claim raised by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), an international movement created in the 80s by exiled leaders who lived under oppressive communist regimes. “Responding to actions against the Kurdish community, in early February of this year, UNPO along with 35 other NGOs and human rights organisations signed a joint letter, urging the international community to ensure the release of Kurdish activists and others arbitrarily detained in Iran,” UNPO reported. It also denounced “the economic disadvantages, the systematic marginalization and the lack of investment in the Baluchistan region in Iran.”