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    In 2023, the Autonomous Region of Iraqi Kurdistan found itself caught between two fires. Turkish airstrikes hit from the west, while Iranian artillery struck from the east. The drone attacks by Ankara against groups deemed affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) intensified after the terrorist attack on October 2, 2023, in front of the Ministry of Interior in Ankara, claimed by the PKK. This organization, which has been waging its armed independence struggle since the 1980s, had not struck in the heart of Turkey since 2016.

    The province of Sulaymaniyah, in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan, has long been home to anti-Turkish groups, as well as anti-Iranian ones. Among these are the Iranian Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP-I), the Komala Party of Iranian Kurdistan, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), and the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). Iran accuses them of fueling the national protest movement and inciting unrest in the country following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa-Jina Amini in September 2022 while in the custody of the morality police for not wearing the hijab correctly. But above all, like Turkey, Tehran has long accused the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of hosting military formations it considers “terrorists.”

    In March 2023, Iran and Iraq signed an agreement under which Baghdad agreed to disarm Kurdish military formations and protect the state border by September 19, 2023. In July, the Iranian army threatened a major military operation if the counterpart did not meet the deadline.

    In Syrian Kurdistan, the Kurds’ dream of implementing democratic confederalism in the 4 cantons united in Rojava clashed with the project devised in 2014 by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to create a “buffer zone” 30 kilometers wide and 480 kilometers long along the border between Turkey and Syria.

    This operation was conditional on Turkey’s approval for Sweden and Finland’s entry into NATO and had already been the subject of a Turkey-US agreement reached in August 2019. Since 2016, Erdogan has thus conducted three cross-border military operations with ground troops in the Kurdish-Syrian cantons.
    In September 2023, clashes intensified throughout the border area, involving the Syrian Democratic Forces led by the Kurds supported by the USA, the Syrian regular army, and pro-Turkish armed factions.


    What is being fought for 

    For what they fight is that the Kurdish people’s struggle is also armed and on multiple fronts, for self-determination, autonomy, and recognition of their identity, as well as their civil and political rights that are still denied within the four states where they are forced to live.

    The governments of Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, including during Saddam Hussein’s era, have consistently sought to deny the existence of this people. They have attempted to erase their culture, history, and language, often through bloody repressions. Numerous battles have been fought in favor of the Kurdish cause by activists, human rights organizations (such as Human Rights Watch), and European institutions. The Commission against Racism and Intolerance of the Council of Europe has repeatedly denounced how basic rights, such as freedom of expression, assembly, and association, are not guaranteed to Kurds in Turkey.

    For this reason, in November 1978, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded in Turkey by Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned by Ankara since 1999 and sentenced to death (later commuted to life imprisonment). Throughout Kurdistan, there are now active parties and fighting units inspired by the ideals of this paramilitary organization, which is supported by the masses. Due to its methods of struggle, including dynamite attacks and suicide bombings (resulting in civilian casualties), the PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.


    Country overview

    The Kurds are an Iranian ethnic group of Indo-European language and are the fourth most populous ethnic group in the Middle East. They predominantly inhabit a region that is largely mountainous. The majority, approximately 12 million people, reside in Turkey, in an area of about 250,000 square kilometers (nearly 30% of Turkish territory). Another 6 million Kurds live in Iran, 4 million in Iraq, and 1 million in Syria. Around 300,000 Kurds are dispersed in neighboring former Soviet Republics, including Armenia and Azerbaijan. The remainder live outside of Kurdistan (in other areas of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran) or form the diaspora abroad, primarily (but not exclusively) in Germany and Austria. This number has greatly increased in recent years, partly due to migrants and asylum seekers fleeing war. If Kurdistan, spread across four very different countries, were politically united and could also put an end to internal divisions, it would be the wealthiest state in the Middle East.

    Its territory is rich in natural resources: oil, minerals, and water resources. This is the reason why the states that control it are unwilling to relinquish those territories. With the end of the First World War, the possibility of an independent Kurdish state seemed feasible. The Treaty of Sèvres, a peace agreement signed on August 10, 1920, which ended the conflict, foresaw the creation of an autonomous Kurdistan in Eastern Anatolia.

    The Treaty, however, was not respected, mainly due to the force of the emerging Turkish Republic. The subsequent Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 (which replaced Sèvres) partitioned the Kurdish-inhabited territories among Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. After the Gulf War in 1991, conducted against the then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by an international coalition, the United States established a “no-fly zone” to prevent military reprisals from Baghdad from the air. This action gave Iraqi Kurds the opportunity to experiment with self-government.

    The Second Gulf War in 2003, again led by a US-led international coalition, led to the fall of the Hussein regime and Iraq officially recognizing the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan. Two years later, it was included in the new national constitution by Baghdad. In 2017, a non-binding referendum on final independence was held in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Iraq, Turkey, the United States, and Iran were against it, but 93% of the population voted in favor.
    The reaction of the federal Iraqi government was swift: the army militarily occupied the disputed territories, completely isolating the area and thus rendering the outcome of the popular vote ineffective. On October 25, 2017, the Kurdish government reversed its decision, settling for the autonomy it had already obtained.

    It was precisely based on what happened in Iraqi Kurdistan that favorable conditions arose in 2012 for the birth of an autonomous region, de facto, also in Syrian territory: Rojava. These conditions were determined by the preceding civil war, the withdrawal of government forces from areas inhabited by the Kurdish minority, and the subsequent emergence of the so-called Islamic State.
    The self-organization model of Rojava, which differs from that of Iraqi Kurdistan, is a unique experiment in the entire Middle East of secular democratic confederalism. It was immediately seen as a threat by the powerful neighboring Turkey, a NATO member. After the withdrawal of US military forces from the area, at the end of the war against Daesh, Turkish military forces entered Rojava. In 2018, they occupied the Afrin canton with the “Olive Branch” operation. The following year saw the “Peace Spring” offensive.

    The official objective of Ankara is to create a “buffer zone” (resulting from a 2019 agreement between Turkey and the USA) that is 30-32 kilometers wide and 480 kilometers long along the Turkey-Syria border. The unofficial purpose is to create a scorched-earth policy against the PKK, founded by Öcalan (accused by Ankara of having operated in recent years from the free Rojava) and the Syrian Kurdish militias of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). All of this aims to prevent the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, with which Turkey, unlike the Iraqi Kurdistan, has never maintained relations, or worse, conducted business.


    Key figure or organization:

    Amini Mahsa-Jina Amini was a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish girl. At the beginning of September 2022, she decided to spend a few days on vacation with her family in the capital, Tehran. On the evening of the 13th, she was walking down the street, wearing the hijab, as imposed on Iranian women since 1979 by Islamic law. A few strands of hair were visible: the morality police arrested her and took her to the police station for a “re-education lesson” on how to properly wear the veil. Her brother Kiarash waited outside for her for hours, hearing screams coming from inside. Mahsa came out of that command in an ambulance headed to the nearest hospital: she was declared dead after three days of a coma. Immediately after the funeral, protests erupted across Iran, harshly repressed by the Regime, which cut off the internet and deployed armored vehicles throughout Iranian Kurdistan and in the country’s major cities.

    FOCUS 1 – Processes at home for foreign fighters

    Despite the lack of support from the international community, authorities in Syrian Kurdistan will prosecute foreign fighters from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) detained in Rojava and other regions controlled by the Kurds. The decision was made in the summer of 2023, given the limited interest shown by many states in repatriating their citizens who went to Syria and Iraq to join the so-called Caliphate. There are about 2,000 foreign fighters, detained mostly in makeshift prisons since the fall of Baghuz (the last Syrian stronghold of the terrorist group) in March 2019. The Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria (AANES) has assured that these foreign fighters will be judged in public trials in full respect of local and international laws. On June 15, the co-president of the AANES Foreign Relations Office, Bedran Jia, stated, “We can no longer hold these people without trial,” admitting, however, that without international support, the Kurdish autonomous government lacks the capacity and resources to fully meet international standards, starting with providing a lawyer for each of the accused.

    FOCUS 1 – The Maxmur Camp

    On May 20, 2023, the Iraqi army returned in force to the Maxmur refugee camp in the Iraqi Kurdistan, attempting once again to build a wall around the area and turn it into an open-air prison. Popular resistance was immediate. In the 1990s, over 10,000 people arrived from Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan), opposed by the central government of Baghdad and the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan. In Maxmur, they gave life to the first practical application of democratic confederalism theorized by Abdullah Öcalan. Since 2014, with the rise of the so-called Islamic State, the UNHCR tents have returned to Maxmur to provide refuge for those fleeing ISIS. The camp is also subject to frequent drone attacks by Turkey.