The Kurds: nationless and oppressed

Sweden’s application to NATO illustrates the complexity of politics in the Middle East and the geopolitical implications of migration. As a place of asylum for political refugees, Sweden has earned kudos from around the world. A large number – between 50,000 and 100,000 – of Kurds live there. They have fled from persecution in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and other countries.

The terrifying threat of Russian aggression after the invastion of Ukraine prompted Sweden to abandon its policy of neutrality to join NATO. But Turkey vetoed its application. Why? Because outspoken critics of Turkey live in Sweden. Turkey claims that they are terrorists.

Finally, after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, Turkey withdrew its opposition. Sweden has become a NATO member. And now Swedish Kurds are complaining of subtle persecution and discrimination. They believe that Turkey has forced Sweden to put pressure on the Kurds as the price for its NATO bid. The long arm of Middle East hatreds has reached the northern Europe.

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are a Muslim-majority ethnic group primarily inhabiting a region known as Kurdistan, which sprawls across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. They are estimated to number around 30 to 40 million people, making them one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without a state of their own.

Kurdistan is historically a mountainous region, and the Kurds have maintained a distinct cultural identity, including their own language, Kurdish, and unique customs and traditions. However, throughout history, Kurdish aspirations for independence or autonomy have been challenged by the governments of the countries in which they reside.

In 1946, Iranian Kurds established the Republic of Mahabad, which was short-lived, collapsing after the Soviet withdrawal from Iran. The republic was absorbed into Iran, and its leaders were executed. Today, Mahabad city, with a population of 200,000 mostly Kurds, is the capital city of Mahabad County, West Azerbaijan Province in Northwestern Iran. It is described by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization as the unofficial capital of the Kurdish Region of Iran.

In 1991, after the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, the Kurds in Iraq gained greater autonomy and the freedom to preserve their language and culture with less fear of reprisal. However, until today, the Kurds in Iraq face repression and are also plagued by corruption and nepotism as the Kurdish region is dominated by two clans, the Barzani and Talabani families, as well as their political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union Kurdistan (PUK). Without connections, young people find it impossible to get a job. In 2021, when university students took to the streets to protest, they were violently suppressed by armed riot police.

Roughly 2.5 million Kurds live in Syria, primarily in the northeastern part of the country, where they have established an autonomous region called Rojava, also known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES). Rojava emerged in 2012 during the Syrian Civil War by Kurdish political and military groups, notably the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG). The situation for the Kurds living in Syria, particularly in Rojava, has been complicated and plagued by violence and shifting alliances. Much of the Syrian Civil War has played out in this region with Kurdish forces supported by the US and to a lesser extent, coalition forces, battling against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Apart from ISIS, the region has come under fire from the Syrian government, various Arab tribes, Islamist and jihadist forces, as well as the government of Turkey. Both the crisis and the violence continue, and much of the Kurds’ ability to survive has been because of the military support of the US, as well as their own resilience.

In Turkey, where they comprise about one-fifth of the population, the Kurds have faced suppression of their cultural and political rights, leading to tensions and periodic outbreaks of violence. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group, was founded in 1978 with the aim of achieving Kurdish independence from Turkey. The PKK has been involved in armed conflict with the Turkish state for decades, resulting in more than 40,000 deaths. Consequently, the PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, the European Union, and other countries.

Under the Erdogan regime, tensions have risen between Turkish authorities and Kurdish groups, particularly the PKK. A ceasefire was negotiated between the Turkish government and PKK, which lasted two years, until, in July 2015, an Islamic State militant perpetrated a suicide bombing that killed nearly thirty Kurds near the border with Syria. Although there was no direct link between the IS bomber and the PKK, Turkey viewed the bombing as an opportunity to resume its fight against the PKK, which they see as a threat to national security.

In 2016, members of the military launched a failed coup attempt against Erdogan. In the aftermath, Erdogan arrested an estimated 50,000 people whom he accused of being co-conspirators. Just like the suicide bombing, there was no connection with the PKK. However, Erdogan's government used the coup attempt as an opportunity to crack down on perceived internal threats, including Kurdish militants. Erdogan intensified military operations against the PKK in southeastern Turkey and expanded military actions in Syria, targeting both the PKK-affiliated YPG (People's Protection Units) and ISIS.

Since 2016, sporadic fighting has continued between the PKK and the Turkish government, particularly in southeastern Turkey but also in northern Syria. Turkey has historically been opposed to Kurdish aspirations for independence or autonomy, both domestically and in the broader geopolitical arena. The Turkish government fears that supporting Kurdish causes could fuel separatist movements among its own Kurdish population and lead to the emergence of an independent Kurdish state, which it perceives as a threat to its territorial integrity and national security interests.

Turkey, a member of NATO, frequently lodges complaints and voices strong opposition against US or European support for Kurdish groups, particularly the YPG in Syria. This disagreement creates tension within the alliance, as the West views the YPG as a crucial ally in the fight against ISIS.

Now, turning back to Sweden, where Kurds are concerned that Sweden may be imposing restrictions on Kurds in order to appease Turkey. In recent months, police investigations and monitoring of Swedish Kurds have intensified, and the Kurdish Red Crescent in Sweden has ceased operations after its bank account was shut down. However, this single act signifies the problem faced by any administration trying to aid the Kurds, namely, that the Kurds are associated with the PKK, which is a terrorist organization.

The Kurdish Red Crescent aid organization has been linked to terrorism by some sources. The PKK has been accused of founding the Kurdish Red Crescent as a front to raise funds for their activities. Some sources claim the Kurdish Red Crescent collects money through coercion and uses it to support the PKK. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) does not recognize the Kurdish Red Crescent as a legitimate organization. This is because only established countries can have official Red Cross or Red Crescent societies.



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As with so many global issues, the fate of the Kurds depends on the actions taken by the United States. Comparing US policy toward the Kurds under Biden and under Trump, there does not seem to be a large difference. Both presidents supported the Kurds in Iraq and Syria in counterterrorism operations against Islamic extremism. Trump, however, withdrew US forces from northern Syria in 2019, which some saw as abandonment of the Kurds, but he was making good on a campaign promise to remove American soldiers from overseas conflicts, particularly in the Middle East. When he was criticized for “abandoning the Kurds,” Trump immediately brought up the fact that the PKK are terrorists. From a legal standpoint, the US is not supposed to be providing weapons or aid to any entity deemed a terrorist organization.

Another important point in President Trump’s calculus was that Turkey, a NATO member, opposes the Kurds. After the US removed its troops from Northern Syria, Turkey was able to engage the PKK. The situation is very complex and raises questions about whether or not the US should support the Kurds, who are linked to a terrorist organization, and are fighting a de facto war against a NATO member.

President Biden has maintained a strong military presence in the region, which is due to many factors apart from ongoing support for the Kurds. Retaliatory strikes against US and Israeli targets, in the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel, and US targeted strikes in Yemen and Syria, have necessitated an ongoing and possibly augmented US military presence in the region.

In short, the world and the situation on the ground in Syria are different now than they were in 2019, and it is likely that Trump, if elected in November, would keep American troops in the region.

Given the importance of the Kurds in maintaining US foreign policy interests in the region, it would be logical to assume that whichever candidate wins the 2024 election, the Kurds will still be supported.

However, the prospect of the Kurds achieving an independent state seems extremely unlikely. One major obstacle is the opposition from the governments of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, which all have significant Kurdish populations within their borders. These countries have historically been resistant to Kurdish independence due to concerns about territorial integrity, national security, and internal stability. Additionally, regional and global powers, including the United States, Russia, and European countries, play influential roles in the Middle East and may prioritize maintaining stability and their relationships with existing states over supporting Kurdish independence.

Furthermore, internal divisions among Kurdish groups and competing interests within the Kurdish population itself can complicate efforts to achieve unity and consensus on the path toward independence.

The Kurds are a people with a long history, their own language, and a distinct culture. If they are a nation, why shouldn’t they be a nation-state? What do you think? Leave a comment in the box below.

Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.

Image: Kurdish children in Diyarbakir, Turkey / Bigstock 


Showing 2 reactions

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  • David Page
    commented 2024-03-17 11:27:57 +1100
    The betrayal of the Kurds is a stain on America’s honor.
  • Antonio Graceffo
    published this page in The Latest 2024-03-15 15:42:37 +1100