Home / Articles / The Kurdish Struggle for Autonomy from the 1970s to the Present
As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump called himself a “big fan of the Kurds” and also defended Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against them, remarking “Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy, ‘oh he’s using gas!’” As president, Trump reportedly told an ally, “I love the Kurds.” Though one could blame this on President Trump’s often inexplicable behavior, his indecision on Kurdistan actually represents America’s policies towards the Kurds since Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. The Middle Eastern ethnic group has sought independence through a strong relationship with the United States, but seems to only have that when it benefits America. Still, many Iraqi Kurds fondly remember U.S. Operation Provide Comfort to shield them from Saddam Hussein’s aggression. In the past five years, they have further garnered Western attention for fighting the Islamic State, which they hoped would materialize into statehood. On the other hand, Syrian Kurds have a more complex relationship with the U.S. due to their sometimes alliance with the Assad regime, in which they share hatred for Turkey and an association with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist group. Going forward, it is uncertain if Kurds in the Middle East will gain independence, or continue to be used by major global powers.
The Era of Hafez al-Assad
Kurds in Syria have been noticeably marginalized since the 1960s, despite being around 10% of the population and significantly contributing to the cultural fabric of the nation. In 1963, around 20% of Syrian Kurds had their citizenship withdrawn, despite possessing identification cards. The Syrian constitution even labels Kurds as equivalent to Israelis, both labeled “a danger to Arabs.” Arab families moved into Kurdish lands to create an “Arab belt” and erase Kurdish traditions in the area. Regardless of the government’s blatant distaste for the Kurdish minority, Kurdish leaders still strategically courted Hafez al-Assad, and the PKK won his financial support in order to directly oppose Turkey. Though he may not have granted Syrian Kurds basic rights, Assad was more than willing to use their military power for his own interests, a seemingly historic trend for the Kurds.
Turkey’s complicated association with Syria is trumped by its violent relationship with its Kurdish minority. The PKK was formally established in 1978 after years of Turkish oppression. Turkey had banned the words “Kurds” or “Kurdish,” and instead referred to them as “mountain Turks.” Denied an ethnic identity, Abdullah Ocalan and other Turkish Kurds began their Marxist, violent, and strictly egalitarian militant group. Lower class Turkish Kurds founded this group—one that “wanted action, not ideological sophistication.” They declared that Kurds had a right to self determination, as Kurdistan has been split into four separate countries, with Turkey occupying the largest portion. For this reason, Turkish Kurdistan must be the center of the rebellion. The PKK would then launch attacks on groups and tribes associated with the Turkish government, as well as ideologically similar groups for simply opposing them.
While Kurds in Syria and Turkey fought for, and were subsequently denied, land and recognition, Kurds in Iraq seemed to be obtaining it. The 1970 Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement would have established Kurdistan as an autonomous region with Kurdish representatives and organizations. This deal fell apart in 1974 due to disputes over the oil fields of Kirkuk. However, this development ultimately proved that independence and recognition for Kurds would differ greatly between different countries.
The “Good Kurds” in Iraq
Kurds in Iraq have certainly faced unique struggles, but seem to have the clearest path to statehood. Often seen as the “good Kurds” by the West (compared to Syrian Kurds, whose complicated connections to the PKK and Assad worry many potential allies), their reputation is bolstered by their opposition to America’s enemies. Their alliance with the U.S., however, has historically only served American interests. Iraqi Kurds have clearly sought recognition and autonomy since 1918. Though periodically denied this recognition from the British, the Iraqi central government, and the international community, the Barzani family led the fight for freedom and continue to do so today. During the 1970 negotiations for autonomy with Iraq, the U.S. covertly backed Kurdish rebels in Iraq in order to help the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran. In 1975, however, Iraq and Iran settled their disputes in Algiers, and the U.S., led by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, promptly abandoned the Kurds. The Pike Report noted, “Their adversaries, knowing of the impending aid cut-off, launched an all-out search-and-destroy campaign the day after the agreement was signed.” Before Mustafa Barzani’s death, he dejectedly reported that Kurds “do not want to be anybody’s pawns. We are an ancient people. We want our autonomy. We want sarbasti— freedom. I do not know who will take my place one day. But they cannot crush us.”
Beginning in 1988, Saddam Hussein began the Anfal campaign, designed to kill and displace a high number of Kurdish civilians. In particular, the Halabja massacre utilized chemical weapons to wipe out a perceived opposition in the Kurdish town, and unapologetically killed men, women, and children. However, according to the Washington Post, the U.S. turned away, as “the relationship with Iraq at the time was deemed too important to rupture over the matter. The United States did not even impose sanctions.” Two years later, President George H.W. Bush accidentally inspired a Kurdish-led revolution against Saddam Hussein that he never meant to pledge support to. He noted during a speech, “There’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and this is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” As Kurds and Shiites took up arms, the U.S. signed a ceasefire deal that allowed Iraq to continue using helicopters, which they then used to destroy rebel forces. As around 1.5 million Kurdish refugees fled from Iraqi forces and feared another Anfal campaign, the U.S. initiated Operation Provide Comfort through United Nations Security Council Resolution 688. The resolution included an enforced no-fly zone, let Kurds rebuild their lives and homes in Northern Iraq, and certainly allowed the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to develop into what it is today.
With the military and diplomatic support of the U.S., Iraqi Kurds held elections in 1992. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, each won 50 seats, and the Christian groups received five. Despite free elections and international hope for the region, splits between the PUK and the KDP threatened the legitimacy that America’s support had provided. A full-blown civil war broke out in 1994, and continued until 1998. Once again, the U.S. helped the fragile region gain stability by brokering the Washington Peace Accords. Despite continuing tension between the two parties, the accords, coupled with American threats of ceasing support if the war continued, led to a necessary peace in Iraqi Kurdistan. This move worried onlookers, as seen in The Washington Institute’s “Kurdish Agreement Signals New U.S. Commitment.” Here, author Alan Makovsky warned that this perceived support would lead to another misunderstanding, as it did in 1975 and 1991. He also pointed to international opposition from Turkey and the “rehabilitate Saddam” side, including France, Russia, and Arab states. He finished the article by stating,
If Washington’s commitment is a bluff, intended merely to keep Saddam at bay, it may work for a while, but not indefinitely. If it is real, its implementation (at least, as understood by the Kurds) would require considerable diplomatic and possibly military costs, which, for the sake of long-term credibility, Washington would be obliged to bear. Whatever the case with the U.S. commitment, history suggests Saddam will soon want to test its limits.
U.S. support of Iraqi Kurdistan has always been thoroughly self-serving, something that the KRG seems to have no choice but to accept, as evidenced by its enthusiastic embrace of the U.S. when it finally conducted airstrikes against ISIS. Even when America seems to defy its better judgment to support the Kurds, its reasons are not ideological. The frequent about-faces, especially in 1975 and 1991, have underscored American commitment to its regional presence. If America did unequivocally support the Kurds, then it would more carefully consider the question of statehood instead of repeatedly asking Kurdish leaders not to hold a referendum. However, much of the KRG’s success and stability is due to being an obvious and convenient allies against America’s enemies.
Syria and the Arab Spring
Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000, and despite signaling that human rights would be a priority, his policies did not differ from those of his father. Much like his father, he maintained a complicated relationship with the country’s Kurdish minority. In 2004, after years of mounting tension from systematic oppression, Kurds in Syria turned to violence when fights broke out during a soccer match in Qamishli when opposing fans brandished photos of Saddam Hussein to mock the Kurds. The fighting quickly escalated into a rebellion. Human Rights Watch reported “at least 36 people were killed, most of them Kurds, and over 160 people were injured. The security services detained more than 2,000 Kurds.” This event worried Syrian officials, who had not seen Kurds as a significant threat in the past. They responded with banning Kurdish gatherings, but they continued to protest and meet.
Aside from proving the Kurds’ political relevance and power, the 2004 violence also showed the link between Kurds in Iraq and Syria. The uprisings began from an emotional reaction to references of the Anfal campaign. Their rise to action came from being saddened by Iraqi Kurdish tragedies and inspired by Iraqi Kurdish success and autonomy. During the protests, they toppled a statue of Hafez al-Assad, and when the military backlash began, some even fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. Some activists sought to compare Qamishli to the 2011 protests that sparked the ongoing civil war. Due to the legacy of the Qamishli uprising, many expected Syrian Kurds to unite against Bashar al-Assad. However, Syrian Kurds have not opposed the Syrian regime throughout the Syrian Civil War the way that many onlookers would have expected, as Assad’s strategic courtship of the Kurds in Syria limited their resistance.
Assad realized that if another 10% of the country sided against him in 2011, his chances of maintaining power were slim. For this reason, he extended citizenship to the Kurds that had been disenfranchised in the 1960s through a legislative decree. In October 2011, as the Assad regime continued killing political dissidents, it chose a Syrian Kurdish opposition leader, Maashal Tammo. Some Kurds reacted violently, but the Democratic Union Party of Syria (PYD) put down some of these instances of rebellion, acting as “enforcers for the regime.” The PYD’s relationship with the Assad regime furthers their reputation in American foreign policy spheres as untrustworthy and less reliable than Kurds in Iraq. A Kurdish fighter even commented, “Sometimes I’m a PKK, sometimes I’m a PJAK [Kurdistan Free Life Party the PKK-allied affiliate, active in Iran], sometimes I’m a YPG [People’s Protection Units in Syria]. It doesn’t really matter. They are all members of the PKK.” However, the U.S. became more willing to overlook the Syrian Kurds’ flaws with the rise of the Islamic State.
ISIS and the International Reputation of the Kurds
The Islamic State (and similar groups in the region) originally grew when the Assad regime released hundreds of jihadi prisoners in 2011 in order to easily dismiss the protests as being run by both “Islamist extremists” and “agents of Israel and the West.” In early 2012, one of these groups, Jubhat al-Nusra, gained attention for carrying out attacks that targeted both the regime and civilians. In 2013, however, ISI (The Islamic State of Iraq) and al-Nusra split, and the Islamic State proved their brutality—even towards other Islamic extremists. ISIS represented a greater enemy for differing factions to unite against, and allowed for Kurds to gain greater international attention than ever before.
The Islamic State in Iraq emerged in 2006 as a branch of al-Qaeda, comprised of disenfranchised Sunnis who resented U.S. intervention. As they had masterfully exacerbated Sunni and Shiite tension in Iraq, the group’s entry into the Syrian Civil War was hardly surprising. In January 2014, ISIS took control over Raqqa, and declared the city the capital of their Caliphate. Shortly after, al-Qaeda cut ties with the group, announcing that “[al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions,” and believed it was threatening their fight against the regime by fighting other rebels. In August 2014, ISIS attacked Sinjar, and took over 6,000 Yazidi girls and women as sex slaves, killed the men, and left thousands stranded on Sinjar Mountain. This brutal massacre led to international curiosity about the ancient religious and ethnic minority.
The 2014 Sinjar Massacre further convinced many Yazidis that they must only rely on themselves and not the greater Kurdish minority because the widely praised Kurdish Pershmerga—the armed forces of the Iraqi KRG—abandoned the Yazidis when it seemed clear that the battle could not be won. Only the PKK remained to fight the ISIS militants. Despite abandoning the Yazidis, the Kurds publish plenty of propaganda about saving them. Whether or not the KRG truly sees Yazidis as Kurds, the Peshmerga leaving them to be killed and raped in Sinjar and the KRG imposing restrictions on goods leaving and entering Sinjar that make it impossible for them to rebuild their lives certainly sends a message that they are not a priority.
While both “bad” and “good Kurds” garnered international support through the fight against ISIS, they continue to face challenges to their existence and autonomy. Many suddenly excused the PKK from conducting terrorist attacks, and excused the YPG’s clear connections to the terror group. Even with Turkey’s protests and the YPG’s concerning ties to the Assad regime, America’s money and arms allowed Syrian Kurds to gain power and influence in the region. Regardless, the autonomy of a Kurdish region in Syria seems increasingly unlikely, especially with the American declaration that statehood is impossible. The U.S. has historically provided greater support for the Iraqi Kurds over the Syrian Kurds; they even became a talking point for about every 2016 Republican candidate to prove that they understand the Middle East. This relationship got them closer to statehood than ever before, culminating in an independence referendum.