Kurdish Region

Written by Sarah Ahmed Malik 11:47 am International Relations, Published Content, Research Papers

The Kurdish Region: From Great Dynasties to Stateless Nation

The dissolution of empires and the formation of new nation-states after the two world wars divided the Kurdish region and population into four states—Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. For decades, the Kurdish people have been subjected to persecution, discrimination, assimilation, and repression in these states. Unlike the Kurds of Iraq, the Kurds of Syria, Iran, and Turkey do not have their own autonomous regions. The author argues that this can be contributed to the fact that the Kurdish people have long forgotten their true objective and have assumed the role of pawns for the very states that once abandoned them.
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About the Author(s)
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Ms Sarah Ahmed Malik is a student of International Relations at National Defence University, Islamabad. She is very ambitious about her field and has carried out intensive research in different fields of international politics.


The demography and geography of the world were changed after World War I and World War II. The huge empires were divided and hence torn into pieces by the victors, resulting in the formation of many new nation-states. The Armenians, Arabs, Africans, and many other ethnic groups got their independent states but the largest nation by population—the Kurds—was left without a state, despite the vast region being inhabited by the Kurdish people. The Kurdish people are a Sunni majority group of Indo-European descent.

The core issue was the division of the Kurdish people in different nation-states, some of which were the seats of the previous empires i.e. the Ottomans once resided in Turkey, the Safavids in Iran, the Ayyubids in Aleppo and Damascus, and the Abbasids in Baghdad. Out of all these empires, the Ayyubids were of Kurdish descendent. Saladin was a Kurd and laid the foundation of his empire in present-day Syria, Egypt, and Iraq.

After the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the Ottoman Empire, there was hope for Kurdistan but both Britain and France didn’t consider the Kurds and left them out from this agreement. Negotiations were started and the Kurds demand their nation-state under the Treaty of Sevres which proposed the division of Turkey into different zones (one for Kurds) but it didn’t work out because Mustafa Kemal recaptured all the areas from the victors.

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During that time, many vigorous nationalist movements were going on like Pan-Arabism and the Armenian, Jewish, Iranian, and Kemalist movements, but none of them supported the Kurds. The Kurds, since then, have faced civil rights violations, marginalization, oppression even displacement and massacre. 

Today, the Kurdish region is divided into 4 different volatile regions – Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria (Moore, 2019). It is a land-locked region with fragile border conditions on 3 sides except for Turkey. The total population of the Kurdish people is 35 to 40 million, making them the largest nation in the world without a state. The Kurdish region is a long-contested region demanding its sovereignty, autonomy, and territoriality.

The Kurdish-Inhabited region in 2002
The Kurdish-Inhabited region in 2002

The Kurds are valiant fighters and are fighting with irregular and guerilla tactics since the end of the Great War. The governing states are also dealing with these tactics with traditional and non-traditional means and armed confrontation. Therefore, their attempt for independence has been continuously suppressed (McDowall, 1996).

Turkey and Syria are directly engaged with the Kurds across the border while Iraqi Kurdistan got their autonomous region within Iraq in 2005 following the withdrawal of the US after the 2003 Iraq War (Jüde, 2017). The Kurdish militias have gained massive attention in recent years, especially after the 2011 Arab Spring when they participated in the Syrian civil war and the Iraqi conflict.

The US and many NATO states supported the Kurdish militias to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). But the situation changed when the US decided to withdraw its forces from Syria and gave a passage to Turkey to engage its forces near the Syrian and Iraqi borders (Romano, 2008). The creation of Kurdistan will be a major threat for Turkey and Iran as both states are nationalists (Bullard, 1958).

Historical Background

Kurdistan is one of the major security issues of the Middle East. The Kurds claim their independent territory because many Kurdish dynasties ruled this region. These dynasties include the Sadakiyans, Shaddadids, Rawadid, Marwandi, Ayyubid, and also the emirate of Soran, etc. The dynasties ruled the Persian and Mesopotamian regions from the 8th to 16th centuries.

770-827951-1199955-1071983-10961171-1341Ended in 1514
Kurdish Dynasties from the 8th to 16th century

The term Kurdistan was first introduced during the Seljuk period in the 12th century. After the demise of the Soran Emirate, the Ottoman and Safavid empires emerged in the region (Polláková, 2018). Both the empires fought for 150 years for this region, eventually resulting in the Ottoman victory and the end of the Safavid Empire in 1736.

The conflict started between Sultan Selim I and Shah Ismail I of the Ottoman and Safavid empire, respectively. Yet, the major territorial change was seen after the Ottoman-Safavid War of 1532-1555 which resulted in the “Peace of Amasya” during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the Ottoman Empire and Shah Tahmasp. The control of Baghdad and the major Kurdish region went into the hands of the Ottomans.

Shah Abbas I of the Safavid Empire took the region back from the Ottomans but after a few years, Sultan Murad IV conquered the territory of Kurdistan and Iraq and consequently the “Treaty of Zuhab” was enforced in 1639. The current borders of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey are still according to this treaty. The Kurds were then the minority under the Ottoman Empire just like the Armenians, Georgians, and others (Gurses, 2017).

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1919, the Kingdom of Kurdistan (1921-1924) was formed but it lasted only for 3 years. After that, Kurdistan Uyezd (1923-1929) was formed which came to an end after living for 6 years. The autonomous Republic of Ararat (1927-1930) was also a short-term kingdom following the Republic of Mahabad (1946) which lasted less than a year in modern-day Iran.

The Kurds of Iraq

The Kurds of Iran and Iraq share many cultural ties and language dialects. They have seen violent suppression and oppression in Iraq during the 1988 conflict—thousands of Kurds were killed with poisonous gas by the Iraqi regime during the insurgency in Halabja. During the 1st Gulf War, thousands of Kurds of Iraq were killed by the same regime when they rebelled against the atrocities committed by the state and demanded an autonomous state.

The Kurds of Iraq, under the leadership of Mustafa Barzani, made their semi-autonomous area where they had military and administrative control i.e. Arbil, and Kirkuk, etc. The Iraqi regime accused the Kurds of Iraq of helping the Iranians during the Gulf War and henceforth, massacred the thousands of Kurds along the border. The Kurdish region was given autonomous status in Iraq in the 1970s but later the Saddam regime denied this autonomy.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was formed and supported by the US to have an autonomous identity within Iraq. This was ratified in the 2005 Iraqi constitution when the government of Iraq recognized the KRG’s legitimacy. During the 2017 referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, 93% of the population voted for independence but the Iraqi regime in response called it illegal.

Nonetheless, the long-time struggle of the Barzani clan gained some fruit in the 2005 imposed constitution of Iraq and the Kurdish region became the Kurdistan Regional Government within the territory of Iraq. This autonomous region has a huge amount of natural resources and oil. The Barzani family is ruling this region and shares good ties with the US. But the terrorism and infiltration from this region is a matter of security concern for Turkey and Iran.

Turkey had even launched several assaults and operations in the region to secure its borders and civilians. The strategic cities like Erbil, Silemani, and Dohok have massive oil reserves claimed by the KRG but in 2020, with the increasing ties with Iran, the Iraqi government claimed all the resources and border security from KRG. Both the parties are still in tension due to their interests.

Kirkuk city is under the control of KRG since 2014 and several clashes occurred to take the city back. Kirkuk is central to the Kurdish state, just like its capital Arbil, due to the huge natural resources and massive wealth. The independence-seeking group like the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is banned and declared a terrorist organization in Iraq.

The Kurds of Iran

The Iranian Kurdistan which was once ruled the Republic of Mahabad is still under the strict rule of Iranian nationalism. After the 1979 revolution, these Kurds of Iran were more suppressed and some of them were forced to convert to Shi’ism. The Kurds of Iran helped the Iranian forces during the Gulf War but they were never acknowledged.

The creation of any Kurdish state within or outside Iran is a threat to the national unity of Iran. The militia of the Kurds of Iran has good relations with the US and they get their arms supplies from the US and some European countries; this is a tantalizing situation for Iran. On the other hand, Israel is also very vocal about Kurdish independence and a state having good friendly relations with the Iranian enemy is not acceptable to Iran in any condition.

The Republic of Mahabad in Iran only lasted for 11 months during 1946. Since then, there were strict sanctions on the Kurds of Iran and they were even displaced from their cities. The fundamental reason given for this was that the Kurds of Iran are illiterate, Bedouin, and still are socially backward. The KDPI (The Democratic Republic of Kurdistan in Iran) is a banned political party in Iran whose leadership is in exile in Iraq. PJAK (Kurdistan Free Life Party) is also banned in Iran and declared as a terrorist group.

The Kurds of Syria

The Kurds of Syria were once a majority ruling entity but with time, they were marginalized and now they are the largest ethnic minority. They had faced discrimination, forced resettlements, and state oppression. The Kurds of Syria were denied basic social rights like land owning and property purchasing. They were even denied the citizenship of Syria. In 1962, the citizenship of thousands of Kurds was suspended by the state.

The militias of the Kurds of Syria are now active potential participants in the Syrian civil war—a potential conflict between the Assad regime, rebel groups, ISIS, and Kurd militias. The first two parties are still in conflict while the Kurd militias with the support of arms and resources from the US had defeated ISIS in Syria and Iraq. As a result, they are now controlling a huge landmass of north and east Syria.

This captured territory is under the control of the People’s Defense Units (YPG)—the Syrian Kurdistan Workers’ Party (a terrorist organization)—according to Turkey. The captured land is about a quarter of the Syrian landmass which means that the Kurdish militias want to create an autonomous state within Syria where they can rule, just like the KRG in Iraq. This is a security concern for Turkey as the creation of any Kurdish state in the region is a potential threat to Turkish national integrity. Since half of the Kurdish people live in Turkey, any incident could fuel a new separatist movement in the state.

The former US president, Donald Trump, announced the withdrawal of the US forces from Syria in 2019. Turkey, without wasting any time, initiated assaults on its border to secure its civilians and military. The YPG accused the US of betrayal and is now directly engaged in a war on two fronts. During the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations the Assad regime gave 300,000 undocumented citizenships to the Kurds of Syria which were allegedly annulled in the 1960s. Turkey wants to create a safe zone on its Syrian border to stop any kind of terrorist activity across the border.

The Kurds of Turkey

About 40-45 % of the Kurdish people live in southeastern Turkey in Erzurum, Siirt, Van, Diyarbakir, and Bitlis, etc. The Kurds of Turkey are the predominant largest ethnic identity in the region. They faced massive displacements after the 1920 and 1930 revolts when the nationalist groups under the command of Mustafa Kemal took back the territories from the enemy.

The Kurds of Turkey have faced the deadliest government repressions, abolishment of cultural customs and language, and massive detaining by the state in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, in response to the separatist movements. They have faced discrimination in social and human rights. Until 1991, they were called the mountain Turks and their identity was not recognized by the state. Words like Kurds, Kurdish, or Kurdistan were officially banned by the state.

Thousands of people were arrested and detained. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK,), the People’s Defense Forces (HPG)—the PKK’s military wing— the Kurdistan Community Union (KCK), and the Civil Protection Units (YPS), are all banned and declared terrorist organizations by Turkey and the US. Turkey has long feared that the creation of any Kurdish state, within the region it occupies, would ignite a new separatist movement in Turkey because of the large number of Kurds in southeastern Turkey.

Abdullah Ocalan is the de facto leader of PKK and its subsidiary militant groups and is declared a terrorist by Turkey. Ocalan started the deadliest attacks on the Turkish military and civilians in the 1970s. He initiated an insurgency using irregular warfare and guerrilla tactics. The PKK soon became a prominent non-state actor in Turkey. Ocalan was arrested in Kenya in 1999 and since then, he has been in prison. During the 2005-2006 protests he was called for dialogue and ceasefire, but it was in vain since the PKK attacked the Turkish soldiers and both killed each other.

In 2015, the Ankara bomb attacks killed 100 civilians further ignited the tensions. The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered a combing operation against the PKK and affiliated groups. The PKK is considered a threat to the national integrity and unity of Turkey. The attacks from Sinjar, Iraq on the Turkish civilians and armed forces are also backed by the PKK (Council on Foreign Relations, 2021).

The YPG is the Syrian branch of the PKK. Turkey is vigorously tackling the Kurdish militias on the Iraqi and Syrian borders and creating a safe zone of 300 km to protect the Turkish national interests. Iraq, KRG, and the Syrian regime are accusing Turkey of breaching sovereignty, but Turkey accused these states of poor political and military structure since they couldn’t stop the Kurdish militias.

It was in 2012 when the Turkish government allowed schools to teach the Kurdish language and culture. After the July 2016 failed coup attempt, the Turkish regime initiated a national operation against the non-state actors and coup planners including political parties, military personnel, civilians, and judiciary. Members of the Kurdish-affiliated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were also detained. The mayors of Diyarbakir and other Kurdish majority areas were also held accountable (Artens, 2013).

The Kurdish Region and the War of Narratives

Some states are using the war of narratives, media warfare, or hybrid warfare to proliferate their stance on the Kurds. Kurds have made several projects with the funding of western or US directors, INGOs (international non-governmental organizations), and NGOs, etc. to convey their message of peace and harmony or struggle and freedom (Olson, 1993).

These projects include 14 Tirmeh (14th July), Girl of the Sun, Where is Kurdistan, The Children of Diyarbakir, and Gulistan: Land of Roses. In these films, the Kurdish struggle for a separate homeland and their freedom initiatives are portrayed. The war against the nation-states, the inhumane behavior towards the Kurds, and the backward life they live are shown to create a soft corner for the Kurds worldwide.

On the other hand, Turkey is the pioneer skilled in the war of narratives, using the Islamic message of unity, nationhood, and Islam. The Turkish projects include Nizama Adanmis Ruhler; Ekip 1 (Team of Devoted Spirits), Isimsizler (Nameless), Kurtler Vadisi (Valley of the Wolves), and Sakarya First. These projects are orchestrated and written in an attractive way to catch the attention of the audience.

The Turkish state tools like the civil government, bureaucracy, military, judiciary, police, and all other stakeholders are portrayed as loyal to their faith (Islam), to their nation (Ummah), and to their state – Turkey. But there are some traitors, terrorists and foreign-funded groups (Kurds) and the state machinery is coping with them even by becoming a martyr (shaheed) or fighter (ghazi).

The people of the Kurdish region are portrayed as terrorists in these films. Some are patriots but they are deviated by some other means. The former US first lady, secretary of state, and the 2016 US presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea Clinton are now producing a new series on the life of PKK and YPG girls (“Hillary Clinton,” 2021).


The Kurdish struggle is one of the longest struggles for freedom and independence. But according to some Kurdish experts, this is not a continuous struggle and the consequence is not certain among the Kurdish militias; they are only struggling for some minimal gains. Professor David Romano from Missouri State University describes the Kurdish struggle by referring to the arguments by notable political scientists—Samir Amin, Jurgen Habermas, Malcolm McDowell, and Antoni Gramsci.

According to them, the Kurdish people are not showing true national liberation movements. The KRG is enjoying its autonomy in Iraq but is not supporting other Kurdish groups for a united cause. It is a threat to their power and regime. The Kurdish people are fighting against the non-imperial states—the states are either democratic or dictatorial. The freedom movements in China, Algeria, and Russia were against the imperial powers, not nation-states.

The Kurds have deviated from their objectives and ideology and they are only working for the objectives and ideology of their funding partners like the US, France, and the UK. These partners used the Kurdish people for their interests. The United Kingdom and France betrayed them during the Sykes-Picot agreement, while the United States betrayed them during the Gulf War, the Iran-Iraq War, and by withdrawing its forces in 2019 from Syria. In response, the people of the Kurdish region only received dollars and some temporary benefits, except for the KRG which is still governing its region.  


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