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The Turkish/Kurdish situation is complex and rooted in a difficult history. It goes much deeper than the recent action by President Trump to pull 50+ troops back from Syria’s border with Turkey. The history of the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran goes back centuries, but the fuel for independence and a separate Kurdistan can be traced back to the end of World War I which ended the Ottoman Empire.  

The Kurds After WWI

Turkey is where the largest population of Kurds reside. Much of what has led to the almost century long tense relationship between the Kurds and their neighboring countries-especially Turkey is the result of what happened immediately following World War One.   A recent article on the Kurds in the BBC provides a concise summary:

“In the early 20th Century, many Kurds began to consider the creation of a homeland – generally referred to as “Kurdistan”. After World War One and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies made provision for a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres.

Such hopes were dashed three years later, however, when the Treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of modern Turkey, made no provision for a Kurdish state and left Kurds with minority status in their respective countries. Over the next 80 years, any move by Kurds to set up an independent state was brutally quashed.”

The two world powers that emerged after WWI, America and France, essentially carved up the middle east into what is now Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Kurdistan was left out of the equation leaving the Kurds as the world’s largest ethnicity without a homeland.  This has led to deep animosity, distrust and conflict between the Kurds and Turks, all of which is rooted in Kurdish quest for autonomy.

Where the Kurds Live

There are around 30 million Kurds.  The Kurds make up about 15%-20% of the Turkish population or around 12 million people, and are concentrated in the southeastern part of the country.  The Kurds also inhabit territory in Northern Syria (2 million), northern Iraq (5-6 million) and Northwest Iran (6 million).  Turkey has the largest Kurdish population of all the countries. When you view the demographics of where the Kurds live, it is all connected in one large land mass that could conceivably, geographically carve out a separate autonomous region of a long sought after, Kurdistan as displayed below in the dark shaded area.

Much of what has led to the almost century long tumultuous relationship between the Kurds and their neighboring countries-especially Turkey where the largest population of Kurds reside-is the result of what happened immediately following World War One.   A recent article in the BBC on the Kurds provides a concise summation:

The Kurds by no means speak with one mind, and while they represent a common ethnicity, they differ drastically based on religion and ideology.  The Kurds are comprised of Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Zoroaster’s, Yazidis and others. They promote differing ideologies like Marxism, Communism, democracy and Islamism. 


The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) was organized in Turkey in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan to fight for Autonomy for the Kurds. It began as a far left-winged Marxist group.  In 1984, the PKK they began an armed struggle involving terror tactics and insurgency against the Turks. The PKK has even engaged in suppression of their own people who differ in ideology or religion. PKK/Kurdish inspired terror attacks have claimed up to 40,000 lives throughout Turkey including Kurdish lives as well.  The PKK exerts influence the other three primary countries there they reside-Iraq, Syria and Iran.

 Öcalan was arrested in 1999 and Turkey began extending more rights and freedoms to the Kurds which led to a ceasefire and dormancy of the PKK from 2000-2003.  With Ocalan out of the leadership, the Kurds and members of the PKK continued quietly recruiting members and reorganizing themselves.

In 2003, Ocalan’s brother, Osman Ocalan, reorganized the former PKK into a new organization called the PYD (Democratic Union Party).  The PYD works under the auspices of a group called Kongra-Gel (KGK).  Kongra-Gel was considered the administrative arm of what is essentially the reformation of the PKK and is recognized as a terrorist group by the United States.  The Counter Terrorism Guide states:

“KGK and Turkish forces clashed repeatedly in 2011 and 2012, including an attack in October 2011 that killed 24 Turkish troops and was the deadliest incident since 1993.  KGK also stepped up its kidnapping campaign against Turkish state employees and soldiers, which included the unprecedented abduction of a Turkish parliamentary deputy in August 2012.”

Syria and the SDF

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were founded in 2015 in northern Syria along the border with Turkey.  The purpose was to defend the Kurdish inhabited area in northern Syria from the Syrian civil war and the proliferation of ISIS.  The SDF is essentially an off-shoot of the Syrian YPG which is a Syrian militia group operating under the Syrian Kurdish Party (PYD). In going full circle, the PYD is the extension of the Turkish based PKK in Syria.   

The United States was supportive of the formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their fight against Syria, which again has its roots in the PKK who the United States recognizes as a terror group. The geo-political complexities of this are multi-faceted.  

The U.S. and the SDF

The United States supported and provided weaponry and training to the SDF primarily through special ops troops deployed to northern Syria and air support from neighboring air bases.  This support was critical in the defeat of the ISIS Caliphate in Northern Syria and Iraq.  The United States and the Kurds, through the SDF, could best be described as coalition partners in this fight, but not allies.  The term ally implies a political and ongoing military agreement.  This term has been greatly mischaracterized by politicians and the media when referring to the United States responsibility to and the relationship with the Kurds.  

The Ally in the Region is Turkey because they are member of NATO. The U.S. and Turkey are allies by treaty.  Another misconception fueled by the media and politicians is overstating the U.S. military commitment in area of Northern Syria.  In listening to them describe the specific troop withdrawal from the Syrian/Turkey border area, you have the image of thousands of troops.  In reality, the troops in the location in question are mainly special forces that probably number close to 50 but not more than 100.   Exact numbers on troop deployments are not meant for public consumption.  

Turkey and NATO

Keeping U.S. troops deployed as a buffer between the Kurds-SDF and NATO partner, Turkey, puts the U.S. in an impossible situation.  It conceivably could lead to conflict between two NATO members.  The purpose of NATO is for member countries to come to the defense of other member countries when attacked.  What happens when two NATO countries are engaged in hostilities with each other?

 Could the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria have been handled better?  Yes. Long term, there is no strategic or national security reason for the U.S. to stay imbedded in northern Syria. A full withdrawal could have been gradual while conducting diplomacy with Turkey to prevent what became an immediate invasion of the Kurdish camps in northern Syria by the Turks.  

In Conclusion

The Turkish people have legitimate grievances with the Kurds because of the ongoing insurgency and the multiple terror attacks that have been carried out throughout Turkey by the PKK and its various factions.  The Kurds have even more legitimate grievances against the Turks for the way they have been suppressed and oppressed by the Turks throughout their history.

The majority of Kurds have assimilated within Turkey and prefer to remain a part of Turkey. This could very well be because life is probably better than it would be under Kurdish governance with the drastic differing religions and ideologies.  The attitude towards the Kurds varies throughout different regions in Turkey.  As you get closer to the southeast part of the country, the Kurdish population increases and so does the militancy towards the Turks. This fuels the Kurds struggle for autonomy in the four country region, which leads us back to where we are today in northern Syria and Turkey.

photo credit: dwilson@counterthreatgrp.com