In Depth

Who are the Kurds?

US accused of ‘betrayal’ after stepping aside for Turkish assault on Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria

Turkish forces this week launched a long-anticipated assault against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), prompting an outcry from the international community.

The offensive comes after Donald Trump announced on Sunday that US troops would be withdrawing from the Turkey-Syria border.

Both Ankara and the Kurds are close allies of the US, but the Turkish authorities have long viewed the Kurds both within Turkey and in neighbouring Iraq and Syria as a disruptive presence.

The Turkish allegations centre around the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish far-left militant and political organisation that Ankara views as a terrorist group. For decades, Turkey has been planning an incursion into Syria to create a so-called buffer zone, but the US presence in the region has helped to prevent an all-out conflict.

However, Trump’s decision to withdraw, shortly after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, paved the way for a Turkish assault - prompting allegations that the US has “betrayed” the Kurds and the SDF, who have played a pivotal role in helping US forces defeat the Islamic State in the region.

President Erdogan says the goal of the incursion is “to destroy the terror corridor” that he claims Kurdish forces are trying to establish on his country’s southern border, and to bring peace to the region.

However, critics argue that Washington’s decision to effectively leave the Kurds to the mercy of Turkish forces will “undo progress made against Isis, betray a military ally that had lost tens of thousands of fighters and trigger further conflict”, reports the i news site. The move is merely “the latest betrayal of many” against the Kurds, the newspaper adds.

But who exactly are the Kurds and where do they fit in the tangled web of interests in the Middle East?

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds were originally “one of the indigenous peoples of the Mesopotamian plains” and the highlands in what are now southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and southwestern Armenia, says the BBC.

Today, they form a “distinctive community, united through race, culture and language”, the broadcaster continues. That said, the Kurds remain a diverse ethnic group.

They do not have a shared language, instead speaking a range of dialects from the Kurdish language family, such as Kurmanji, Sorani, Xwarig and Laki. 

Nor do they have a common religion. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but within the group there are large communities of Christians, Zoroastrians, Yarsanis and Yazidis, as well as a significant Jewish population. 

Do they have a country?

Currently, the Kurds do not have an official state. The Irish Times reports that up to 30 million Kurds reside in a region commonly known as Kurdistan, a vaguely defined area spanning parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

This splintered existence is a result of a series of treaties signed by the Allies in the wake of the First World War, when the Middle East was carved up into numerous countries without taking into account tribal and ethnic differences. Various Kurdish groups have been fighting for autonomy within their respective countries ever since.

Kurds have long been suppressed and denied basic rights, particularly in Syria, where as many as 300,000 Kurds have been denied citizenship since the 1960s. Kurdish land has also been “confiscated and redistributed to Arabs” in an attempt to "Arabize" Kurdish regions, says the BBC.

Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, Syrian Kurds have sought to consolidate their claims over Kurdish-majority districts in the country, known collectively as the de facto autonomous region of Rojava.

Why were the Kurds at the forefront of the fight against Isis?

In 2015, in a move aimed at stemming the rapid spread of Isis across Syria, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab soldiers formed the SDF, an armed group backed by US, British and French special forces. The Kurdish contingent of the alliance is known as the People’s Protection Unit (YPG).

Syrian government forces had cornered the Kurds in Rojava using military force for decades, but after they withdrew from the region to focus on fighting Isis elsewhere, the SDF found itself face-to-face with the terrorist group in northern Syria. During years of bloody fighting, the SDF lost as many as 11,000 soldiers and were ultimately credited as a key player in the eventual defeat of Isis.

Isis currently holds no territory, but multiple sources have claimed that there are still tens of thousands of jihadist fighters in hiding in both Iraq and Syria - and warn that the withdrawal of US troops may pave the way for a resurgence for the terrorist group.

CNN reports that Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish territory may see “thousands of terrorists” and two SDF-controlled holding facilities for displaced Isis members being left unguarded.

Why is Turkey invading now?

Tensions between Turkey and the Kurdish ethnic group date back decades, beginning with a conflict between Turkish and Kurdish forces within Turkey.

Kurds currently comprise around 15% to 20% of the population of Turkey, based mainly in the east and southeast of the country near the borders of Iraq and Syria. Although the Turkish state has long oppressed Kurdish people within its own borders, tensions didn’t come to a head until 1978, when Kurdish militant Abdullah Ocalan founded far-left insurgent group the PKK, which launched an armed conflict against Turkey in the hopes of establishing an independent Kurdish state.

The conflict within Turkey has resulted in the deaths of at least 40,000 people, and Ocalan has been held in prison by Turkish authorities for the past 20 years.

As a result of the insurgency, Turkey, the US and the European Union all view the PKK as a terrorist group, and President Erdogan has “made it clear that his ultimate goal is to eliminate” the organisation, CNN says.

In addition, while the PKK has not played an active role in the Syrian Civil War, the Turkish government has expressed concerns over the group’s ties to the YPG, which is an active combatant in the conflict.

The leaders of both organisations have attempted to downplay the link, but Turkey nevertheless views Kurdish YPG fighters in northeast Syria as terrorists too.

In a tweeted message this week, President Erdogan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, warned: “YPG militants have two options: They can defect or we will have stop them from disrupting our counter-Isis efforts.”

In a subsequent message on Twitter, Erdogan said his latest mission, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, would “preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists”.


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