Contemporary Conflicts: Kurdish Nationalism

Kurdish peshmerga fighters in Iraq (Image Courtesy of


Thirty-five years ago, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) officially formed in Southeastern Turkey, adopting its name soon after. The PKK, as it is commonly known, was founded by Abdullah Öcalan as a leftist revolutionary group seeking the establishment of a national Kurdish state known as Kurdistan. And so, we come to our second contemporary conflict: the Kurdish nationalist struggle for independence.

The tricky thing about the Kurdish situation is that the proposed state of Kurdistan spans at least part of the territory of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. A Kurdish population of around thirty million exists in this region, along with a number of different militant organizations similar to the PKK, which sometimes plays the role of an umbrella organization.  For example, it is believed the group PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan), which mainly operates in Iran, is an offshoot of the PKK. However, the KDP and the PUK are the main parties in Iraqi Kurdistan who are largely independent from the PKK.

Different groups developed as regional and local militias banded together to fight a specific enemy. The PKK carried out attacks and bombings in Turkey until a cease-fire in March 2013. The PYD (Democratic Union Party) has recently made significant gains in carving out a Kurdish sphere of stability in Syria. This development, among others in recent decades, show that the Kurdish movement is no small-time operation simply causing trouble for ‘occupational’ governments, but a significant up and coming player in Middle Eastern power politics that the United States should pay closer attention to.

Kurdish women enjoy a significant amount of freedom unprecedented in the Middle East, partially a product of the egalitarian and socialist ideology disseminated by Abdullah Öcalan, whose writings and teachings have been described as a sort of Little Red Book for Kurds. The Kurds are Muslim, predominantly Sunni, yet a significant (some say as much as 50%) part of the military force in some groups is made up of single women, as mothers are prevented from fighting. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which controls the largely autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, is elected by a popular vote from both men and women. This regional government contains a relatively large number of women who wield respected power, unlike the women in the federal Iraqi government who have little to no power and are often simply relatives of members. Kurdish women fighters and politicians take great pride in their ability to fight for women’s rights and represent Kurdistan as empowered and educated individuals.

Iraqi Kurdistan developed as a largely autonomous region in the north of Iraq following the Kurdish uprisings in the time of the First Gulf War. Kurdish militants pushed the main Iraqi forces out and managed to consolidate holdings through the critical no-fly zone established by American forces in the aftermath. The autonomous region has remained economically stable and prosperous having avoided the worst of the 2003 Iraq War, and has regained political stability despite past civil strife. It is even a sister state with Oregon.

This autonomous region is not just the exception, but may prove to be the beachhead for the beginnings of a truly sovereign Kurdistan. PYD, the militant Kurdish party in Syria mentioned above, has pushed out jihadists and Assad forces alike to establish a relatively stable area in the northeast of the country. The party has announced plans for elections and appears to be emulating the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan. Interestingly enough, however, many of its critics come from the KRG, who fear Turkish backlash from the emergence of yet another autonomous Kurdish region.

And here we arrive at the crux of the issue. The Kurds know how to play regional players against each other, even using the United States to aid its cause. PKK action has drawn the ire of Turkey, who has acted across its borders to strike at the group’s camps in neighboring nations in the past, often costing Turkey regional respect and good faith. The PKK and several other Kurdish militant groups have been labeled terrorist organizations by the UN, NATO, and the United States, and are known to carry out suicide bombings and civilian attacks. However, the United States found itself defending Iraqi Kurds with its 1990s no-fly zone. With that military – and later strong economic – support, the Iraqi Kurdistan has flourished. Some of its neighborhoods resemble the McMansions of southern California, and it is even a sister-state to Oregon.

The United States can use friends in the region, but we already have a very powerful (and very legitimate) one with Turkey, who would be very unhappy to see a Kurdish movement emboldened by American support. Still, the Kurds hold value. The situation on the ground is often fractious between Kurds, with turf wars and violence between parties not an uncommon thing, but for the most part the Kurds hold similar cultural, social, and political values as well as the dream of Kurdistan. With the Kurdish track record of moderate Islam, support for women’s rights, as well as relatively stable (in that they are self-established and self-determined) democratic institutions that have maintained economic and social stability, it is possible that a closer relationship with the Kurds, who are often supportive of America, would bear fruit. A strong Kurdish insurgence in Iran could be used to achieve joint Kurdish and American goals, such as serving as a base of operations for infiltration and in the distant future a means to weaken the territorial integrity of the massive state.

The mobility and militancy of this group could be a lethal tool for the United States, but could be a double-edged sword. Strong nationalist fervor has driven some Kurdish militants to terror tactics, and there is little love lost between Turkey and the PKK. Indeed, Turkey stands to lose the most if Kurdistan becomes a reality. But if America can stomach working with groups labeled as terrorists, and do it in a way conscientious of the bloody past between Turkey and the Kurds, then it stands to gain from Kurdish appreciation, military value, and emerging political power.

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