Approximately thirty million Kurds live in the Middle East—primarily in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—and the Kurds comprise nearly one-fifth of Turkey’s population of seventy-nine million. The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), established by Abdullah Ocalan in 1978, has waged an insurgency since 1984 against Turkish authorities for greater cultural and political rights, primarily with the objective of establishing an independent Kurdish state. The ongoing conflict has resulted in nearly forty thousand [PDF] deaths.
Under the Erdogan regime, popular discontent has steadily increased, as seen in the June 2013 Gezi Park protests and a July 2016 coup attempt, but tensions have also risen between Turkish authorities and Kurdish groups. In particular, the PKK, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) (a left-wing pro-Kurdish party), and the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) (the armed wing of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) with ties to the PKK) have increasingly agitated against the government, conducting numerous attacks against Turkish authorities in the southeast.
In July 2015, a two-year cease-fire between Turkey’s government and the PKK collapsed following a suicide bombing by suspected self-proclaimed Islamic State militants that killed nearly thirty Kurds near the Syrian border. Following the coup attempt in July 2016, Erdogan cracked down on suspected coup conspirators, arrested an estimated fifty thousand people, and increased air strikes on PKK militants in southeastern Turkey. He also stepped up military operations in Syria against the YPG and the self-declared Islamic State, deploying tanks, special forces, and air support in Turkey’s first major offensive. Turkey largely succeeded in pushing the Islamic State out and securing the captured areas under Syrian rebel control, preventing the YPG, which Erdogan calls a terrorist organization, from expanding its control to the western bank of the Euphrates River along Turkey’s border.
Beyond Turkey, Syrian Kurdish fighters have been combating the Islamic State, largely as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters backed by the United States—and have carved out a semi-autonomous region in northern Syria. In September 2014, PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called for the Kurds to start an “all-out resistance” in the fight against the Islamic State; later that month, the Kurdish-controlled town of Kobani was besieged and eventually captured, resulting in the exodus of tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds to Turkey. The ensuing battle for Kobani resulted in more than 1,600 deaths, but the Kurdish-led SDF forces eventually regained control of the city in January 2015. The SDF also liberated the strategic Syrian city of Manbij from the Islamic State in August 2016, though YPG forces (part of the SDF coalition) clashed with Turkish-backed rebels attempting to gain control.
After the YPG and SDF consolidated control over territory captured from the Islamic State in northern Syria, Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian militias, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), moved to recapture cities and expel the Kurds. Turkish troops and the FSA launched an assault on the city of Afrin in January 2018, eventually capturing the city in March 2018. Rights groups place responsibility on Turkey for civilian deaths during the offensive, but Turkey blames the YPG. Turkey continues to threaten assaults on other Kurdish-held areas inside Syria, including Manbij, and despite sharing a common enemy, many of Turkey’s air strikes have targeted Kurdish fighters rather than Islamic State militants. Amid these threats, the YPG invited the Syrian army to help it defend Manbij and other areas, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent militias to assist in the fight.
An alliance of Kurdish fighters known as the Peshmerga also emerged in Iraq, where the Islamic State had advanced toward the autonomous Kurdish region in the northern part of the country. The Turkish military regularly targets Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) bases in Iraq and in 2019 Turkey launched Operation Claw, a land and ground assault that saw Turkey establish military bases in Iraqi territory. Since then, Turkey has used these bases to plan attacks and airstrikes, including testing a new ballistic missile, in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iraqi government has responded by issuing complaints against the violation of its sovereignty, and Kurdish forces have attacked Turkey’s bases.
After U.S. President Donald J. Trump announced in December 2018 that the United States would begin withdrawing troops from Syria, Syrian Kurds, who had largely fought as members of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), expressed concerns that Turkey would increase its attacks against them. Turkey and the United States agreed to a safe zone for Syrian Kurds in August 2019, but that deal collapsed before implementation. Turkey announced its own safe zone in areas it had taken from Kurdish forces in an offensive and hopes to repatriate Syrian refugees in Turkey to the area, but human rights groups have said that abuses continue despite Turkish assurances.
If the Kurds do succeed in establishing an independent state in Syria amid the chaos gripping the region, it could accelerate secessionist movements in other Kurdish areas of the Middle East. Heightened terrorist activity by Kurdish separatists is also a growing concern for the United States— and its allies—which designated the PKK a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.
U.S.-Turkey relations have faltered since Erdogan renewed calls for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen—a Turkish political and religious leader in self-imposed exile in the United States—whom Erdogan believes to be an organizer of the July 2016 coup. Relations have also suffered because of the United States’ close relationship with Kurdish groups—the United States continues to supply arms to Peshmerga troops fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and has provided arms to the Syrian YPG—and the increasingly close relationship between Russia and Turkey.
Turkey opened 2021 with the months-long Operation Eren, named for a boy killed in a PKK attack, deploying drones and thousands of troops to target the PKK in rural Turkey. The rate of fatalities from the conflict in Turkey remained steady from 2019 to 2022 but declined in the first half of 2023 to the lowest level since a cease-fire broke down in 2015. The decline in violence is largely attributable to an early 2023 PKK cease-fire declared following devastating earthquakes, but the PKK ended the cease-fire in June. More than 6,600 people have died in the domestic conflict since 2015.
Turkish forces have continued a series of operations in northern Iraq, striking mostly along their shared border but also deep into Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey maintains close relations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which supports its fight against the PKK, but the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has closer ties to the PKK. In 2023, Turkey issued a flight ban on the international airport of Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan’s second-largest city, and repeatedly bombed the area, alleging that the PUK-controlled city played a key role in smuggling weapons to the PKK.
In Syria, Turkey has consolidated control over the zones it occupies; it provides public services, it has embarked on a massive housing project to repatriate Syrian refugees, and transactions often involve the Turkish lira. Human rights groups have accused Turkey of allowing the Syrian National Army (SNA) to act with impunity against Kurdish civilians in these areas. Meanwhile, Turkey continues airstrikes against armed Kurdish groups outside of areas it controls but has not launched a ground offensive as threatened. With its ongoing presence in Iraq and Syria, Turkey aims to maintain a buffer zone that deprives the PKK of bases abroad and to prevent the emergence of a contiguous area of autonomous Kurdish rule across borders that could intensify calls for an independent state.
Turkey has also cracked down on its Kurdish diaspora. Sensing an opportunity with Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO bids, Erdogan demanded the two countries adopt a harsher stance against Kurdish “terrorists” living abroad. In a joint memorandum [PDF], Finland and Sweden agreed to cooperate against suspected PKK members by curtailing finances and facilitating extradition to Turkey, among other measures. Sweden also strengthened its anti-terrorism laws and announced the extradition of a Turkish citizen before Turkey agreed to its NATO accession. Having stirred up fears of the PKK and terrorism during his 2023 reelection campaign, a now-victorious Erdogan will likely continue his heavy-handed policies toward Kurds at home and abroad.