Update on the Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran


Update on the Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran

April 6, 2016

by Gabriel Giddens

The following gives updates on the Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.


Late last year, the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) recaptured the Sinjar district from the Islamic State [1]. While this was a major victory for Iraqi Kurds, the Islamic State committed many atrocities towards the Yazidi people - a Kurdish religious group - that are just now gaining widespread attention. During their occupation, the Islamic State committed mass executions, crucifixions, and forced women into sexual slavery, among other cruelties. Even worse, many of these actions were directed specifically toward children [2]. The activities were so severe, they prompted the United States to, in a rare move, label them as genocide (Note: This also refers to the Islamic State’s actions towards other minorities in the region) [3]. Now, the Yazidis are experiencing trauma that they are unable to address due to a lack of resources for psychological aid [4].

The psychological and humanitarian effects are not the only issues that remain in Sinjar. Over the past few months, there has been political infighting among Kurds in Sinjar concerning which Kurdish group should control the region [5]. The principal groups vying for power are the Peshmerga forces aligned with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the forces aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), both of which have been long-time political opponents.

Beyond the Sinjar district, Iraqi Kurds are making progress against the Islamic State elsewhere in the Nineveh Province. Since June 2014, the Islamic State has held Mosul, a major city in Northern Iraq. In the early months of 2016, Peshmerga forces, Iraqi Security Forces, and coalition forces (led by the United States) cut-off key supply routes and initiated a major offensive to retake the city [6]. The Battle of Mosul began in March 2016 and is currently in progress [7].

This map roughly illustrates the current factional control of Iraq.

In spite of their exploits, the Peshmerga have been surrounded by controversies of their own. An Amnesty International report released in January alleged Peshmerga forces are carrying out forced displacement against Arabs. “Peshmerga forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdish militias in northern Iraq have bulldozed, blown up and burned down thousands of homes in an apparent effort to uproot Arab communities in revenge for their perceived support for the so-called Islamic State (IS)” [8] They base this assessment largely on satellite imagery.

Lastly, a considerable development that has yet to occur, but might occur within the next year, is independence of the KRG. Geopolitical and economic issues have persuaded Kurdish leaders to hold off on independence, despite widespread support from the Kurdish people. However, as the economy continues to decline, in part because of economic barriers created by the Iraqi government, the KRG might be compelled to achieve complete autonomy. Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, recently called of an independence referendum sometime this year [9].


Last Friday, Kurdish authorities in Syria announced the de-facto autonomy of the semi-contiguous region of Rojava in Northern Syria [10]. Hundreds of delegates representing various groups came together to form this federation. Whether it was the right or wrong thing to do, the move has further complicated and already delicate geopolitical situation. First and foremost, there are concerns in the international community that the move could undermine the Syrian Civil War peace process and, more broadly, the prospect of Syrian unification [11]. Kurdish autonomy weakens the Syrian opposition’s position. Beyond that, the move further embitters Turkey, putting Western powers in a bind. Do they continue to support the Kurds as a means of posturing against Assad and the Islamic State? Or, do they scale back their support for the Kurds to avoid damaging the relationship with Turkey? In early February, Turkey bombed Kurdish positions in Syria and rejected thousands of refugees (refer to the post on Syrian migration for more details). It is unclear how they will respond to this most recent development.


In 2016, violence between the Turkish government and Kurdish militants has continued:

·         February 17: Bombing in Ankara by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK); 30 fatalities [12].

·         February 18: Roadside bombing against Turkish soldiers by the PKK; 6 fatalities [13].

·         March 4: Car bombing against Turkish police officers by the PKK; 2 fatalities [14].

·         March 13: Bombing in Ankara by the TAK; 37 fatalities [15].

·         March 21: Bombing against Turkish soldiers by PKK; 3 fatalities [16].

In response to these attacks the Turkish government has accelerated counterterrorism operations. On March 21, 2016, the Turkish Army completed operations in Southeast Turkey that resulted in the death of 22 militants from the PKK [17]. The conflict between the Kurds in Turkey and the Turkish government is not likely to subside in the near future, especially considering the developments outlined in the previous sections. Kurdish autonomy in Syria and the potential for autonomy in Iraq will likely make Turkey more hostile to the Kurds within Turkey, further decreasing the likelihood of peace between the two groups.


An Iranian news report in February 2016 indicated the Iranian government is staunchly against Kurdish independence – perhaps to no surprise [18]. Iran has a long history of persecuting Kurds native to Iranian territory. According to Arif Bawecani, the head of the Kurdistan Independent Party, Kurdish political activists have been executed or subjected to long jail terms [19]. Similarly, this past month, Iranian authorities worked toward restricting Kurdish participation in the parliamentary elections. The elections turned out to be a notable partial-victory for moderates in the country. However, the Kurds did not improve their representation.

Kurds and other minorities like Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians have occupied a limited number of governmental positions, including parliamentary positions. However, their ability to run for office has been severely restricted by Iran’s unelected Guardian Council [20]. According to Dr. Payind, “the Guadian Council is unlike any other electoral system in the world, they disqualify any of the candidates” at their discretion. So, while confessional communities can participate in elections, “none of them have been able to occupy top level positions, which are usually dominated by Imamiyyahs (Twelvers).”

Kurds do, however, exercise limited authority over their own people through community level jurisdiction. As Dr. Payind went on to discuss, the Iranian government permits systems like laws of inheritance to vary among different confessional communities. 

Finally, there was a report in early March that groups affiliated with the government were targeting holy sites of the Yarsan people [21]. The Yarsan people are ethnically Kurdish and have received support from the broader Kurdish population against discrimination from the Iranian government.

Please also see videos on our Youtube channel giving background information on Kurdistan. https://youtu.be/W2gzhs5S5VU 


[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/13/middleeast/iraq-free-sinjar-isis/index.html

[2] http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=50369#.VwUUd08rK70

[3] http://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2016/march/genocide-house-approves-declaration-on-isis-atrocities

[4] http://www.cctv-america.com/2016/03/20/thousands-of-yazidis-left-traumatized-in-northern-iraq

[5] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/11/turkey-iraq-krg-sinjar-pkk-yazidis-town-kurds-cannot-share.html

[6] http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/160220166

[7] http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2016/03/24/Iraqi-army-starts-offensive-in-region-around-Mosul.html

[8] http://www.amnestyusa.org/news/press-releases/northern-iraq-satellite-images-back-up-evidence-of-deliberate-mass-destruction-in-peshmerga-controll?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=New%20Campaign&utm_term=%2ASituation%20Report

[9] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/02/kurdish-referendum-barzani-political-survival-iraq-160204111835869.html

[10] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/03/syria-civil-war-kurds-declare-federal-system-north-160317111902534.html

[11] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-federalism-idUSKCN0WJ1EP

[12] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/turkey-accuses-a-syrian-kurd-of-bombing-ankara-and-vows-to-retaliate/2016/02/18/6269d5ab-fe34-4250-8992-519eb6e46850_story.html

[13] http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/18/middleeast/turkey-airstrikes/

[14] http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2016-03-04/2-police-killed-in-car-bomb-attack-in-southeast-turkey

[15] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35798517

[16] http://kurdishdailynews.org/2016/03/21/three-soldiers-killed-by-kurdish-forces-in-mardin-province/

[17] http://sputniknews.com/middleeast/20160321/1036680660/turkey-pkk-militants.html

[18] http://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/170220162

[19] http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Iranian-Kurds-persecuted-benefiting-from-Kurdish-gains-next-door-they-say-442230

[20] http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iran/180120162

[21] http://aranews.net/2016/03/isis-threatens-eliminate-kakai-religious-minority-iraq/