A History of the Kurds on Turkey’s Border

A History of the Kurds on Turkey’s Border

Michael M. Gunter, Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War (London  Hurst & Company), 2014), 159 p.

With Turkey having entered Syria to secure a buffer zone against YPG/PKK terrorism, it is important to have a grasp of what has been happening with the Kurds in Syria over the past century. That history is provided by Michael M. Gunter’s Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War. Michael Gunter, the dean of the Kurdish studies in the US, who has written many books and articles on the Kurds in all regions of the Middle East, including of course Turkey; in this book he surveys the story of the Kurds in Syria (with much information on the Kurds in neighboring countries), but only up to 2014 and therefore before the rise and fall of ISIS and other future events such as the US intervention at the side of the Kurds long a thorn in Turkey’s side and now of even more interest as Turkey has acted to protect its border from incursion. 

The stability in the Middle East that the Ottoman Empire provided was dismantled by the division of the region into artificial nation-states reflecting the interests of the competing Western victors after World War I under their 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, leaving the legacy of disruptions that afflicted the region since that time. In this division, the Kurds were ignored and their peoples were scattered primarily among four countries, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.  Gunter describes the end of the colonial period and the divisions in Syria between the majority Arabs and the discriminated against Kurds. This limited the prospects of the northern Kurds but Gunter also emphasizes the importance of women in holding together Kurdish society. 

As a way of exerting pressure on Turkey, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) had been given refuge by the elder Assad’s government but after a resolution with Ankara in 1998 the leader Abdullah Ocalan was expelled and imprisoned by Turkey the next year. The influence of the PKK gave the Syrian Kurds a more vigorous taste of Kurdish nationalism that grew steadily, a large number of Syrian Kurds joining with the PKK in their fight with Turkey, many being killed. Gunter says that “understandably” (p. 126) that Turkey arrested the members of the DTP (Democratic Society Congress) and KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) as terrorists as it viewed these organizations as an attempt “to establish an alternative Kurdish government” in Turkey. With the inspiration of the near-independent KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) in Iraq and, perhaps ironically in this case, the Arab Spring there began a new stage for the Kurds in Syria. By 2012, with the civil war in progress, the Syrian PYD (Democratic Union Party) began to take control of cities, particularly as a defense against the rebel organization Jabhat al-Nusra (Assistance Front) and they began to establish an alternative Kurdish government influenced by the theories of “democratic autonomy” of the PKK they had spring from; but as they assumed command of more of the provinces they did not allow much participation of the local population in the political structure. In an amazing turn of events the beleaguered younger Assad ceded control of the divided Kurdish provinces in northern Syria in 2012. Along with the resurgence of the Iraqi Kurds this further fanned the flames of the age-old dreams of Kurdish nationalism. The conclusion of the book looks with dim hopes for future resolution, particularly if Assad’s government or less likely the rebels should succeed in winning, with the PYD and its military arm YPG  and PKK hardly willing to accept  anything less than autonomy—there is much of detailed interest on the workings of these two main  Kurdish organizations that have caused such havoc in Turkey at and over its borders.

Though new events have rushed forward, this book is still of great interest for its historical perspective. Gunter is sympathetic to the Kurds but he objectively analyzes, with an abundance of derail, the complexities of internal Kurdish politics, the dynamics of the scattered Kurdish populations, and their impact on the countries of the region, Turkey in particular.