Professor Michael M. Gunter, Tennessee Tech University


Professor Michael M. Gunter

Tennessee Tech University

With the exception of the interminable Arab-Israeli struggle, no other imbroglio in the Middle East has become so important, complicated, and long lasting as the Kurdish struggle.[1] The Kurdish struggle not only involves the Kurds against the four states in which they live as a large minority (Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria), but also now entangles other regional and even international actors such as the United States, Russia, and the European Union (EU), among others. In its essence, the Kurdish problem involves the demand of many (but certainly not all) Kurds for meaningful self-determination or even independence, but the counter insistence of the states in which the Kurds live for the preservation of their territorial integrity, which they feel Kurdish demands challenge. In addition, the broader scope of the Kurdish struggle recently has come to include the interests of other regional and even international powers who calculate that the Kurdish struggle now involves their interests.

            The Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the two Gulf Wars against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003, and the Syrian civil war that began in 2011, are the main reasons the Kurdish struggle has come to play such an increasingly important role in Middle Eastern and even international affairs. In addition, the rise of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and Rojava (now supposedly broadened into the Federation of Northern Syria to include the many other ethnic and sectarian groups that live there), has given the Kurds additional de facto, institutional recognition and existence.

Furthermore, the continuing insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and its spill over into neighboring Iraq and Syria, its peace talks with Ankara from 2009-2015, and its de facto alliance with the United States to defeat ISIS, have given the PKK an importance inconceivable a mere decade ago. For example, the PKK played an important role on the ground in Sinjar, Iraq to help rescue the embattled Yezidis from the genocidal ISIS jihadis in 2014. Even more so, the PKK, through its Syrian affiliate Syrian Democratic Forces/Democratic Union Party/Peoples Defense Units (SDF/PYD/YPG) proved the indispensable boots on the ground that defeated ISIS in such dramatic battles as Kobane (2014-2015) and Raqqa (2017), among others. US air and advisory support, of course, were imperative in these battles, which also brought Turkey, Iran, Russia, Iraq, and Syria, among others, into the equation. Thus, the Kurdish issue has been used repeatedly as a weapon against Turkey and others.

In addition, of course, the peaceful, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has played an important role in recent Turkish democratic politics. Since the Turkish parliamentary elections held on June 7, 2015, the HDP has been represented in parliament. During the Istanbul mayoral elections held on March 31, 2019 and then rerun on June 23, 2019, the HDP also probably played a significant background role in electing Ekrem Imamoglu, the Nation Alliance candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), mayor of Istanbul in opposition to Binali Yildirim, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s candidate. This was because the HDP made the tactical decision not to run its own mayoral candidate who would siphon off votes needed by Imamoglu to defeat the Erdogan candidate. The strategy worked.   

As for Iraq, Turkey began to face what it perceived as new, existential threats from the rise of the KRG, a proto-Kurdish state on Turkey’s southeastern borders, which had resulted from the U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003. Similar in perceived threat to the situation with Rojava in Syria, the Kurdish problem, in general, also gave such potential Middle Eastern rivals of Turkey as Syria, Iran, and Iraq, among others, a tool to employ against Turkey.

However, the Kurdish threat was nothing new. As far back as 1937, the Treaty of Saadabad between Turkey, Iran, and Iraq had had as its main implied rationale to harmonize the policies of these three states on the potentially volatile Kurdish issue that overlapped their borders and tempted each to use the Kurds against the others. Thus, the Treaty of Saadabad adumbrated the Baghdad Pact of 1955, which had obligated its members including Turkey to cooperate against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Formally known as the Middle East Treaty Organization (METO), the Baghdad Pact had become increasingly unpopular in the Middle East because it was seen as a tool of Western imperialism. After Iraq withdrew from it in 1958, its name was changed to the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO); it was finally disbanded in 1979 following the Iranian revolution.

Despite the U.S.-Turkish joint memberships in NATO, the Kurdish problem has increasingly strained their relations. For example, in March 2003, Turkey shocked the United States by declining to support its invasion of Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds quickly became the main U.S. ally on the northern front, much to the dismay of Turkey. In July 2003, the United States even arrested 11 Turkish special-forces troops operating in northern Iraq and accused them of trying to destabilize the region.[2] At the time, this affair caused an unprecedented crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations, and the U.S. approval rate in Turkey fell to single digits. In retrospect, however, this affair was a mere prelude to subsequent crises between the two often resulting from the Kurdish issue.

Once Saddam Hussein was overthrown, Turkey sought to play its part in the fortunes of the new Iraq. Supporting the Turkmen claims over ownership of Kirkuk proved one useful entry. However, Baghdad’s Arab and Irbil’s Kurdish claims to Kirkuk proved weightier given their much greater populations on the ground. Even more problematic for Turkey in Iraq was Iran’s entry into its former enemy of the infamous Iranian-Iraqi war of 1980-1988. The U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein stripped the long-ruling Sunnis of their control of Iraq and handed it to the majority Shiites, who in many (but not all) cases tended to identify with their sectarian Shiite Iranian cousins. When Tareq al-Hashemi, an Iraqi Sunni leader, ran afoul of Iraqi Shiite prime minister Nuri al-Maliki in 2012 and was sentenced to death, Turkey gave him sanctuary. Maliki quickly excoriated Turkey for interference in Iraq’s internal affairs. In addition, when Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacked Iraq and quickly captured the city of Mosul, new opportunities arose for both Turkey, the KRG, and the PKK within Iraqi borders. Only painstakingly did Baghdad claw its way back from long appeared to be its final death knell.

The KRG and Its Failed Independence Referendum. The Kurdish struggle and its impact upon Turkish foreign policy entered a new crisis when some 93 percent of the more than 70 percent of the KRG voters who participated supported what was only an advisory, nonbinding referendum on independence held on September 25, 2017.[3] However, the hopes for an independent Kurdistan aborning in the guise of the KRG proved premature because of the strong opposition the combined gathering of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and the United States gave it. Furthermore, on October 16, 2017, Iraqi forces with the strong support of the pro-Iranian, Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi or popular mobilizations units (PMUs),[4] as well as Turkish and U.S. acquiescence, occupied Kirkuk and other disputed territories, after already closing the KRG’s two international airports in Irbil and Sulaymaniya and taking over the KRG’s border crossings. The KRG lost approximately one-third of the territory and half of the oil that it had been controlling. Massoud Barzani resigned as KRG president, and the Kurdish region was thrown from the heights of ambition to the depths of failure. When Baghdad finally got around to reinstating the KRG budget that had been suspended since 2014, it reduced it from 17 to 12.5 percent.[5]

            Despite its denunciations of the United States and others for this disaster,[6] surely the KRG was partially to blame. It had overreached and badly miscalculated in including Kirkuk and other disputed territories in the referendum in an overly ambitious attempt to unilaterally implement Iraqi Constitution Article 140 on the future of the disputed city.[7] The failure to put up even a fight for Kirkuk also illustrated continuing Kurdish disunity despite the KRG’s existence since 1992 and further that the Kurds had grossly over exaggerated their military power.[8] Despite the appearance of military strength based on its success against ISIS, the KRG Peshmerga remained divided between Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the late Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). It also lacked heavy weapons since Baghdad controlled what material Irbil received from foreign states, and had achieved its recent victories only because of indispensable US air support, which was lacking when Baghdad reclaimed Kirkuk.

            However, since this setback to their ambitions, the Iraqi Kurds have managed to recoup their fortunes and move forward as a federal state within Iraq. Nechirvan Barzani became the new president of the KRG, his cousin Masrour Barzani took his place as the new KRG prime minister, while Barham Salih, a member of the PUK and former KRG prime minister, became the new president of Iraq. It should be noted that the Iraqi president is largely an honorary position as the real power in Iraq is held by the prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Turkey has accepted this new situation and a new calm has settled over relations between it and the Iraqi Kurds.

Turkey’s Syrian Crisis. As the Kurdish crisis in Iraq gradually abated, the one in Syria suddenly exploded, threatening to actually pit US troops against those of Turkey, its supposed ally in NATO. This was because the US had armed and continued to support the Syrian Kurdish-led and PKK-affiliated SDF/PYD/YPG forces against ISIS, Kurdish forces, which Turkey viewed as an existential terrorist threat to its territorial integrity. With the victory of these US-supported Kurdish forces over ISIS by the end of 2017, the US drew further Turkish ire by announcing it would train and support some 30,000 SDF troops as border guards.[9]

            On January 20, 2018, Turkish troops with their Syrian-opposition allies (the Free Syrian Army)—coordinating as Operation Olive Branch—entered Afrin, the isolated third Syrian Kurdish canton on its border in northwestern Syria and quickly occupied the region. No better illustration of Turkey’s increasingly problematic policies in Syria existed than the spectacle of Turkey, a US NATO ally, needing permission from Russia, NATO’s main adversary, before acting. This was because Russia controlled the skies over the Kurdish enclave and in effect had been partially protecting it as part of its goal of preserving Syrian unity under its dictator, Hafez al-Assad. However, now Russia decided not to oppose the Turkish incursion in support for Turkish backing for Russia’s larger, overall aims in Syria such as weakening US influence in Syria, pushing the Kurds to negotiate with Damascus, and strengthening Russian-Turkish cooperation to the detriment of NATO.[10]

            Of course, Turkish animus toward the Syrian Kurds was nothing new, as earlier on August 26, 2016, Turkish troops had entered Syria to the east of Afrin to prevent the Syrian Kurds from crossing the Euphrates River and driving to the west of that waterway to unite with Afrin. At that time, Operation Euphrates Shield managed to prevent these Kurdish ambitions. However, despite US promises to its supposed NATO ally Turkey, the Syrian Kurds did not retreat to the east of the river. The SDF continued to hold the city of Manbij on the west side with US troops as advisors, whom the US said would stand their ground against any Turkish offensive.[11]

            Therefore, the possibility arose that US troops could find themselves under direct attack from their NATO ally if Erdogan actually carried out his promise to “strangle . . . before it is born” the US-backed SDF border security force.[12] The Turkish president even threatened that “we will rid Manbij of terrorists, as was promised to us before. Our battles will continue until no terrorist is left right up to our border with Iraq.”[13] Exuding outrage in reference to the US support for the SDF, the Turkish president also asked rhetorically, “How can a strategic partner do such a thing to its strategic partner?”[14] He even threatened to give the US troops “an Ottoman slap,”[15] employing a Turkish saying for a deadly or incapacitating blow.

            Erdogan, of course, did not actually want to attack US forces. His real aim was probably to end US support for the SDF, collect the weapons the group had received from the United States, and force the Kurds to withdraw east of the Euphrates River. Probably even more importantly, his bellicose attitude was intended for domestic consumption to boost his support in Turkey for the snap presidential and parliamentary elections he suddenly called and won on June 24, 2018. While the worst has so far been averted, it was obvious that the two largest NATO armies were playing with fire in this game of outrage and bluff. In addition, the U.S.-Turkish standoff threatened to allow ISIS to begin reviving as well as emboldening such U.S. and NATO adversaries as Russia, Iran, and Syria, among others.

            Adding further fuel to their quarrel, Turkey and the United States were also in serious confrontation over Turkey purchasing Russia’s S-400 air defense system and the U.S. reacting by denying Turkey previously promised new U.S. F-35 fighter jets. The United States even threatened economic sanctions against Turkey that would bring it to its financial knees.

Even more uncertainty arose when at the end of March 2018, U.S. president Donald J. Trump suddenly declared that the United States might soon pull all its approximately 2,000 troops out of Syria and ordered the State Department to suspend more than $200 million in civilian infrastructure and stabilization recovery funds for eastern (largely Kurdish) Syria.[16] This, of course, completely contradicted and confused the president’s top advisors—both fired and newly hired—as well as U.S. allies. Eventually, Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, tried to clarify the situation when he told reporters on August 17, 2018: “We’re remaining in Syria.”[17]

Furthermore, in June 2018 the United States and Turkey reached an understanding for the SDF/YPG forces to begin pulling out of Manbij and be replaced by separate, coordinated US and Turkish patrols in the western side of the area.[18] This agreement temporarily alleviated the possibility of a military clash between the two NATO allies. Of course, this would only be a beginning settlement as Turkey declared that the Manbij model eventually would also be applied to Syria’s Raqqa, Kobane, and other important areas controlled by the Syrian Kurdish PYD/YPG, a proposed roadmap likely to be opposed and rejected by the Syrian Kurds. Thus, the onus would again fall upon the United States to decide whether to support its de facto Syrian Kurdish ally or de jure Turkish NATO ally. The long-term possibility of a US-Turkish military confrontation remained.

            Moreover, Trump compounded all this confusion when he suddenly announced on December 19, 2018 that he had decided to withdraw from Syria,[19] apparently leaving the door open for Turkey, Syria, Russia, and Iran to move in to the detriment of the Syrian Kurds. On the other hand, there was immediate push back in the United States against Trump’s decision.[20] Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Special Envoy to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk both resigned in protest. The mercurial Trump soon partially reversed himself and decided to keep a residual force of 400 US troops in Syria “for a period of time.”[21]

            The main reason Trump decided not to pull all the US troops out of Syria was not to pay the Syrian Kurds back for their help against ISIS, but because he rightly saw Iran in Syria as a serious threat to the US. Iran already had extensive influence over many parts of the Middle East including Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon. Thus, if Trump wanted to oppose Iranian ambitions in the Middle East, he certainly had to stay in Syria or else he would be handing Iran a huge victory by default. The United States was not likely to be pulling out of Syria soon.

During the summer of 2019, the United States and Turkey continued to dicker over creating a safe zone in northeastern Syria that would allow Turkey to protect its borders from the perceived threat of Syrian Kurdish SDF/YPG forces and provide a secure place for some of the increasingly problematic 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return.[22] On September 8, 2019, Turkey and the United States finally initiated their first joint ground patrol in an apparently emerging safe zone on the Syrian side of the border east of the Euphrates river near Tel Abyad.[23] The SDF forces had withdrawn some nine miles from the border and removed their defensive positions. However, the extent of the safe zone was uncertain. Erdogan also remained dissatisfied, declaring, “It is clear that our ally [the United States] is trying to create a safe zone for the terrorist organization [the SDF/YPG], not for us.”[24] Further complicating the situation, the Syrian government condemned the joint patrol as “aggression.” For their part, the Syrian Kurds viewed Turkish moves into northeastern Syria and previously Afrin to the west as ethnic cleansing by replacing them with Syrian Arab refugees.

However, Trump’s new announcement of a US troop withdrawal from Syria on October 7, 2019,[25] has led to a major change in the situation by allowing Turkey finally to establish a small safety zone stretching approximately 75 miles along the Syrian-Turkish border between the cities of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn and maybe 20 miles deep.[26] This has resulted in Moscow, Ankara, and the Assad regime apparently achieving strategic gains, while the Syrian Kurds have experienced significant losses. In the short run, Erdogan’s popularity in Turkey has soared, and he has regained strength after his losses in the local elections held in March and June 2019. However, it seems unlikely that Russia will permit Turkey to extend its safety zone much further against the wishes of its Syrian ally who, of course, wants to regain all its lost territory. Indeed, Turkey has only managed to enter Syria with the permission of Russia. Thus, Turkey’s perceived gains from the US withdrawal are only partial and may well be only temporary.

For its part, the US also apparently has suffered potentially negative effects.[27] 1. By deserting its Syrian Kurdish ally, the US questions the value for others supporting it in the future.  Thus, the US weakens itself. 2. Hundreds of imprisoned ISIS fighters escaped their Syrian Kurdish guards who instead had to fight for their own survival. The result might be an ISIS resurgence much as occurred earlier in Iraq when the US withdrew from that state at the end of 2011. 3. The US actions have also further hurt the NATO alliance by pushing Turkey into greater reliance on Russia, NATO’s perceived foe. 4. Trump’s erratic behavior has also encouraged Iran to solidify its position in Syria, where previously US troops had partially checked the Islamic Republic’s move toward the Mediterranean. Of course, only time will tell what the long-term results of the US withdrawal will bring.

The Future. How might one prevent further crises and even war, while maybe even through intelligent diplomacy turn this Syrian morass toward peace? After all, most of the jigsaw pieces were already present on the board game called Syria. First, the United States should encourage Turkey to restart its peace process with the PKK by removing it from the terrorist list. After all, one does not negotiate with terrorists. The United States and the EU should also remove the PKK from their terrorist lists. Such imaginative moves might encourage the PKK to negotiate seriously. If not, Turkey could always return the PKK to the list. This stop-and-go process might take time. Remember the Irish-English peace agreement took more than 150 years to reach, and Brexit still threatens its future. However, negotiating with the PKK was not a pipe dream because Turkey had already done so from 2013-2015. Thus, the experience and building blocks were already there for a renewed attempt.

            Once Turkey did this, the PKK’s PYD affiliate in Syria would no longer be perceived as such an existential threat. Indeed, the Kurds need Turkey as it is the most powerful state in the region. Far from being the Kurds’ sworn enemy, Turkey should see itself as the Kurds’ elder brother as indeed had begun occurring in northern Iraq until the ill-advised independence referendum there in September 2017. If the renewed Turkish-PKK peace process began to bear fruit, the U.S.-Turkish quarrel would diminish because the two would no longer be supporting opposite sides in the Turkish-Syrian Kurdish confrontation, at least to the extent that the US was still supporting the Syrian Kurds. Such a more positive relationship might also set the stage for an understanding on the S-400 issue and Russian meddling in NATO’s affairs. As peace continued to return to Syria, the United States and Iran should find reason to be less ready to strike each other. This might even help set the stage for an overall U.S.-Iranian understanding that could avoid the nightmare of a war between the two as threatened in June 2019 and still does.

            Further positive fallout from unlocking the Syrian key might then lead Israel to feel less threatened by the Syrian situation. No longer so militarily needed in Syria to preserve Assad, Russia might find reason to be less threatening. By initiating a cascading series of negotiations and understandings regarding Syria, the Syria Kurdish foundling could unlock the door barring peace in the Middle East. Thus, as of this writing in November 2019, it remained unclear which direction Turkish foreign policy in Syria, with all its many significant aspects, would eventually turn. Furthermore, the broader Kurdish factor itself, in all its many manifestations, promised to remain a major problem both for Turkey’s domestic future as well as its foreign relations with the United States and others in 2020.


[1] For background to the Kurdish struggle, see David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, 3rd ed. (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004). For more recent events, see Michael M. Gunter, The Kurds: A Divided Nation in Search of a State, 3rd ed.  (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2019).

[2] Michael Howard and Suzanne Goldenberg, “US Arrest of Soldiers Infuriates Turkey,” The Independent, July 7, 2003,, accessed May 22, 2019.

[3]“92.7% ‘Yes’ for Independence: Preliminary Official Results,” Rudaw, September 27, 2017,, accessed October 1, 2017.

[4] Fazel Hawramy, “Iran Willing To Normalize Ties with KRG, but Not without Change,” Iran-Business News, December 23, 2017,, accessed December 26, 2017; and Baxtiyar Goran, “Najmaldin Karim: Warns of Resurgence of Islamic State, Says US Supports Strong Kurdistan,” Kurdistan 24, April 6, 2018,, accessed April 10, 2018.

[5] Omar Sattar, “Iraqi Budget Drives another Wedge between Baghdad, Kurds,” Al-Monitor, March 9, 2018,, accessed March 12, 2018.

[6] See, for example, “Barzani: No US ‘Support’ for Kurdish Referendum if Postponed,” Rudaw, November 11, 2017,, accessed November 15, 2017.

[7] For background on Kirkuk—which is both a city of some 1 million shared by Kurds (45 percent), Arabs (38 percent), Turkmens (15 percent), and Christians (2 percent) and also the surrounding governorate (province)—see Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield, Crisis in Kirkuk: The Ethnopolitics of Conflict and Compromise (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). The recent “rough” population percentages were taken from David Zucchino, “Iraqi Forces Retake All Oil Fields in Disputed Areas as Kurds Retreat,” New York Times, October 17, 2017,, accessed November 2, 2017.  

[8] For further thoughts on the KRG’s miscalculations, see Denise Natali, “Iraqi Kurdistan Was Never Ready for Statehood,”, October 31, 2017,, accessed November 15, 2017, among numerous other sources.

[9] Aymen Jawad al-Tamimi, “Dispatch: The Syrian Democratic Forces’ Border Guards,” Middle East Forum, January 20, 2018,, accessed January 22, 2018.

[10] For background to the evolving Turkish relationship with Russia, see Dmitry Shlapentokh, “The Ankara-Moscow Relationship: The Role of Turkish Stream,” Middle East Policy 26 (Summer 2019), pp. 72- 84.

[11] Emre Peker and Julian E. Barnes, “NATO to Try ‘Kitchen Table’ to Soothe U.S.-Turkey Dispute,” Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2018,, accessed February 13, 2018.

[12] Cited in “An Unhappy Marriage,” The Economist, February 3, 2018, p. 43.

[13] Cited in “Turkish Operations in Syria to Reach up to Manbij and Iraqi border: Erdogan,” Hurriyet Daily News, January 26, 2016,, accessed January 28, 2018.

[14] Cited in Ibid.

[15] Cited in “Muzzling the Fourth Estate,” The Economist, March 3, 2018, p. 45. Some 16 Turkish newspapers featured this warning on their front pages the next day! Ibid. “While unlikely, it is no longer inconceivable that Turkey and the United States would one day be shooting at each other,” speculated one close observer. Michael Rubin, “The US and Turkey Could Go To War,” Washington Examiner, April 17, 2018,, accessed April 15, 2018.

[16] Eric Schmitt, Helene Cooper, and Alissa J. Rubin, “Trump Orders State Dept. to Suspend Funds for Syria Recovery,” New York Times, March 30, 2018,, accessed April 2, 2018.

[17] Cited in Robin Wright, “ISIS Makes a Comeback—As Trump Opts to Stay in Syria,” The New Yorker, August 30, 2018, . . accessed September 2, 2018.

[18] “YPG Confirms Withdrawal from Syria’s Manbij after Turkey-US Deal,” Aljazeera, June 5, 2018, https:///, accessed June 7, 2018.

[19] Ben Hubbard, “Syria’s Kurds, Feeling Betrayed by the U.S., Ask Assad Government for Protection,” New York Times, December 28, 2018,, accessed, February 1, 2019.

[20] Brett McGurk, “Trump Said He Beat ISIS. Instead, He’s Giving It New Life,” Washington Post, January 18, 2019, . . , accessed February 1, 2019. 

[21] Jack Detsch, “Pentagon Tries to Reassure Kurdish Allies amid Syria Pullout Confusion,” Al-Monitor, February 22, 2019,, accessed March 1, 2019.

[22] Carlotta Gall, “U.S. and Turkey Avoid Conflict by Agreeing on Buffer Zone in Syria,” New York Times, August 7, 2019,, accessed August 16, 2019.

[23]  Sarah El Deeb, “Turkey, US Conduct ‘Safe Zone’ Joint Patrols in North Syria,” Washington Post, September 8, 2019, . . accessed September 19, 2019.

[24] Cited in Ibid.

[25] Peter Baker and Lara Jakes, “Trump Throws Middle East Policy into Turmoil over Syria,” New York Times, October 7, 2019,, accessed October 7, 2019.

[26] Mona Yacoubian, “In Syria, Russian-Turkish Deal Is a Game Changer on the Ground,” United States Institute of Peace, October 23, 2019,, accessed October 24, 2019.

[27] Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper, “Hundreds of U.S. Troops Leaving, and Aso Arriving in, Syria,” New York Times, October 30, 2019,, accessed November 2, 2019.