'No Friends But the Mountains': how the Kurdish question is reshaping the Middle East

'No Friends But the Mountains': how the Kurdish question is reshaping the Middle East

The current conflict between Turkey and Kurds cannot be understood without tracing back the history of the Kurdish people. The issue of Kurdish independence is now more relevant than ever, and one that will affect the stability of the Middle East and Europe for decades to come.


Originally to Iran, Kurds are the world’s largest nation without a state and the fourth largest ethnic group. There is no official census, but is estimated that between 20 and 40 million people live across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. As the old Kurdish proverb goes, they have ‘no friends but the mountains’.


Ever since the Ottoman empire, Kurds campaigned and fought for full autonomy. That almost became reality at the end of the First World War when, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Allied powers outlined the boundaries of a proto-Kurdish State in what is now Turkish territory with the Treaty of Sèvres (1920). The treaty aimed to replicate what the Sykes-Picot agreement had done a few years before in what is modern day Syria and Palestine: chopping up the territory into European spheres of influences between the British, French, Italians, Greeks and, of course, the Kurds. The project was short lived as Ottoman officers like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the Founding Father of the Republic of Turkey) fought back and forced Europeans to sit back to the negotiating table. Eventually the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) replaced any previous commitment, defining the shape of modern Turkey and leaving the Kurds out of the equation. Once again, the tendency to draw borders on a blank map would have far-reaching consequences.


The Treaty of Lausanne did not stop Kurdish nationalism. The campaign for autonomy continued for the rest of the century, leading to dramatic consequences. In Iraq, the Kurdish fight for separation during the war with Iran, escalated in a series of chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein in what is now widely considered a genocide.


@Hesam Gholami. Sanandaj, Kurdistan Province in Iran


Because of its history, the Kurdish issue has always been particularly complicated in Turkey. In the 80’s the question of independence gained momentum with the creation of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The PKK acted as a guerrilla group, engaging in a 40-year war with the Turkish State: it is estimated that since 1984 the conflict with the PKK, officially classified as a terrorist group in Turkey, have killed more than 40,000 people.


Following the civil war in Syria, the Kurdish found themselves fighting against ISIS, who considered them (as well as anyone else) infidels. When the US made the decision to join the war against jihadist terror, the plan was clear: reduce the number of US troops on the ground to avoid another long and messy war like the one in Afghanistan. The Kurds were then the perfect ally to lean on: well equipped and without much of a choice. From a military point of view, the strategy was a success as the coalition was able to kick ISIS out of Syria, taking the ‘State’ out of ‘Islamic State’.


Nonetheless, the successful territorial defeat of ISIS further reinforced the Kurdish position, and Turkey’s fear of more violent claims of an independent state. As the US troops started withdrawing from Northeast Syria, Turkey’s focus is now back to fighting the old Kurdish enemy.


Aside from the critical humanitarian emergency, Erdogan’s military operation is reshaping the alliances in the Middle East with unexpected consequences. In absence of support, the Kurdish rebels have been forced to struck a deal with Syria’s government forces. That is a clear win for Assad, who now has a new strategic partner to regain control of Northern Syria, the last portion of the country still under heavy control of Turkish-backed rebels. 


Russia may also benefit from the situation. Putin, who already supported the Syrian government during the civil war, will be able to further reinforce his influence on the region and indirectly on the whole Mediterranean basin. The infrastructure is already partially in place: the naval facility of Tartus, on the Syrian coast, is the only overseas Russian Navy base, capable of hosting up to 11 warships including nuclear vessels.


The urge to fill territorial vacuums through proxy wars is a well known strategy of our post Cold War World, but here the risk is that the intra-state Syrian conflict could become an inter-state war involving major powers.


Trump’s impromptu decision to leave Syria and abandon the Kurds accelerated the tensions in the region. However, a different decision may have not made things drastically different. There is no immediate, nor easy solution to the Kurdish question. The claims for independence will only grow stronger and no country (despite short-lives alliances) will ever accept to sacrifice their national integrity for it; the Israeli-Palestinian resolution and the endless conflict that unfolded is a stark reminder of that.


In this context of violence, the ceasefire negotiated by the US, Russia and Turkey to facilitate the Kurds’ retreat now appears more fragile than ever.









Riccardo Giani


Trump, geopolitics, russia, Turkey, Erdogan, Syria, Kurdish, Putin, Kurdistan, Independence