Kurdish Politics

Kurdish Politics

Given the complexity of Middle East politics, there are no shortage of interesting topics in which to examine and discuss. In this section, we are going to offer a series of articles related to Kurdish politics. The Kurds are an ethnic minority in the Middle East, and have large populations throughout different countries in the region, with an overall population of 25-30 million people (FAS, ND): the Kurds are minorities in countries such as Iraq (where they have great presence in Northern Iraq), in Turkey, in Syria, Iran, and elsewhere. In terms of numbers, there are roughly 8.1 million Kurds living in Iran (10 percent of the population), 5.5 million in Iraq (17 percent of the population), 1.7 million in Syria (9.7 percent), and 14.7 million in Turkey (which is 18 percent of the total Turkish population) (Council on Foreign Relations, 2015). 

Historically and politically, they have lived in these different areas for centuries, with different empires controlling the territories. The Kurds have not had a state or empire that has included the majority of the population. And in other empires (such as the Ottoman Empire), the Kurds were included with the Sunni Muslim majority; they were not treated separately the same way that other religious minority groups were treated (Barkey & Fuller, 1998). Scholars also point out that “Kurds, as part of the Sunni community of the Ottoman Empire, were already treated as a distinct group by the sultan in the sixteenth century, when a number of independent principalities or fiefdoms (emirates) were established. Used by the sultan to ensure the stability of the borders, these emirates were autonomous in their internal affairs. In exchange for their autonomy, they provided the sultan taxes and soldiers. Although the relationship between these Kurdish lords and the sultan was not always free of trouble, the system survived into the nineteenth century.1 Certainly Kurdish tribes and clans were well aware of their cultural and linguistic distinctiveness, but this was not an age in which ‘‘national’’ concepts were well formed” (Barkey & Fuller, 1998: 6-7).

As we shall see, the Kurdish national identity began to form in the 1800s and early 1900s, and a political movement for a unified state of Kurdistan had European powers recognize such a political entity following World War I.

In these series of articles on the Kurds, we are going to discuss the domestic and international relations issues related to Kurdish politics. We will be breaking the articles down into the following categories:

  • The Kurds in Iraq
  • The Kurds in Iran
  • The Kurds in Syria
  • The Kurds in Turkey

In each of these conflicts, we briefly trace the respective histories of Kurdish politics. We will discuss the conditions during colonialism, the role of the British during and post-WWI (and how their actions shaped Kurdish politics today), we will examine different Kurdish movements for their own independent state of Kurdistan, as well as historic and recent attempts to prevent their political objectives of such a state.

We will also examine the current situations related to Kurdish politics in these different countries. As we shall argue, each situation is quite different from the other. While there are some similarities, desires for certain political objectives by many within the Kurdish population, the politics on the ground in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq are all leading to different realities and political conditions facing the Kurds. For example, with oil revenues in Northern Iraq, the Kurds there arguably have much more power and autonomy than the Kurds in Turkey, where current Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given little to Kurdish minority rights. In Syria, armed Kurdish forces are just one of the many military actors on the ground in a civil war that shows no strong signs of ending anytime soon.

There are in fact many Kurdish political parties and groups in the Middle East region. Here is a breakdown of the different political and military actors (Spencer, 2015).


 • KDP: Kurdistan Democratic Party, currently the dominant faction in Iraqi Kurdistan, it is a fiefdom of the Barzani clan, and led by the region’s president, Masoud Barzani. He’s the son of a renowned resistance fighter who led the struggle against Baghdad. The KDP is pro-capitalism, pro-West, and close to Turkey.

 • PUK: the second faction in Iraqi Kurdistan [is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan], and a fiefdom of the rival Talabani clan, led by Jalal Talabani, who was figurehead Iraqi president until this year. It is close to Iran, though not unfriendly to the West.

 • PKK: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Marxist group that fought a bloody war with Turkey for more autonomy in the Kurdish south-east from 1984 to a ceasefire last year. Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, known throughout the Kurdish world as Apo, or Uncle, has been in a Turkish prison since 1999.

 • PYD/YPG: the Democratic Union Party and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units, have used the Syrian civil war to carve out a mini-state in three parts of northern Syria, of which Kobane is the one in the middle. It is regarded as so close to the PKK as to be almost a subordinate entity.

 • KNC: the Kurdish National Council is a coalition of Syrian Kurdish parties not aligned with the PYD/YPG. It is close to Mr Barzani’s KDP – to the extent that some see it as part of his battle with Mr Ocalan for leadership of the Kurdish world.

There are regional and party alliances between these groups as well. For example, it is believed that the Turkish PKK and the Syrian PYD are very close with regards to their operations. As the International Crisis Group (2013) writes, the PYD “is ideologically, and some would claim organisationally and militarily, affiliated with the PKK. While the PYD denies it is a branch of that group, it is a member of the Union of Kurdish Communities (Koma Civakên Kurdistan, KCK), an umbrella organisation that shares the same leadership and charter as the PKK, as seen in more detail below. There also are military ties between the two. The PYD’s armed branch, the People’s Defence Corps (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG), was trained by the PKK at its headquarters in northern Iraq’s Qandil mountain range” (1).

Further Questions

Thus, we hope that these articles on Kurdish politics will be of use to you as you continue to read and learn more about Middle East politics, and international relations. We encourage you to read the different pieces, and also read our other articles on the Middle East located in the pages and the in posts of this website. Again, we recommend that you visit our pages on the Kurds in Iraq, The Kurds in Turkey, and the Kurds in Syria for more information. 

Also, if you have questions about Kurdish politics, do not hesitate to contact us through the contact page. We would be happy to discuss these topics further.



Barkey, H. J. & Fuller, G. (1998). Turkey’s Kurdish Question. New York, New York. Roman & Littlefield.

Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) (2015). The Time of the Kurds: A CFR InfoGuide Presentation. Available Online: http://www.cfr.org/middle-east-and-north-africa/time-kurds/p36547#!/p36547 

FAS (ND). The Kurds in Turkey. Available Online: http://fas.org/asmp/profiles/turkey_background_kurds.htm

International Crisis Group (2013). Syria’s Kurds: A Struggle Within a Struggle. Middle East Report N°136, 22 January 2013. Available Online: http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Syria/136-syrias-kurds-a-struggle-within-a-struggle.pdf 

Spencer, R. (2015). Who are the Kurds? A user’s guide to Kurdish politics. The Telegraph, 05 July 2015. Available Online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11198326/Who-are-the-Kurds-A-users-guide-to-Kurdish-politics.html