Across vast swathes of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq live the Kurdish people in various states of autonomy. The population of these four countries is about 230 million. Kurds make up significant minorities in each.
Sharing both a language and a culture, the Kurds are sometimes called “the world’s largest nation without an independent state”. But the picture is complicated.
There are disparate and assorted representatives who champion Kurdish nationalism, many with armed affiliates. The nature and structure of these groups vary widely across the region.
In the federal region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Peshmerga Forces operate as constitutionally recognised semi-regular armies. Next door, the Syrian Democratic Forces act as a de facto governing body over extensive territories.
In Turkey and Iran, however, there is a stark contrast. Groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and various Kurdish nationalist parties engage in armed resistance against their respective governments, often from the shadows.
The main armed Kurdish groups active in Turkey and Iran are based outside the country in question.
From abroad, they launch raids and operations, so Iranian and Turkish armed forces often attack them in neighbours’ territory.
Terrorists or liberators?
Decades ago, Kurdish political movements in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq shifted decisively towards armed struggle, establishing military factions and organisations.
They embarked on military operations against national armies, aiming to secure national rights for Kurds within their borders.
This proliferation created two deeply polarised viewpoints regarding the consequences and roles of these Kurdish armed groups.
This polarisation persists today.
On the one hand, these Kurdish armed groups are seen as agents of destabilisation serving foreign interests, aiming to dismantle and fragment successful nation-states.
It should come as no surprise that the holders of this viewpoint are typically representatives of states' ruling establishments and their majority populations.
They say Kurdish militant activity hinders political progress, bolsters the state's own nationalists, exacerbates division, and heightens societal tension by reducing the debate to one of identity when it should be about modernisation and governance.