Turkey’s Kurdish complexes and its Syrian quagmire

Authored by: Bill Park

Routledge Handbook on the Kurds

Print publication date:  August  2018
Online publication date:  August  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138646643
eBook ISBN: 9781315627427
Adobe ISBN:


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Many of today’s Syrian Kurds are descendants of Kurds who fled Turkish repression of Kurdish unrest during the 1920s. In addition, the arbitrary nature of the Turkish-Syrian border, which cut Kurdish-inhabited areas in two, left many Syrian Kurds with relatives and long-established connections on the Turkish side of the border. Consequently, locals often treated the border as if it barely existed, interacting across it almost at will. These circumstances also meant that such Kurdish nationalist sentiment as existed in Syria typically identified Turks rather than Arabs as the adversary. In 1996, even the leader of the Turkey-based PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane or Kurdish Workers Party), Abdullah Ocalan, declared that most of Syria’s Kurds remained rooted in Turkey rather than Syria, while the Damascus regime was content to allow Kurds to join the PKK to fight against their Turkish oppressors. 1 Furthermore, ‘Arabisation’, combined with clan and tribal loyalties, dispersed settlement, and the existence of Kurdish populations in towns such as Damascus and Aleppo that were a legacy of Ottoman times or of the tendency of the French mandate authorities to use Kurdish and other non-Arab minorities as agents of colonial rule, added to the fragmentation of Syria’s Kurds. The fact that, on the eve of the 2011 uprising against the regime, around 300,000 Syrian Kurds were ‘stateless’ as a result of a decree issued by Damascus in the 1960s which identified them as non-Syrian refugees, and which rendered them propertyless, jobless, impoverished and without rights or documentation, deepened their invisibility still further. Syria’s Kurds had long been politically weak. 2 Unsurprisingly, far greater regional and global attention has been paid to the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq than those of Syria.

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