Liu Kuan Tung


After World War I, the Ottoman Empire was facing partition. It has signed the Treaty of Sevres with the Allies to decide how to divide the territory. They also decided to protect the human rights of the minority in one country in this treaty. In other words, they somewhat mentioned the Kurds’ right of sovereignty in this treaty. Unfortunately, after the rise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a new deal- the Treaty of Lausanne- was made, which did not include the Kurds. Therefore, the hope for building their own country dashed.[1] Consequently, they spread into four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi government thought its Kurdish population to be in support of Iran. Therefore, they suffered from the government’s mistreatment, and many fled to Turkey for asylum. On the other hand, Turkey wanted to change its international image, so it welcomed the fleeing Kurds to stay. After the first Persian Gulf War, the United States established a no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991 to support the Iraqi Kurds.[2] then in 1992 the U.S. government assisted them to establish an autonomous region and arranged for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

When the Iraqi Kurds fled to Turkey, the government welcomed them in a peculiar manner. Turkey denied to admit the Turkish Kurds’ identities. In 1923, in order to accelerate the modernization of Turkey, Kemal reduced the influence of religion. this resulted in protest from the Kurdish tribe and religious leaders in the east. After suppressing these protests, the government promulgated several key policies in 1938.

First, in order to unite the people, Turkish was the only official language; second, the Latin alphabet was used; third, all children must have free compulsory education.[3] This depressed the Kurds and made them increasingly dissatisfied. In the late 1980s, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) launched some terrorist attacks in the name of establishing an independent Kurdistan country. Turkey the U.S. and even  some European states classified the PKK as a terrorist group. Therefore, while the U.S. did help the Iraqi Kurds to build their autonomous region, it could not do the same for the Kurds in Turkey. This article argues why.

The Iraqi Kurdistan

The barriers

Iraqi Kurds are the biggest ethnic group in Iraq. they have had a hard time under the British rule. They initiated several uprisings during 1919-1930; most led by Shaikh Mahmud and members of the Barzanji clan.[4] However, the British still refused the Kurds’ right of vote in the government, and suppressed them. Furthermore, Sheikh Mahmud was exiled to southern Iraq in the end.[5]

Afterwards, Mullah Mustafa Barzani came out with local revolt. In 1945, he failed in the uprisings and fled to Iran. With the support of the Soviet Union, he created the Kurdish “Mahabad Republic” in the north of Iraq. The beginning of the Cold War and the government’s collapse notwithstanding, he still successfully created the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). This party later became the ruler of the Iraqi Kurdistan.[6]

Iraq is an oil-rich country, most of the oilfields are in the south and the north of the country where the Arab Shiite and Kurdish lived. this made Baghdad interested in recapturing the power in the south and the north. The benefits of the oil income were too significant for the Iraqi government’s financial stability.

The U.S. Support

The Iraqi Kurds gained control in Iraq Kurdistan with the help from the U.S. Two of the Kurdish parties, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were fighting for a long time to gain authority, but with the peaceful helping, they finally got the right to have an autonomous region, which made the Ba’ath Party regime pull back from this area.[7] (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Administrative map of Kurdish Region of Iraq
Source: Mohammad et al (2019) [8]

When the Gulf war (1990) exploded, the Kurds considered it as a great timing for insurrection again. In retaliation, Saddam Hussein dispatched the army to suppress the Kurds and many Iraqi Kurds were exiled to Turkey or Iran. At that moment, the UN and the U.S. declared a no-fly zone in northern Iraq to protect the rest of the Kurds and ended the human rights crisis, the Iraqi government’s goal to wipe out the Kurds. Later on, the Kurds established the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), with its own government, parliament and armed force.[9]

There could be two reasons for the U.S. to aid the Iraqi Kurds; first, the Iraqi Kurdistan was located in one of the oil-rich regions, Kirkuk. The KRG could guarantee a massive supply of oil for the U.S. (Figure 2). Second, the KRG could be a stable ally for the U.S. In case of any conflict in the Middle East, the ISIS crisis for instance, it could provide military support.

Figure 2: US crude oil imports from Iraq
Source: Seeking Alpha (2019)[10]

 The Kurds at the Moment

In September of 2017, the Iraqi Kurdistan conducted an independent referendum. Although 92% of Iraqi Kurds supported the idea, the Iraqi Supreme Court considered it illegal. Therefore, the Iraqi government not only took back the most important region- Kirkuk, but also cut the central budget for Kurdish Regional Government.[11] Kurdish Regional Government lost 40% of the territory of the autonomous region. Finally, when the new Iraqi government was formed in 2018, Baghdad revived parts of the budget to Kurdish Regional Government.

At present (2020), Baghdad and the southern city, Diwaniyah gathered a number of protesters who accused the government of not delivering the citizens’ basic needs. Since the Kurds fear retaliation from the Iraqi government, they did not join the protest.[12]     

The Relationship between Tukey and Kurds

After the failure of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey became a secular nation. At first, Kemal used the words to encourage the Muslims to fight together for independence. Afterwards, when Kemal won the war, he adapted the western culture to make Turkey a modern nation. With the pressures from Ankara, Kurdish nationalism became stronger. The Kurds thought that they must be united in order to defeat the Turks and launched a region revolution. In 1925, Sheikh Said, who was the chief of Naqshbandi Islamic Order, led one of the major Kurdish rebellions.[13] This conflict between Turks and Kurds made thousands of Turkish Kurds fled to Syria. In the following years, there were so many other rebellions happening in Turkey.

Same as Iraq, Turkish Kurds are also the biggest ethnic group in Turkey. The Kurds population is between 15% to 20% of the total population. As was said in the Introduction, Turkey denied to recognize the Turkish Kurds as an autonomous group. The Turkish government called them the “Mountain Turks”.[14] The Kurds lived in eastern Turkey, where poverty has always been more severe than other regions. This was also one of the reasons that the Kurdish nationalists rebelled against the Turkish government.[15]  

The PKK is Turkey’s largest Kurdish rebel group and was founded by Abdullah Ocalan in 1978. When PKK emerged, they were able to arrange a few terror attacks in Turkey beginning from 1984. They used suicide bombings, car bombs, etc. to frighten the people. In fact, the ideology of PKK was based on Marxist–Leninist teachings. Some said that “It was clear that a Kurdish state was never the ultimate goal, but rather its aim was to use this as a subterfuge to spread socialism in the region.”[16] The reason why the PKK always calls for drastic measures is unknown. Nevertheless, the Turkish government considers them a threat which needs to be wiped out.

The U.S. Movements

U.S., Turkey and Kurds

The U.S. and Turkey have an unstable relationship, even though both of them are members of NATO. During the Cold War, Turkey stood with the U.S. to compete with the Soviet Union. From then on, Turkey and the U.S. became allies. for instance, Turkey played an important role that could stable the situation in Balkans. On the other hand, after the terrorist attack of September 11 in 2001, it was involved in helping Afghanistan for state- rebuilding.[17] 

When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump became the current leaders, it seemed that the American- Turkish relations would get more intense. Erdoğan tried to extend his power in government, and on top of that, to repress freedom of speech. Trump on the other hand, was and is a very influential person in public and in social media. Not all of his decisions are supported by his allies. In 2017, Erdoğan ignored the U.S. warning for not buying Russian’s S-400 missile and claimed the U.S. actions to be an infringement of sovereign rights. In response to Turkey’s behavior, the U.S. suspended Ankara’s partnership in the Joint Strike Fighter program that builds the F-35 fighter jets.[18]

The Turkish government has done little to attack the ISIS members occupying the territories in Iraq and Syria. That may be because of the ISIS’s targets which included the Kurds.[19] Later on as the U.S. withdrew its troops from Syria, Erdoğan launched some air and ground attacks to the Kurds in Syria.[20] At November, 13, 2019 all Washington did was to appreciate Erdoğan for protecting Syria and Turkey borders from ISIS attack and humbly asked Turkey to reconsider the weapons deal with Russia.[21]

Why the U.S. won’t help

One could think of three reasons for the U.S. not helping the Turkish Kurds build an autonomous region. First, as John Mearsheimer in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics[22] mentions, the U.S. would be an offshore balancer which seeks to prevent another potential world hegemon. Washington needs Ankara for keeping the Middle East stable. If the U.S. gets involved with the Kurdish issue, it will alienate the Turkish government. The U.S. also fears the relationship between Turkey and Russia might improve if it supports the Kurds, so it cannot take the risk. 

Second, the oil consumption is also an important reason for the U.S. not helping the Turkish Kurds to build an autonomous region, or even all of the Kurds who lived in four countries to build an independent country. If the U.S. takes on such a sensitive issue, it can’t predict what the other Middle Eastern countries will do in response.

Finally, the U.S. is a great example of a benefit maximizing agent. The support of the Kurds at the moment does not seem beneficial for the U.S. government. Therefore, it is meaningless for it to intervene in this issue.


With the three reasons: First, Washington needs Ankara for keeping the Middle East stable. Second, the U.S. needs a good relationship with the Middle East to guarantee its oil consumption. Third, there are no apparent benefits with building an autonomous region in Turkey for the U.S. So, the U.S will not help Turkish Kurds establish an autonomous region in Turkey.

Liu Kuan Tung is a graduate student who studies at the National Chung Hsing University (NCHU), Graduate Institute of International Politics. Her research interests are environmental policy, feminism and ethnic conflicts.


[1] 盧倩儀,〈影響土耳其政府與境內庫德族關係之國際因素〉,《問題與研究》,第49卷第2期(99年6月),頁42;陳牧民,〈由歷史角度看土耳其庫德族問題與現況〉,《台灣國際研究季刊》,第12卷第1期(2016年春季號),頁80。

[2] Alireza Nader, Larry Hanauer, Brenna Allen, Ali G. Scotten, Regional Implications of an Independent Kurdistan (RAND Corporation, 2016), p. 10.

[3] Ayşe Gündüz-Hoşgö and Jeroen Smits,“Intermarriage between Turks and Kurds in Contemporary Turkey: Inter-Ethnic Relations in an Urbanizing Environment,” European Sociological Review, Vol. 18, No. 4, p. 418.

[4] Silke Jungbluth, The Future of Iraqi Kurdistan (Ålands fredsinstitut, 2015), pp. 4-5.

[5] 許善德,《伊拉克庫德自治區的政治發展之研究》,頁16; Loqman Radpey, “The Legal Status of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in International Law,” Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies (Council for Social and Economic Studies, George Mason University, Washington DC, 2014), p. 402.

[6] Kerim Yildiz, The Kurds in Iraq: The Past, Present and Future (Pluto Press, 2004), p. 16.

[7] Johannes Jüde, “Contesting borders? The formation of Iraqi Kurdistan’s de facto state,” International Affairs Vol. 93, No. 4, 2017, p. 848.

[8] Mohammed, H., Jaff, D., & Schrock, S. (2019). The challenges impeding traffic safety improvements in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, 2, 100029.

[9] Ibid., p. 853.


[11] BBC, “Iraq Supreme Court rules Kurdish referendum unconstitutional,” BBC (2020/1/3),

[12] Mariya Petkova, “Why are Iraqi Kurds not taking part in protests? ,” ALJAZEERA (2020/1/3),

[13] Elif Özcan, “The Sheikh Said Rebellion,” ResearchGate (2020/1/2),

[14] Ceng Sagnic, “Mountain Turks: State ideology and the Kurds in Turkey,” Information, Society and Justice, Vol. 3, No. 2, July 2010, p. 129.

[15] Soner Cagaptay, Cem Yolbulan, “The Kurds in Turkey: A Gloomy Future,” Kurdistan: An Invisible Nation (Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), 2016), p. 52.

[16] If you have further interest about this issue, please see: Mitchel P. Roth & Murat Sever, “The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) as Criminal Syndicate,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (Taylor & Francis Group, LLC, 2007), pp. 904-905.

[17] Asli Aydintaşbaş Kemal Kirişci, “The United States and Turkey: Friends, Enemies, or Only Interests?,” Turkey project (The Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, 2017), p. 1.

[18] Burak Ege Bekdil, “Here’s what could cause the next Russian S-400 shipment to Turkey to arrive late,” DefenseNews(2020/1/6),

[19] Cengiz Gunes, “The IS Factor: The Kurds as a Vanguard in the War on the Caliphate,” Kurdistan: An Invisible Nation (Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), 2016), pp. 73-74.

[20] Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, “Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve I Quarterly Report to the United States Congress I July 1, 2019 – October 25, 2019,” Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (2020/1/6),

[21] Alex Emmons, “As Trump and Erdogan meet, the U.S. hopes to resume F-35 Arms Sales to Turkey,” The Intercept (2020/1/6),

[22] Mearsheimer, J. J. (2001). The tragedy of great power politics. WW Norton & Company.

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