The Middle East’s Kurds are being bombed, shot at and arrested across four countries. Scores have died in political unrest in northwest Iran. Some two dozen have died in airstrikes on northern Syria. And both Tehran and Ankara are threatening ground invasions, which will kill and displace even more.
It is an unprecedented moment of pressure on one of the world’s largest stateless ethnic groups. It has come about in part because of the war in Ukraine and international disengagement from the region.
Turkey and Iran are subjecting Kurdish populations in their own countries, as well as those in Syria and Iraq, to increasing pressure and violence. In response to a 13 November bomb attack, the Turks have launched cross-border airstrikes and are preparing for a possible ground invasion of Kurdish-controlled regions of northern Syria. They have also struck positions held by Kurdish militant groups in Iraq. In addition, Ankara has increased the pressure on Turkey’s main Kurdish-led political party.
Iran is dispatching heavily armed ground forces to quell one segment of a nationwide political uprising in its own Kurdish towns and cities. In one video clip posted to the internet, pro-regime gunmen can be seen attacking unarmed protesters in the city of Javanrud, opening fire wildly while yelling “God is great!”
Like Turkey, Iran has also been launching missiles against Kurdish rebel groups across the border in Iraq, using drones and fighter jets in an attack early on Sunday that was at least the second in recent weeks.
“We’re seeing that Turkey and Iran are bombing more, and further, into Iraq and Syria, with a volume and cadence we haven’t seen for a while,” says Hetav Rojan, a security expert based in Copenhagen.
While they might be taking place simultaneously, there is little evidence of direct coordination between Ankara and Tehran in their attacks on Kurds. But there is probably some tacit understanding between the two nations, and Iran is likely to have given Turkey a green light for its attack on northern Syria.
Analysts say that domestic political calculations in Ankara and Tehran are combining with geopolitical shifts to drive the confluence of violence and political pressure.
“This is one of the rare moments when Iran and Turkey are seeing what’s happening to them as an existential threat by the Kurds,” says Abdulla Hawez, a London-based analyst of Kurdish affairs. “Before, each country would use the Kurds against the other. Right now, what’s happening is similar in both countries.”
Both Tehran and Ankara see Kurdish aspirations as a long-term threat, and each has a long history of abuse against the Kurdish population, which numbers between 30 million and 45 million and is spread across sections of southeast Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran.
“For both Ankara and Tehran, it’s incredibly valuable to have an external enemy archetype that’s been cultivated through decades of minority marginalisation, to shift blame for domestic woes,” says Rojan.
For much of the 20th century, Turkey denied Kurds basic cultural rights, and it has been waging war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed separatist group, since the 1990s. Ankara accuses the PKK’s Syrian affiliates in a self-ruled region called Rojava of being behind the deadly bombing of a shopping district in Istanbul this month, which killed six people.
At least 31 people were killed in the airstrikes that took place on Sunday night and early Monday morning against Syrian and Iraqi positions held by PKK affiliates. Ankara has warned that it is preparing a possible ground incursion into northern Syria, prompting statements of concern from Moscow and Washington.
Turkey faces crucial elections next year, in which the country’s Kurds will play a significant role in denying or ensuring the re-election of its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If Kurds embrace Erdogan’s opponents, it could cost him the leadership.
Upping pressure on the ethnic group could widen splits between the Kurds and an opposition that has often demonstrated even more animosity towards Kurdish aspirations than that shown by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“Erdogan is trying to drive a wedge within the opposition,” says Hawez. “One of his strategies is going to make it very difficult for any opposition to get close to Kurds.”
Turks have for months been signaling a possible ground incursion into northern Syria, to wrest control of the city of Kobani from Kurds. Storming the city of perhaps 100,000 just seven months ahead of the 23 June elections entails risks, but could also yield political rewards. “The possibility of Turkey attacking Kobani is very high for various reasons,” says Kaveh Ghoreishi, a Berlin-based journalist specializing in Kurdish affairs. “Erdogan is hoping that this war will mobilize the nationalist body of the society in his favor.”
While more tolerant of Kurdish language and culture, Iran has also fought against Kurdish rebel groups and has been accused of discrimination against its Kurdish population, which is mostly Sunni Muslim in a country dominated by Shia Muslim clergy. Kurds have taken a prominent role in the ongoing nationwide uprising triggered by the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman who was abducted by the morality police on a visit to Tehran in September.
Shows of unity between Iran’s ethnic Kurds, Baloch, Persians and others within the nationwide movement have rattled Tehran. Public displays of cross-ethnic and sectarian solidarity pose an especially sharp threat to a clerical regime that has largely relied on fears of separatism and civil war to keep its opponents divided and its supporters united.
“It’s not often we see the Kurdish and Baloch minorities included in Iranian protests, because of the ethnic and political divide between majority and minority groups,” says Rojan. “This ups the ante for Tehran, which is quickly looking for perceived external enemies to shift blame and show assertiveness.”
The Tehran regime has eyed Iraqi Kurdistan more and more suspiciously as the self-ruled region has improved ties with the United States and Israel. While Tehran has collaborated with the PKK and its affiliates in the past, it is enraged by the influence of the group on the protest movement. The slogan “Woman, life, freedom”, the rallying cry of the uprising, is rooted in the left-leaning politics of the PKK.
“It is worried about the further reverberations and consequences of this slogan, and for this reason, Iran has given Turkey the green light to attack Rojava,” says Ghoreishi.
It is likely that Iran’s use of extreme violence against ethnic Kurds is meant to provoke a response from Iraq-based armed rebel groups, and to lend credence to its narrative that the protests will lead to national dissolution.
In Iranian attacks on Iraqi Kurdistan over the past few weeks, dozens of civilians have been killed, hundreds of people have been injured, and thousands of people have been displaced from the cities, says Ghoreishi. So far none of the groups – which include the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, a left-leaning group called Komola, and an Iranian offshoot of the PKK – has taken the bait.
“The Kurdish armed opposition groups are cognizant of the fact that if they took any material action it would completely play into the hands of Tehran,” says Mohammad Salih, a Washington-based Middle East analyst specializing in Kurdish affairs. “That would derail the uprising.”
The attacks are coming at a time when the West and Russia are distracted by the conflict raging in Eastern Europe. Russia maintains a military presence in northern Syria and is the primary benefactor of the Syrian regime. The United States maintains a military presence in both Iraq and Syria, where it is partnered with Kurds in ongoing efforts to defeat Isis remnants. But both Moscow and Washington have been reticent about the Iranian and Turkish attacks on Kurds.
“The broader regional power vacuum has provided an opportunity,” says Salih. “Until a few months ago, the US would have had something strong to stay. In the case of Syria, before the Ukraine crisis we could have expected a country like Russia to say something. But they’re pretty much silent.”