The Resurgence of the Kurds

Nikos Economopoulos/Magnum Photos
Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), at a PKK training camp, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 1991. He is now imprisoned on the Turkish island of Imrali. The paintings in the background are of Öcalan, left, and a PKK soldier killed in battle.

The announcement on March 23 by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of a cease-fire with Turkey is only one sign among many that the fortunes of the Kurds may be taking a new, more hopeful direction. For almost a century, they have inspired sympathy for the underdog. Jonathan Randal’s book After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?: My Encounters with Kurdistan (1997), for example, describes the brave, inept, and inevitably doomed efforts of the Kurds to gain recognition as a nation. After more than three hundred pages, Randal ends rather abruptly, as if he has had his fill of Kurdish misery.

Randal was writing in the mid-1990s, when things were no more than usually awful for the Kurds in the four states that had incorporated, between them, the Kurdish-inhabited parts of the Ottoman Empire. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the militias loyal to the main leaders there, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, fought over the autonomous territory they had unexpectedly gained from Saddam Hussein as a result of the first Gulf War in 1991. Across the border in Turkey, fighters from the PKK were pounded by the Turkish military, and the Kurdish population of Turkey was deprived of elementary rights, including the right to teach and broadcast in Kurdish. Iran’s ablest Kurdish leader had been assassinated, and in Hafez al-Assad’s Syria the small Kurdish community was suppressed almost to the point of invisibility.

Today conditions for many Kurds have improved dramatically. Indeed, of the four big Kurdish communities, only Iran’s is neither seizing an opportunity nor sizing one up. The Kurds are in a period of accelerating change.1

Ten years ago, Iraq was freed from the genocidal Saddam Hussein, who saw the Kurds as a subversive group that had to be suppressed. They are now free to run their own affairs there, amid growing prosperity. In Syria, the Kurds are experiencing autonomy for the first time—albeit in ghastly and uncertain circumstances. Perhaps most important of all, emancipation of a less tangible kind is coming to the Kurds of Turkey.

On March 21, the Kurdish (and Persian) new year, a large crowd gathered in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan, to hear a message by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, which was read out by another veteran of the Kurdish struggle. Öcalan announced the withdrawal of the PKK’s armed militants across the border into Iraq, where it has a network of camps. Withdrawal, the message went on, signaled the beginning of a new “political struggle,” replacing the military one the PKK has been waging for the past twenty-nine years. Two days later, Öcalan announced a cease-fire as part of a deal he had worked out with …

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    The International Crisis Group’s report “Iraq and the Kurds: The High-Stakes Hydrocarbons Gambit” (April 19, 2012) describes the bitter dispute between the government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government over control of the Kurds’ oil resources. “Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement” (September 11, 2012) suggests ways to achieve a lasting settlement of the Kurdish issue in Turkey. “Syria’s Kurds: A Struggle Within a Struggle” (January 22, 2013) describes the Kurdish nationalist movement in Syria and the prospects for Kurdish autonomy if Bashar al-Assad is removed from power. I have also found Jordi Tejel’s book Syria’s Kurds: History, Politics and Society (Routledge, 2009) very informative.