Updated January 23, 2019
The Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran
The Kurds of the Middle East are an ethnonational group
distinct from other peoples of the region. They share strong
historical, cultural, and interactive bonds across countries,
and are one of the largest groups without control of a state.
Despite shared ties, Kurds differ from one another along
linguistic, political, and religious lines. Although most are
Sunni Muslim, some belong to different Muslim sects (i.e.,
Shiite, Alevi, Alawite) or different religions entirely (i.e.,
Since the early twentieth century, Kurds in Iraq, Turkey,
Syria, and Iran have periodically faced repression and
economic disadvantages, and have at times engaged in
conflict with their respective governments. Kurdish
nationalists in these states have received support for their
insurgencies or political struggles from (1) other Kurds in
the region, (2) the Kurdish diaspora in Europe (numbering
more than one million, mostly from Turkey), (3)
neighboring governments, and (4) various international
(including U.S.) sources.
mount some of the most effective military opposition in
Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State organization.
The two most prominent sources of Kurdish leadership
come from the PKK (see inset graphic for acronym
explanations), which originated in Turkey, and the
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. The two
entities are rivals but also make periodic common cause.
The PKK and KRG have traditionally employed different
approaches to vying for transnational influence. The PKK
uses its longstanding tradition of armed resistance to attract
Kurdish followers and sympathizers across borders, while
the KRG’s functional autonomy in northern Iraq (since
shortly after the 1991 Gulf War) has served as a model for
other Kurdish movements seeking greater self-governance.
The PKK’s cross-border reach comes largely through (1) its
“democratic confederalism” with major Kurdish groups in
Syria (PYD) and Iran (PJAK) seeking greater autonomy or
functional independence, (2) financial and media support
from the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, and (3) its military
safe haven in the Qandil mountains (within the KRG’s
territorial boundaries near the Iranian border).
The KRG has boosted its regional and international profile
in recent years by expanding international political, trade,
and investment relationships. However, after a September
2017 KRG-sponsored advisory referendum on
independence, the Iraqi government reasserted control over
a number of disputed territories that Kurdish forces had
administered after government forces fled from Islamic
State fighters in 2014. Without oil-rich Kirkuk governorate
and an uncontested export pipeline, independence would be
less viable for Iraqi Kurds.
Iraq. Since 2003, Iraqi Kurds have had more control over
their affairs than at any time in Iraq’s history, while also
significantly influencing the country’s future. Kurdish selfgovernance came in large part from U.S. military operations
that prevented Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from
reasserting control in certain predominantly Kurdish areas
of northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. (Hussein’s forces
killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War of
the 1980s and displaced thousands immediately after the
Gulf War.) An earlier U.S.-Iran effort to aid Kurdish rebels
had ended after a 1975 Iran-Iraq diplomatic agreement.
Sources: Gene Thorp/Washington Post, citing the Central
Intelligence Agency; Council on Foreign Relations; adapted by CRS.
Relative cohesiveness among some Kurdish groups (in
comparison with non-Kurds) appears to have helped them
Within the KRG, the two main political groups are the
KDP, with its traditional sphere of control in northern KRG
territories; and the PUK, with its traditional sphere of
control in southern areas. Peshmerga militias are affiliated
with each group and with the KRG. The PUK split from the
KDP in 1975, and the two groups have subsequently
alternated between cooperation and conflict—being divided
along lines of political philosophy, personal ambition,
The Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran
economic interests, geography, and dialect. The Kurdish
parliament also includes members from smaller parties
(including Gorran, a PUK offshoot) and various ethnic
minorities. A number of non-Kurds (Turkmen, Arabs,
Assyrians, and Armenians) live in KRG-controlled areas.
Difficulties in reaching political consensus within the KRG
have persisted since its inception, contributing to KDPPUK armed conflict in the 1990s. More recent intraKurdish disagreements have occurred over (1) how the
central Iraqi government shares oil revenue with the KRG,
(2) the administration of territories outside the KRG’s
formal territorial boundaries, (3) KRG leadership, and (4)
whether and how to move toward possible independence.
At times, however, the KDP and PUK have made common
cause on some of these matters.
Governance is further complicated by the presence of the
PKK in some areas of northern Iraq. KRG leaders deal with
Turkish military operations against PKK positions in
northern Iraq, along with PKK aspirations for greater local
control. Yet, KRG leaders remain sensitive to transnational
Kurdish pleas for ethnic solidarity. Iraq’s government
reasserted control over some disputed territories controlled
by the KRG in late 2017, following a KRG referendum on
independence. Iraqi Kurds participated in Iraq’s national
election and held KRG elections in 2018.
Turkey. Historically, the Turkish government and military
have sought to limit Kurdish influence and identity in
Turkey, due in part to concerns about Turkish territorial
integrity and political stability. The PKK emerged in the
late 1970s as a Marxist-Leninist separatist movement that
also sought to challenge traditional Turkish Kurdish tribal
hierarchies. For more than 30 years, the PKK (a U.S.designated terrorist organization and foreign narcotics
trafficker) has engaged in on-and-off conflict with the
government and with fellow Kurds in Turkey while
fostering links with other Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and
Europe. Until 1998, the PKK’s top leadership was based in
Syria. (PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan was forced to leave
after Turkey threatened war with Syria for harboring him.
Since 1999, Ocalan has been imprisoned in Turkey.)
Despite the PKK’s institutional preeminence among Kurds
in Turkey, support for it has fluctuated among conservative
(particularly avowedly religious) Kurds. Over the years,
some Kurds have supported Islamic-leaning parties and
movements in Turkey, including the ruling AKP and the
more Kurdish-specific Huda-Par (a political arm of a
militant group known as Kurdish Hezbollah). In recent
years Turkey’s government has nurtured ties with the KRG
in Iraq, perhaps in part to counter the PKK’s transnational
influence; nevertheless Turkey’s maintains its longstanding
official opposition to outright Iraqi Kurdish independence.
Since 1991, various pro-Kurdish political parties widely
viewed as having some connection with the PKK have
gained representation in Turkey’s parliament, generally via
independent candidacies. In 2015, the HDP became the first
pro-Kurdish party to surmount Turkey’s 10% electoral
threshold. The HDP publicly maintains that it is
independent from the PKK and generally advocates
obtaining greater Kurdish rights by peaceful means. After a
two-year ceasefire, hostilities between the PKK and the
Turkish government resumed in 2015 and the government
has broadened efforts to centralize control over Kurdishpopulated areas of southeast Turkey. The government
generally conflates the HDP with the PKK and has jailed or
ousted many local and national HDP officials.
Syria. When the Syria conflict began in 2011, Kurds were
largely concentrated in three non-contiguous areas (Afrin,
Kobane, Jazirah) along the Turkish border. Having endured
repression under the rule of the Asad family and Syria’s
earlier leaders, Kurds gained greater autonomy in 20112012 in what they call “Rojava” (Western Kurdistan) as the
government redeployed military forces to other areas of the
country. The PYD, reportedly established in 2003 in
affiliation with the PKK, has emerged as the dominant
Syrian Kurdish group, though a number of smaller political
factions still exist. Non-Kurdish groups in PYD-controlled
areas include Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, and Armenians.
Following a failed effort to administer Syrian Kurdish areas
with the KNC, a group aligned with Iraq’s KDP, the PYD
established a governing confederation for the three Syrian
Kurdish areas (now dubbed “cantons”) in early 2014. The
PYD-controlled People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia is
the leading force in the coalition of militias known as the
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that have partnered with
the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. U.S.
officials do not consider the PYD or the YPG to be a
terrorist group but have acknowledged that ties exist
between them and the PKK. The PYD claims that the
territories it administers, including in predominantly Arabpopulated areas, remain subject to Syrian sovereignty but
are models for a future decentralized system.
Turkey strongly objects to the U.S. approach to the
PYD/YPG. YPG territorial gains have contributed to
increased Turkey-PKK tensions and direct Turkish military
operations in Syria since August 2016. Turkish forces,
alongside their Syrian rebel allies, occupied Afrin in early
2018 and Turkey has threatened further operations to
“cleanse” its border of YPG fighters. In light of President
Trump’s announcement that U.S. forces will withdraw from
Syria, the YPG may increase its coordination with the Asad
government and Russia to safeguard its interests in Syria.
The YPG also has clashed at times with Syrian government
Iran. Many Iranian Kurds aspire to greater communal
privileges, but receive less international attention than
Kurds in other countries. This may be due to internal
disunity, government repression and/or limited media
coverage. The PJAK, which uses the PKK’s northern Iraqi
safe haven and was designated by the Treasury Department
in 2009 as a PKK-controlled terrorist organization, has
engaged in occasional conflict with government forces.
Jim Zanotti, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Clayton Thomas, Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs
The Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran
This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff to
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