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Cf. PUBLICATION: The Kurds in the Middle East. Peace-Policy Alternatives to Kurdish Separatism in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, in: Forschungshorizonte Politik & Kultur, Vol. 6, 2022/2, 31 S.



“Over the past 10 years, parties to the conflict have perpetrated the most heinous violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of international human rights law. […] Progovernment forces, but also other warring parties, resorted to methods of waging war and used weaponry that minimized risks to their fighters, rather than those minimizing harm to civilians.” (Conclusions, UN-Report, 21.1.2021: 19)

In 2021, an independent United Nations (UN) Commission of inquiry found that all parties to the conflict in Syria were guilty of war crimes. The actors concerned include not only government troops from home and abroad, but also armed groups such as the IS or Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG). The Syrian crisis is therefore closely linked to the Kurds in the Middle East. Their resistance organisations have taken up the cause of founding their own state, a maximum demand that they want to put on the agenda of the international peace negotiations. However, as party programs show, Kurdish separatism does not stop at the borders of Syria but falls on fertile ground in neighbouring Turkey as well as in Iraq and Iran. A change in Syria’s national borders would therefore also endanger the existence of its neighbouring states.  

As the following analysis of the historical and conceptual framework shows, this goal of Kurdish nationalism contradicts the norms of international law. Because its representatives put their national agenda ahead of the UN’s imperative for peace, they remain excluded from UN peace negotiations. Moreover, Kurdish regional politicians violate UN minimum standards of political rights in their self-governing provinces in northern Syria or northern Iraq without these violations being sufficiently documented and legally punished. They thus violate basic principles of separation of powers, both at the horizontal and vertical levels of state administration. This analysis focuses on those peace policy instruments of international law that have already been created by international organisations such as the UN, the Council of Europe or the OSCE to effectively protect linguistic minorities such as the Kurds from discrimination and to strengthen their regional self-government structures.

In order to maintain confidence in these international agreements, governments should not allow themselves to be used to suppress opposition movements in third countries any more than they should be used to support the aims of separatist organisations. Caution is required because the UN Charter prohibits interference in the internal affairs of other states. Moreover, there is a danger of being drawn into the spiral of escalation of violent conflict. Since autumn 2015, Germany has been particularly at risk because it took in about a third of all asylum seekers within the EU. Around half of them came from states with a Kurdish minority. According to voluntary data, every third Syrian asylum seeker is of Kurdish descent, among Iraqis the figure is even two thirds. They meet a large number of immigrants of Turkish descent, which creates an unmanageable potential for conflict.

Read more: Sabine Riedel, The Kurds in the Middle East. Peace-Policy Alternatives to Kurdish Separatism in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, Forschungshorizonte Politik & Kultur, Vol. 6, 2022/2, 31 pages.




♦  The question “Who are the Kurds?” can be answered differently depending on the observer and his normative background. Above all, however, national identity does not depend solely on historical facts or social conventions, such as legal texts and international treaties. It is above all a decision of the individual.

♦  Only when national affiliation does not follow political criteria, but is understood primarily as an ethnic-cultural bond, do “national minorities” arise within a state. These can be exposed to negative as well as positive discrimination. Promised or unfulfilled rights to a say then determine the public discourse.

♦  The Kurdish conflicts arose with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, because the successor states gave up the linguistically and religiously neutral Ottoman citizenship in favour of a culturally understood nation model. Since the Kurds, as a linguistic community, could not found their own nation-state, they became a minority.

♦  The Kurds sought the support of foreign states, which increased their influence. Initially, the mandate administration of the colonial powers dominated, later aid came from the immediate neighbouring countries. Other influencing factors are of a political-ideological nature, such as the system confrontation during the Cold War (until 1990) and the politicisation of Islam (since 1979).

♦  Many experts are of the opinion that a solution to the Kurdish question is hardly possible because of this complex conflict situation. However, this only applies if one seeks answers exclusively in founding of a state. In contrast, international organisations have already developed instruments to solve internal conflicts peacefully and without border revisions.

♦  A constant factor in solving internal political tensions is the inclusion of all stakeholders in decision-making processes. A look at the political and cultural rights of the population with Kurdish identity shows that the states concerned have already made different commitments. Their implementation and further development can contribute to solutions.

Estimated distribution area of Kurdish language(s)

Souce: Kurdish languages map.svg, in: ArnoldPlaton, Wikipedia, 29. Mai 2014, Legend: S.R.

Note: From a scientific point of view, these estimates can be challenged: There is hardly any reliable data on them, for example from surveys. The map is thus based exclusively on external attributions. Moreover, no distinction is made between standardised, written language variants and dialects. Finally, the multilingualism of the population, which differs according to nationality, is not taken into account. This alone makes ethnicity not clearly determinable, but multiple. Nevertheless, since the 19th century and the rise of nationalism, such maps have been used to change state borders.

cf. Sabine Riedel, The Kurds in the Middle East. Peace-Policy Alternatives to Kurdish Separatism in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, Forschungshorizonte Politik & Kultur, Vol. 6, 2022/2, 31 pages, p. 6.


♦  Armenia’s borders date back to its status as a Soviet republic (from 1936). With independence (1992) it preserved the Soviet principle of nationality and gave its nation a linguistic as well as a Christian identity. The Kurds are a protected minority, both as a language community (Kurds) and as a religious one (Yazidis).

♦  Azerbaijan, as a former Soviet republic (from 1936), took a different development. As a Muslim-dominated country, it introduced an ethnically neutral, political nation model in 1992. Nonetheless, the Kurds are a protected “national” minority, but they are drawn into the conflict over the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which neighbouring Armenia controls militarily.

♦  With the founding of modern Turkey (1923), the Kurds lost their privileges as Muslims. With the introduction of Turkish nationalism as a state doctrine (1928), they became a linguistic minority. They enjoy protection under the European Convention on Human Rights of the Council of Europe, but not – like in Armenia and Azerbaijan – as a “national minority”.

♦   Iran introduced a political concept of nationhood by constitution in 1906, whereby the Muslim Kurds lost their privileges. As a result of Iranian nationalism as a new state doctrine (1935), they became a linguistic minority. With the Islamic Revolution (1979), they regained privileges as Muslims and minority protection as Christians.

♦  Since its foundation (1925), Iraq has seen itself as a confessional nation (Ottoman Empire). As Muslims, the Kurds lost their privileges with the end of the monarchy (1958) and became a (partly persecuted) linguistic minority as a result of the turn towards Arab nationalism. In 1970, they were granted nation status with territorial autonomy, which continued with the 2005 constitution.  

♦  As successor state of the Ottoman Empire, Syria also adopted the model of the confessional nation. With the turn towards Arab nationalism (from 1958), the Kurds became a linguistic minority, but without rights of protection or autonomy. During the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish-dominated region of Rojava in northern and eastern Syria came to secede.

The Kurdish-dominated regions
in northern and eastern Syria (Rojava)

Quelle: Eigene Bearbeitung der Karte von: AntonSamuel, Regions of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, in: Wikipedia, 7.5.2020.

The specific administrative role
of the autonomous region of Kurdistan-Iraq

Quellen: Zusammenstellung zweier Karten: Rafy, Irakische Gouvernements, in: Wikipedia, 25.1.2011 und Location of Kurdistan in Iraq, in:, 25.10.2017

cf. Sabine Riedel, The Kurds in the Middle East. Peace-Policy Alternatives to Kurdish Separatism in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, Forschungshorizonte Politik & Kultur, Vol. 6, 2022/2, 31 pages, p. 17 and 19.


♦  As the comparison of the country examples with a population of Kurdish identity shows, their social integration depends on the concept of nation. Where constitutions defined it as a community of will, Muslim Kurds lost their leadership role. Therefore, Kurdish organisations prefer the nationality principle from the 19th century, but today not as a religion, but as a language community.

♦  The internal constitution of states is subject to the sovereignty principle of international law. Therefore, human and minority rights or democratic principles cannot be imposed from outside. All the more important are international treaties on a voluntary basis, in which the states concerned agree to standards and accept international controls.

♦  The European standard in the protection of human rights and minorities is high from a global perspective because it is flanked by a sanction mechanism, the European Court of Human Rights. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are subject to monitoring by the UN and the Council of Europe, which offers the Kurds protection from discrimination, at least normatively.

♦   The Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Syria, on the other hand, are only protected by UN human rights documents. Further standards depend on the political system, i.e. on forms of separation of powers. In Iran, they partly benefit from regional self-government, in Iraq even from territorial autonomy. The Syrian Kurds have taken special rights by force.

♦   Kurdish organisations from Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria raise the issue of “confederal” state models. However, they refer less to constitutional reforms of their respective nation states. Rather, they are striving for closer cooperation between the (partly autonomous) Kurdish regions with the perspective goal of establishing a state.

♦  The aspiration of a separate state is a top priority for most Kurdish parties. In states with Kurdish minorities, there is thus a growing distrust of forms of democratic participation and regionalisation. The fear of separatism can only be removed from the governments if international law is respected and promoted again.



Sabine Riedel, The Kurds in the Middle East. Peace-Policy Alternatives to Kurdish Separatism in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, Forschungshorizonte Politik & Kultur, Vol. 6, 2022/2, 31 pages.

Sabine Riedel, Looking Back at 10 Years of the Arab Spring. As Seen from Theories on Democracy, Transformation, Modernisation and Interdependence, Forschungshorizonte Politik & Kultur, Vol. 5, 2021/4, 14 pages.

Sabine Riedel, The MENA Region: Federalisation – Autonomies – Decentralisation, Forschungshorizonte Politik & Kultur, Vol. 4, 2020/14, 13 pages.

Sabine Riedel, Iraq as a Battlefield of Foreign Powers. The “Democracy” under the Rule of Islamic Law imported in 2003 has paved the Way, Forschungshorizonte Politik & Kultur, Vol. 4, 2020/2, 8 pages.

Sabine Riedel, Pluralismus im Islam – ein Schlüssel zum Frieden. Erfahrungen aus dem Irak, Syrien, Türkei, Ägypten und Tunesien im Vergleich, in: SWP-Studie, Berlin, S 14, 26.7.2017.

Sabine Riedel, The Cultural Future of Europe. Democracies at Times of Global Changes. Introduction: The Convergence Theory as a Socio-scientific Approach, Forschungshorizonte Politik & Kultur, Vol. 1, 2017/1, 13 pages. Source text: Riedel, Sabine, Die kulturelle Zukunft Europas. Demokratien in Zeiten globaler Umbrüche, Wiesbaden, 2015, pp. 1-3, 244-264, Translation by Jean Säfken.



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