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Volume 6, 2022/2, Apr 18, 31 pages  ♦  pdf format

Sabine Riedel


Peace-Policy Alternatives to Kurdish Separatism in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria

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  • Historical, terminological and normative contexts of the Kurdish Question(s)
  • The Rights of Kurds in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria
  • Conflict Solutions link Horizontal and Vertical Separation of Powers

The 31 pages include:
Analysis, summary, 14 figures and excerpts, 208 references (linked).


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 fer-tile 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. …

UN Report on Human rights situations in Syria, 21.1.2021, 

“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

Leading politicians of the Kurdish independence movement openly admit that their demand for a separate Kurdish state contradicts the constitutions of their respective states and can only be implemented in the long term, if at all. From an academic point of view, it should be added that the right to self-determination does not refer to peoples in the sense of an ethnically determined nationalities principle, but to peoples or nations in the political sense. 

In order to convince their linguistic community and supposed nation of this concept and to win other ethnic minorities as allies, Kurdish parties have developed a strategy that is understood differently depending on the political-ideological orientation. 

The interpretation varies between “democratic autonomy” and “de­mocratic confederalism”. These buzzwords distract attention from the democratic deficits in northern Iraq and northern Syria, where either tribal structures or socialist models of society prevent the introduction of a separation of powers at the horizontal level. 

Instead, the focus shifts to the vertical division of power between municipalities, regions and the central state, which Kurdish actors want to be linked to ethnic identities. In this way, they create the image of a culturally shaped community that pretends to distribute political and economic resources “fairly” among the linguistic and religious communities.

A look at the vertical administrative structures of the states concerned also reveals a different picture here: the three member states of the Council of Europe, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, undertook to ensure the political, administrative and financial independence of the local administrative level when they signed the European Charter of Local Self-Government (1985). 

To support this decentralisation process, a Congress of Local and Regional Authorities was established, in which more than 150,000 regional and local authorities from all 47 member states are represented (CoE Congress). It organises not only an exchange of experiences, but also continuous monitoring of the status of the Charter’s implementation. 

There are no corresponding structures in Iran, Iraq and Syria, so Kurdish organisations are making an important contribution to the political discourse with demands for more say at local and regional level. However, there is no reflection on the practice of the three above-mentioned European Council members with already existing self-governing structures.  [p. 24]