Turkey’s war against the Kurds

Turkey severely represses its Kurdish minority. A long-running and brutal armed conflict between the Turkish military and Kurdish PKK fighters in the south-east has killed tens of thousands. Turkish military assaults on the Kurdish-majority Rojava autonomous region of northern Syria have killed hundreds of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Last updated 1 August 2023


Since the creation of the Turkish state in 1923, the Kurdish minority has been subject to repression and marginalization. In the past, this has included a ban on the Kurdish language, and severe repression of any expression of Kurdish identity, such as the celebration of the Kurdish festival of Nowruz. Indeed, the Turkish state for a long time denied the existence of the Kurds as an ethnic group, describing them as “mountain Turks”.

While there was some relaxation of these measures in the 1990s and 2000s, and use of the Kurdish language is more accepted, teaching in the Kurdish language medium is still illegal, and broadcasting in Kurdish is strictly limited. In the past few years, there has been a renewed crackdown on Kurdish language and cultural expression.

An armed rebellion broke out in 1984 in the Kurdish-majority south east of the country, led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which was in turn met with a brutal military campaign in which at least 40,000 people were killed and at least 2,400 villages destroyed by the Turkish armed forces. Torture, disappearances, and extra-judicial executions were commonplace. Atrocities were also committed by the PKK against civilians in the areas they controlled, as well as bombings against civilian targets in other parts of Turkey.

Ceasefire and resumption of conflict

The rise to power of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001 was initially followed by some degree of opening to the Kurdish people, and relaxation of some of the most extreme forms of repression. This led to a 2-sided ceasefire which announced in 2013, followed by peace negotiations. However, these negotiations broke down in 2015, since when the conflict has continued to rage.

New sources of conflict have been created by conflicts in neighbouring countries. In Syria, Kurdish-led forces have been engaged in a war with the Islamic State (or Daesh), while Kurdish groups have established autonomous democratic institutions in the north of the country. In Iraq the autonomous Kurdistan region has been in conflict with both Daesh, and with the Iraqi state in its quest for full independence from Iraq. The Turkish government accuses the Kurdistan Regional Government of harbouring PKK fighters, and it considers the YPG, the main Kurdish unit within the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), of being essentially a sister force to the PKK.

In the 2 years to July 2017, following the breakdown of the ceasefire, the Turkey-PKK conflict killed almost 3,000 people, including 1,378 PKK fighters, 976 state security force members, 408 civilians, 219 “youths of unknown affiliation”, according to the International Crisis Group. According to the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK), there were a further 1,009 people killed in 2018.

The conflict has continued to rage since, rated as a “Limited War” in 2021 by HIIK, with hundreds of people killed, including many civilians. Turkey has also engaged in cross-border bombings of PKK targets in Iraqi Kurdistan, killing between 98-123 civilians and injuring 134 to 161. On 17 August 2021, a Turkish airstrike hit a civilian hospital in Sinjar, Nineveh province Iraq, killing 8 civilians and seriously injuring over 20 others. This airstrike targeted the Yazidi people, with Turkey claiming that the Yazidi self-defence force, the Sinjar Resistance (YBS) is linked to the PKK. In May 2023, four survivors and witnesses of the attack brought a formal complaint against Turkey at the UN Human Rights Council over the attack.

Kurdistan Solidarity Network

Kurdistan Solidarity Network is a grass-roots network of UK-based groups inspired by, and working in solidarity with, the Kurdish Freedom Movement. It provides news, campaigns, and information resources on Kurdish issues, and links to active local solidarity groups.


War on Rojava in northern Syria

The Rojava autonomous region of northern Syria was formed during the ongoing Syrian civil war, initially as part of the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and subsequently in fighting against the Islamic State/Daesh/ISIL. The people of Rojava include Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, Yazidis and others.

Rojava has developed a radical, democratic, and decentralised form of self-government, with high levels of gender equality, and a justice system based on reconciliation and inclusion of minorities, although there have been criticisms of the Rojava government and associated militias for human rights abuses.

The main armed force of the Rojava region is the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the main part is the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units (YPG).  The Turkish state regards the YPG as being essentially part of the PKK, and has always been opposed to Kurdish autonomy in Rojava. Turkey has conducted numerous military operations against Rojava since 2016.

In January 2018, Turkey launched a military operation, codenamed “Olive Branch”, in the Afrin region, part of Rojava, along with allied Syrian opposition forces, capturing the town of Afrin from the SDF. According to HIIK, at least 1,600 people were killed in this war, including at least 300 civilians, and at least 150,000 people were displaced.

Turkey then launched a much larger assault on Rojava in October 2019, codenamed “Peace Spring”, capturing large swathes of territory in north-east Syria, to the east of the river Euphrates, including the city of Manbij. This assault killed well over a hundred civilians, and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Turkish forces and their Syrian allies have been accused of ethnic cleansing, and other war crimes, including summary killings. In one particularly shocking case, Kurdish female politician Hevrin Khalaf was ambushed, dragged out of her car, beaten and shot dead in cold blood by fighters from pro-Turkish militia Ahrar al-Sharqiya.

The Turkish occupation of parts of northern Syria has continued up to the time of writing (October 2022), with continued fighting causing many deaths on all sides, including civilians, and continuing human rights abuses. Since May 2022, Turkish President Erdoğan has made repeated threats to launch a new invasion of northern Syria, although at the time of writing none has occurred.

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Turkey's government has become increasingly authoritarian under the near dictatorial rule of President Erdogan. Its ongoing war against the Kurdish minority in the south-east of the country has expanded into Iraq and Syria. Turkey is a major customer for UK arms. The rapid growth of its domestic arms industry is aided by UK technology.

UK arms sales to Turkey

Turkey is a major customer for UK arms, which have supported its repressive regime and brutal war against the Kurds. The UK has approved £2.1 billion worth of arms sales to Turkey since 2013. UK arms companies helped Turkey develop armed drones, and BAE Systems is helping Turkey develop its own fighter aircraft.

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Turkey’s arms industry

Turkey's arms industry is large and growing, and it is a major player in the global arms trade as both an importer and an exporter. Turkey regularly attends the DSEI arms fair in London, and other UK arms fairs such as Farnborough and Security and Policing.

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