Kurdish hope for autonomy drives politics across four nations’ boundaries

Smoke rises following a strike in Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of the Islamic State group, as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Smoke rises following a strike in Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and the militants of the Islamic State group, as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border, Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis) AP

With its decision to drop ammunition and weapons to the defenders of the Syrian town of Kobani on the Turkish border, the Obama administration has inserted the United States into one of the most complex territorial and ethnic disputes to roil the Middle East. Unlike the better known split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, or the battle to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the battle over Kobani pits a relatively obscure political group against the extremists of the Islamic State.

Here are some of the key terms used to discuss the complex situation:


Literally the land of the Kurds, Kurdistan refers to a largely mountainous region about the size of Montana, where members of the Kurdish ethnic group make up a majority. The area includes much of eastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran. There are an estimated 28 million Kurds distributed across the area. Many Kurdish groups have advocated over the years for independence or autonomy, but to date only one country, Iraq, has set up an autonomous Kurdish-ruled region inside its borders. The last independent Kurdish principalities disappeared in the 12th century.


Rojava means “the West” in Kurdish and is the name given to the Kurdish areas of Syria after troops loyal to Assad largely pulled out of the region in mid-2012. In the ensuing months, Kurdish forces took over much of northern Syria, particularly in Hasakka and Aleppo provinces, including some towns that are dominated by either Arabs or other ethnic minorities. In November 2013, a de facto autonomous government was declared, setting up a system that divided Rojava into three cantons – Kobani, Cizir and Efrin – that correspond to the largest settlements in those areas.


Kobani is a city on the border with Turkey in Syria’s Aleppo province that was the first in Syria to come under the control of Kurdish forces, after Assad withdrew his army in July 2012. Like many cities in Kurdish areas, it also has an Arabic name, Ayn al Arab. Founded as a stop on the Baghdad-Berlin rail line in the early 20th century, it had a population in 2004 of about 44,000, split among Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Armenians. Syrians fleeing the regime’s assaults on rebel-held regions swelled the population to more than 100,000. Kurdish forces took control of the city July 19, 2012, and came under attack from the Islamic State earlier this year.


The acronym stands for the Democratic Union Party, one of two Kurdish political parties active in northern Syria. Under Assad’s government, the party was banned because the Syrian constitution prohibits parties that are based on ethnicity. The party claims to want the creation of an autonomous region within a democratic Syria. It also acknowledges an affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union view as a terrorist organization.


The acronym stands for People’s Protection Units in Kurdish. The YPG is the PYD’s military arm and is the group currently battling against the Islamic State in Kobani. The YPG militia has proven to be perhaps the most effective group in Syria in battling the Islamic State. Its opposition to the presence of jihadis among Syria’s anti-Assad rebels has been a central tenet of its organization since it first occupied Kobani in 2012. In November 2012, the YPG asked anti-Assad rebels not to enter Kurdish areas and in July 2013 expelled them from Ras al Ayn, a border town. Still, some factions of the loosely organized Free Syrian Army have fought with the YPG in Kobani.


The acronym stands for Kurdistan Workers Party, an armed group that is banned in Turkey. The PKK is believed responsible for thousands of deaths in an insurgency that began in 1984 to promote Kurdish autonomy and cultural rights. The group has observed a cease-fire with the Turkish government since 2013. The group formerly adhered to a Leninist political philosophy and sought an independent Kurdistan, but it has since adopted a less rigid political philosophy and seeks autonomy within Turkey. Still, it remains listed as a foreign terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.


The acronym stands for the Kurdistan Regional Government and is the name of the autonomous Kurdish area in Iraq. With a capital at Irbil, the KRG is largely self-governing, though it has many disputes with the Iraqi national government in Baghdad over oil revenues and defense issues. Its militia, the peshmerga, operates separately from the Iraqi national army. The KRG largely avoided the bloodshed that wracked other parts of Iraq during the American occupation and was considered so secure that the United States based one of two Joint Operations Centers in Irbil after the Islamic State began its sweep through northern and central Iraq last summer. That sense of security was shaken in August when Islamic State forces routed peshmerga troops from several small towns near Irbil, prompting President Barack Obama to authorize U.S. military action in Iraq.

Salih Muslim

Head of the PYD. A chemical engineer by training, he became interested in Kurdish politics in the 1970s. He worked in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, returned to Syria in 2003 and fled to Iraq in 2010 after being arrested by the Assad government. He returned to Syria in March 2011 when protesters began demanding Assad’s resignation.

Massoud Barzani

President of the KRG. He is considered close to Turkey and the United States.

Abdullah Ocalan

The founder of the PKK, Ocalan has been in prison in Turkey since 1999. He remains the leader of his party, however, and is deeply involved in negotiations for a peace treaty with the Turkish government.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

President of Turkey. Erdogan has been a harsh critic of U.S. policy in Syria, insisting that, in addition to attacking the Islamic State, the United States must also attack Assad government installations.