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Why Some Kurds Side With Turkey and Iran

Turkish and Iranian state policies in Kurdish regions create instability, economic inequality, and assimilation that drive many Kurds to work with those very states against collective Kurdish interests.

In the Kurdish people’s struggle for self-determination and independence from the nation-states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, or their resistance against invaders and oppressors, there have been many Kurdish individuals who have cooperated with these states or other oppressors against the collective interests of the Kurdish people. In Kurdish culture, they are usually referred to as “caş” (jash), which translates literally to “donkey’s child” and is a metaphor for “traitor.” This term does not only refer to the military and political cooperation of some Kurds with the oppressors; it also extends to artistic, cultural, social, and intellectual cooperation.

Kurdish political parties and leaders’ relations with the four oppressor states are mostly explained and justified by political and financial gains and agreements, which are known to Kurdish society. This analysis, however, will look into the reasons why regular Kurdish citizens — with no special political or social status — join the armed forces, political parties, and organizations of the aforementioned states.

The Division of Kurdistan

Following the Sykes-Picot, Sevres, and Lausanne treaties that were signed between France, Great Britain, Russia, and other superpowers in the early 1900s, Kurdistan became a site of conflict between these four states and the Kurdish people. This is partially due to Kurdistan’s strategic position, which connects the Arabian (Persian) Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea on land, and also because, as the “Green Belt” of the Middle East, it is rich in natural resources — particularly metals, water, oil, and other essential materials. With its highly fertile soil and livable climate, it is also the fountainhead of the most important rivers, like Tigris, Euphurates, Araz, Elwen, etc., that flow throughout the Middle East.

This strategic position of Kurdistan has been one of the numerous reasons for the conflict between the Kurds and the states that occupy Kurdistan. As a result, the Kurdish people have endured oppression, genocides, displacement, destruction, demographic change, discrimination, and racism, during the past 100-150 years.

Many Kurds have resisted this systematic oppression. However, others have served the very same Persian, Turkish and Arab nation-states that suppress their people.

For instance, in modern Kurdish history, in North Kurdistan, intellectuals such as Ziya Gokalp played an important role in shaping modern Turkish nationalism and the development of Kemalism, which has resulted in the suffering of the Kurds and other non-Turkish peoples in modern-day Turkey. In East Kurdistan, a group of Kurdish tribe chieftains stopped supporting the Kurdistan Republic of 1946 and forced the members of their tribe to side with the Iranian army. Following that, in post-Islamic Revolution Iran, some Kurds, officially referred to as Kurdish Muslim Peshmargas, have been coerced into joining the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Basij Forces, which have also taken part in persecuting the Kurds since the 1980s. At the same time, a group of Kurds participated in the Iraqi Army’s war against their own people under Saddam Hussein during the Anfal campaign in the 1980s.

There are numerous reasons why this behavior is observed among Kurds. This analysis will discuss specific examples in different political and geographic contexts.

Iran and East Kurdistan

East Kurdistan has long been impoverished as a result of the Iranian state’s  marginalization of the Kurds in various contexts, particularly with regard to education and the economy. People are mostly deprived of access to free education, healthcare, fair employment opportunities, and other basic necessities. In exchange for following their instructions and assisting them in advancing their objectives inside Kurdistan, the Iranian state provides these fundamental services to people from lower socioeconomic classes, particularly in villages and small towns where the government systematically prohibits any form of economic development or investment to create more opportunities for the locals.

The Iranian security forces are responsible for serious violations of human rights and international law in Kurdistan. At the same time, membership in the security forces offers particularly notable benefits to disadvantaged citizens. For instance, the Iranian government offers monthly salaries, high retirement salaries, free health care, free education, insurance, free or discounted housing, permanent jobs in governmental organizations, discounts on purchasing vehicles and home appliances, permanent exemptions or reductions for mandatory military service, and a 25% bonus for national university entrance examinations known as “konkoor” only for members of the IRGC and its affiliate organizations, such as “Basij” organizations.

The Foundation for Martyrs and Veterans Affairs provides direct support to the family members of IRGC members who are killed or injured during military campaigns and conflicts, in addition to providing a higher quality of services than other institutions. In national hiring initiatives for positions in government organizations, these people are granted better chances and scores by the Iranian government. Education and experience are rarely important; rather, what counts is whether the employees are Basij and IRGC members, members of veterans’ families, or in some other way associated with other Iranian military and security institutions.

Turkey and North Kurdistan

In North Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey), the Turkish state uses almost the exact same policies and strategies to attract or force Kurdish citizens into their organizations. The Turkish government has also impoverished Kurds and kept Kurdish cities and towns from developing; the situation is very similar to that of East Kurdistan. Scholars describe both Turkish and Iranian economic policies in Kurdish regions as not only under-development but as a strategy of active ‘de-development’ intended to prevent Kurds from gaining any economic basis for self-determination.

Similar to the Iranian government, the Turkish government offers several public services that only citizens affiliated with the ruling parties, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), or other Turkish state organizations and institutions, are allowed to enjoy. Kurdish citizens who support the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy (DEM) Party (formerly known as the HDP or People’s Democratic Party), the main pro-Kurdish party in Turkey, are often denied access to government jobs and public services.

For example, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) Legal Commission has compiled data showing that 22,321 HDP members were arrested or had their positions taken away between June 24, 2015, and September 25, 2020. Additionally, 54 Kurdish mayors who were democratically elected have been ousted from office by the Turkish government since 2016 and have been replaced by government-appointed trustees. While HDP mayors face persecution, these trustees are granted preferential access to resources, making it less dangerous and politically and materially beneficial for Kurds to support the very people who deny them democratic representation.

The “kurucu,” or village guards (similar to the Basij forces in Iran), who number over 60,000, are also part of the Turkish government’s oppressive system against the Kurdish people. Some Kurdish citizens are coerced into joining village guards by tribal leaders, who are also often under pressure and control of the Turkish state. Similar to the situations mentioned in East Kurdistan, this is largely due to the economic hardships enforced by the state and to state manipulation of tribal social structures (discussed below). In some cases, it is due to the possible imprisonment and displacement sentences that the state might enforce on Kurdish citizens if they refuse to join.

South and West Kurdistan After Autonomy

The same issue has existed in Bashur (South Kurdistan; now formally recognized as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq) and Rojava (West Kurdistan; now the de facto Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) for over a century. Countless Kurds have been forced to serve the Iraqi and Syrian states under the same circumstances. However, these two regions of Kurdistan have gained some measure of autonomy. As a result, economic, political, and social conditions have developed. The Iraqi and Syrian states no longer have effective control over Kurdish society. This issue seems to be less prevalent in those regions due to these changes.

Inter-Tribal Conflict and Competition

Kurdish society, like other societies in the Middle East, is a tribal society to some extent. Tribal leaders, relations, and encounters play an important role in social developments.

Historically, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria have taken advantage of these social structures to manipulate and rule the Kurds. They usually grant tribes and tribal leaders valuable benefits and positions in return for securing their cooperation with the state. As a case in point, the states promise large amounts of money, weapons, land, and properties to the chieftains of the tribes and cause a form of competition between tribes, which leads them to fight over local authority and control over the lands.

At the same time, by promoting tribal supremacy among the people, the states turn the Kurdish communities against each other in order to weaken any sense of a distinct Kurdish national identity. Consequently, some Kurds would rather join the states’ military institutions and gain access to more power and authority to weaken the opposing tribes and clans than strengthen relations and maintain peace across tribal lines to further collective Kurdish national interests.

Cultural and Psychological Assimilation

Another point worth mentioning is that the four states that occupy Kurdistan have run extensive assimilation programs over the past century in an effort to rid the Kurds of their identity, language, history, culture, and anything else that might inspire them to demand their rights. In order to fit in with the society that the states represent and regain some of the confidence that has been taken away from them by the states and the assimilation programs, some assimilated Kurds  side with the states and their organizations. ‘Internalized oppression,’ or ‘identifying with the aggressor,’ is the term typically used to describe this issue. This occurs when some people start to internalize harmful biases and prejudices against the group or ethnicity to which they belong. It also occurs when a dominant group instills social oppression — such as heterosexism, ableism, sexism, racism, gender oppression, etc. — and uses it to further its own agenda. Internalized oppression relies on systemically restricting, obstructing, and undermining the accomplishments, ingenuity, and influence of oppressed people or groups. Without considering the distortions that arise from mislabeling these differences and their effects on expectations and human behaviors, some of these individuals will mimic (and assimilate) the institutionalized rejection of difference.

Many Kurdish youth, for instance, see no value or advantage in learning their mother tongue because of the disappearance of the language  in North Kurdistan. They believe it is “insufficient” for business, education, communication, and even ‘not modern,’ especially in the music and art industries. The same problem occurs in East Kurdistan, where young people, intellectuals, writers, and artists would rather present their work in Persian than Kurdish because they think that there is no market for them in Kurdish. In order to gain greater success in their desired society, this group of people thus prefers to serve the oppressors’ culture over their own.

The concept of “Stockholm Syndrome,” which affects oppressed individuals who can be regarded as captives, may also explain this phenomenon. It describes the psychological reaction in which such individuals start to strongly identify with their oppressors or captors, as well as with their goals and demands.

‘Stockholm Syndrome’ is primarily caused by the survival instinct. Victims experience forced reliance and view infrequent or insignificant acts of generosity during a crisis as appropriate care. Making psychological connections between their captors’ happiness and their own, they frequently develop hyper-vigilance regarding the needs and demands of their oppressors or captors. This is characterized not only by a strong bond between the captive and their captor, but also by the captive’s disapproval of the authorities who pose a threat to their relationship. When the hostage serves only as leverage against a third party and is of no use to the captors, the negative attitude becomes even more potent. Behaviors that resemble those of a hostage being held captive under such circumstances can be seen in Kurdish society as a result of systematic oppression, occupation, colonialism, and assimilation.


The above-discussed factors are just a few of the many reasons why many Kurdish citizens who face hardships due to Turkish and Iranian state policies join Turkish and Iranian state organizations and identify with Turkish and Persian culture in order to survive, make a living, or gain and keep financial, political, and social status.

These Kurdish citizens inside Kurdistan are generally criticized by Kurdish public opinion in the diaspora, which includes those fortunate enough to enjoy higher living standards in Europe, North America, and Australia. This criticism is reasonable to some extent and the topic is a debatable one. But it is also important to consider and comprehend the conditions that create this behavior in order to address it. Due to the intricate historical, political, social, and cultural dynamics in Kurdistan and the Middle East as a whole, the issue of some Kurds working with the oppressors continues to be one of the major barriers in the Kurdish people’s struggle to obtain their fundamental human rights.

(Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

About the Author

Gordyaen Benyamin Jermayi


Gordyaen Benyamin Jermayi is a Kurdish human rights advocate born in Urmia, Rojhelat (East Kurdistan). He is a member of a human rights organization that documents human rights violations in East Kurdistan. Since 2020, he has presented and su…

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