The Kurdistan Problem: Part I

Originally posted by midtowng on 01/15/07

Americans love quick and simple solutions to complicated problems.
For instance, one of the most popular action movies of all time, and one of my favorite movies as well, is Lethal Weapon. Mel Gibson’s character, Martin Riggs is suicidal over the death of his wife and his experiences during the Vietnam War. By the end of the movie he is once again a stable, healthy person. What happened in-between? He killed 30 or 40 people, a sure cure for any mental trauma.
  The problem begins when we start applying this Hollywood solutions to the country’s foreign policy. This was reflected by Bush’s “Surge” plan for Iraq. We are occupying a country that is in midst of a civil war. What to do? Do we start a dialogue between all the warring factions? Do we engage the neighboring nations of Iran, Syria, and Turkey?
  Of course not. We send in more troops so we can kill more bad guys. It worked for Mel Gibson, why not for the U.S. Army?

America is currently occupying a land with 5,000 years of recorded history. These people have engaged with empire building since Sargon the Great. They have experienced at least half a dozen empires that lasted longer than America has been in existence. It is a land of multiple cultures, ethnic groups, religions, and tribes. It is also a land with arbitrary borders drawn up for foreign powers.
  In other words, it is far more complicated than redneck America could possibly hope to understand. Martin Riggs, Rambo, Rocky, and the Terminator combined couldn’t solve the problems currently plaguing Iraq.
  And speaking of problems, there is nothing more complex in this equation than the issue of Kurdistan.

Heads I win, tails you lose

“Our movement and people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way, with silence from everyone. We feel, your Excellency, that the United States has a moral and political responsibility towards our people, who have committed themselves to your country’s policy.”
  – Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani’s message to Kissinger, 1975

“Promise them anything, give them what they get, and fuck them if they can’t take a joke.”
  – Kissinger to a staff member regarding the Kurds, 1975

  While researching my series on the History of Iraq, I couldn’t help but notice that the Kurds of Iraq were prepared to suffer even genocidal oppression in their quest for independence. I also couldn’t help but notice that they don’t have a single friend in this quest.
  Twice America used the Kurds to further our short-term policy goals, and then abandoned them to their fates. First in 1975, then 16 years later in 1991. The Kurds suffered indescribably from these betrayals. Now, 16 years later, two Kurdish brigades are the most important part of Bush’s flawed plan to kill the bad guys in Baghdad. You can’t help but wonder if this 16-year cycle of treachery is about to repeat yet again.

  But why would we betray the Kurds? After all, they’ve consistently been our most loyal allie in the entire Iraq region. To understand that we have to look at what Kurdistan is, how it was created, and most importantly, its history.

Kurdistan, the political open-wound of the middle east

  Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not a happy man.
Two weeks ago he blasted the Bush Administration for not keeping their promises of controlling the Kurdish rebels. Before that, Erdogan threatened a “parting of the ways” with US foreign policy in the region. Last week he levelled his threats at the Kurdish government in Iraq’s Kurdistan over the issue of Kirkuk. Turkey has repeatedly invaded northern Iraq in the past, and its official policy is that it won’t tolerate an independent Kurdistan in Iraq.
  Why all this hostility against America’s allie in Iraq?

Kurdistan literally means “land of the Kurds”.
  The Kurdish people were largely nomadic before WWI whose traditional livelihood revolved around sheep and goat herding. They have their own language and culture. Their geographical area is mostly mountainous. Estimates of the population of Kurdistan range from 25 to 30 million.

Kurdish girl in front of Mt. Ararat

  A quick look at a map gives you a hint what the problem is, but it goes beyond just a simple map. While they can trace their national history back to the Median Empire of the 6th Century B.C., most of the pre-Islamic history doesn’t apply today. To truly understand the situation you must start back to the 15th Century.

Medieval Kurdistan

  The Safavid Empire started very modestly in northwest Persia in the 14th Century, but would eventually become the founders of modern Iran. At the same time the Sunni-based Ottomans were centralizing their expanding empire in Anatolia by persecuting Shiites. This led to a one-sided confrontation between the two that quickly drove the Safavid’s our of Azerbajian and into the mountains of Persia. From there the Safavid’s went on to conquer their immediate neighbors – several Kurdish states. Once established in Persia, the Safavid’s copied the Ottomans and forced Sunnis to convert to Shia’ism or be expelled to other regions of the empire. In an action that Saddam Hussein copied centuries later, Kurdish cities were destroyed and the inhabitants relocated.

Safavid founder Shah Esmail killing Uzbek leader in battle, 1510

  The most famous of these atrocities was committed at the fortress of Dimdim in 1609, the site of an ancient Kurdish capital. When the Safavid’s defeated the rebels all the Kurdish defenders were massacred. The massacre then extended out into the surrounding countryside.
  The extensive persecution led to repeated revolts by the Kurds.
  Meanwhile the Ottomans continued moving eastward. The Safavid’s left a scorched earth before them, forceably deporting hundreds of thousands of Kurds to the east as they retreated, some as far as Afghanistan. Many of the Kurds who were exiled assimilated into local culture. The Kurdish people in Persia seemed destined to vanish into the footnotes of history, and largely did until the 19th Century.

  On the other side of the battlefront was the Kurds living under Ottoman occupation. Because both were Sunni the persecution wasn’t nearly as bad, and as the border moved eastward the Kurds in Anatolia became less important to Ottoman oversight. Hence, they were left alone in largely autonomous regions.
  Hundreds of years of divisions between the Kurds of east and west have created slightly different cultures and histories. While sympathetic to each other’s cause for independence, they no longer feel that their movements are united.

The decline and fall of the Ottomans

  By the early 19th Century the Ottoman Empire was crumbling. The first country to take advantage of this condition was Russia. After the Russo-Turkish War ended in 1829 with Greece winning independence, other ethnic groups in the Ottoman Empire began their own independence movements. The Kurds were one of the first.
  Starting with Bedr Khan Bek and Muhammad Pasha in the 1830’s, to Sheikh Obeidallah in 1878, the Kurds repeatedly revolted against the Turks, and then were repeatedly defeated. After each defeat the Turks clamped down on Kurdish autonomy more and more until they lived under police state conditions. It is worth noting that the Kurds were far from angels. First of all, Khan and Pasha only revolted for reasons of personal power and used the timing of the Egyptian invasion of Anatolia. Also Bedr Khan became infamous because of his massacres of Assyrian Christians.
  Kurds in Persia also started revolts around the same time. The Safavid Empire collapsed in the mid-18th Century, largely because of enemies created in Afghanistan and partly led by the same Kurds they had exiled. Despite the divisions and chaos in Persia following the collapse of the Safavid’s, the Kurdish revolts met with only limited success.
However, everything changed with WWI.

The Country that almost existed

  With the Ottoman defeat in WWI the borders of the entire middle east were about to be redrawn. The opportunity for the Kurds to finally gain independence after centuries of occupation was at hand and they had no intention of missing this opportunity.
  In January 1919, the World’s leaders gathered together for the Paris Peace Conference. Istanbul was occupied and the victors in the war were deciding how to divide up the Ottoman Empire. The Kurdish people sent a representative named ?erif Pasha.
  The Treaty of Sevres was a historic document. Signed on August 10, 1920, it outlined the future of the middle east. In addition to granting independence to Armenia and outlining the break up of the Ottoman Empire, it granted the Kurds what they had always wanted.


A Commission sitting at Constantinople and composed of three members appointed by the British, French and Italian Governments respectively shall draft within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty a scheme of local autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish areas lying east of the Euphrates, south of the southern boundary of Armenia as it may be hereafter determined, and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia,


If within one year from the coming into force of the present Treaty the Kurdish peoples within the areas defined in Article 62 shall address themselves to the Council of the League of Nations in such a manner as to show that a majority of the population of these areas desires independence from Turkey, and if the Council then considers that these peoples are capable of such independence and recommends that it should be granted to them, Turkey hereby agrees to execute such a recommendation, and to renounce all rights and title over these areas.

Signatories of the Treaty of Sevres, on behalf of Ottoman Government

  There were several problems with the agreement. The first problem was that the Ottomans didn’t have a working Parliament at the time. Without a parliament to approve it, it couldn’t be sent to the sultan to ratify it.
  A second problem was that the Treaty of Sevres identified a truncated Kurdistan located almost entirely within the borders of what is now Turkey. It left out Kurds in both Iraq and Iran.
  Another problem, much more important, is that the turkish people no longer felt represented by the Ottomans. A revolution was about to explode.

  Many Turks felt humiliated by the war’s outcome. And the early defeats suffered in the Greco-Turkish War built on that outrage. The Treaty of Sevres was signed at the peak of Greek penetration into Turkey. A new Turkish National Movement sprang up from this resentment and gained control of the government of Turkey. It meant the doom for the Treaty of Sevres.

Turkish National Movement

  The Treaty of Lausanne took its place and there was no Kurdistan in that equation. This treaty was signed after Turkey had pushed the Greek troops out and began their own invasion of Greece.
  This rejection of the Treaty of Sevres would lead to multiple Kurdish revolts, repression, and countless bloodshed.

  Meanwhile the Kurds of Iran weren’t wasting the opportunity created by post-war chaos.. They were taking a more direct approach to independence by taking up arms. Ismael Agha (aka Simko) established a small, independent Kurdish area in northwest Iran. Jaafar Sultan managed to carve out another Kurdish area just south of that.

  But this is another story.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: