How the Kurds Were Denied a State

Revolutionary Worker #1226, January 25, 2004, posted at

(From Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda Chapter 2: "The British Creation Of Iraq")

The Kurdish people have lived in the rugged mountains and valleys of northeast Iraq, western Iran, eastern Turkey and northeast Syria since the 7th century BC. This contiguous area, often called "Greater Kurdistan," is nearly the size of Iraq. The Kurds are historically a pastoral and nomadic people, raising sheep and goats. Over time many have become peasants, others urban dwellers.

Today numbering some 25 to 30 million, Kurds make up the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, behind Arabs, Persians, and Turks. The Kurds converted to Islam in the 7th century AD (around 80 percent are Sunnis, the rest Shi'as), while retaining their national identity. The Kurdish language, a branch of the Indo-European family closely related to Iran's Farsi and Afghanistan's Dari, is distinct from Arabic and Turkic. Kurdish culture, dress, and history are also distinct.

The Ottomans ruled most of Kurdistan from the 1600s until their collapse after World War I. In 1880, during one Kurdish uprising, Sheikh Ubaidullah wrote the British "The Kurdish nation is a nation apart. Its religion is different from that of others, also its laws and customs....We want to take matters into our own hands. We can no longer put up with the oppression which the governments [of Persia and the Ottoman Empire] impose on us." Unfortunately, subsequent history, explored here and below, would demonstrate that neither the British nor the American empires, despite their claims to benevolence, would bring justice to the Kurds.

Like the Arabs, the Kurds had been promised independence by the world's major powers following World War I. Point 12 of President Woodrow Wilson's 1918 "Fourteen Points" declared that "the nationalities now under Turkish rule absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development." ..

However, Kurdish aspirations, like those of the Arabs, were betrayed and then suppressed for British imperial interests.

A new treaty was signed by the allies and the new Turkish government at Lausanne, Switzerland on July 23, 1923, which made no mention of Kurdish independence. Instead, it ceded much of Kurdistan to the new Turkish government, which promptly banned all Kurdish schools, organizations, and publications. For decades after, Turkey refused to even acknowledge Kurdish ethnicity -- instead calling them "mountain Turks"--and outlawed the Kurdish language. Ataturk's government brutally crushed a 1925 Kurdish revolt against the Lausanne Treaty, and government assaults, mass deportations, and massacres against the Kurds continued during the 1920s and 1930s.36

Kurds in Iraq also rose up for self-rule. In 1919, Sheikh Mahmoud Barzinji declared himself the ruler of an independent Kurdistan and began administering the area around Suleimanieh in northeast Iraq. London's main political officer in Baghdad wrote at the time: "the Kurds wish neither to continue under the Turkish government nor to be placed under the control of the Iraqi government." He estimated that 80 percent of the Kurds supported independence. The British quickly removed Barzinji from power. Subsequent revolts were also crushed by British forces in 1922 and by the RAF bombing of Suleimanieh in 1924.

The British were fundamentally no more interested in Kurdish self-determination than the Turks. Rather, they were interested in making sure that the former Ottoman Province of Mosul, an area populated by Kurds and Turkomans, was incorporated into the new state of Iraq, not Turkey. The reason was oil. The British feared that without the oilfields near the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, the new state of Iraq would not be economically viable.

The British promised the Kurds that the new Iraqi government under their control would recognize "the right of the Kurds who live within the frontiers of Iraq to establish a Government within those frontiers." And in December 1925, the League of Nations decided in favor of the British: the Mosul region was incorporated into the new state of Iraq with the understanding that the British, whose mandate would continue for 25 years, would ensure Kurdish rights. "The desire of the Kurds that the administrators, magistrates and teachers in their country be drawn from their own ranks, and adopt Kurdish as the official language in all their activities," the League declared, "will be taken into account."40

[S]uch promises proved as empty as the others made by the British and the League to the peoples of the Middle East..Today the Kurdish people remain the largest ethnic group in the world never to have achieved statehood.


36Chali and, People Without A Country, 235; Sluglett, 179-80

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40Middle East Watch, 72

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