By: Yousif Ismael
With their ancestral homeland split between four modern states – Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey – the Kurdish people have been subject to a century of subjugation and suffering due to treaties signed by the old colonial powers. These treaties transferred power to a new set of oppressors, a group of colonizers with their own history in the region.
Several key historical events affected Kurdistan, the indigenous homeland of the Kurds, such as the Battle of Chaldiran between the Safavids and the Ottomans, yet the agreements by great powers in the early 21st century remain the cruelest. Following the #Treaty of Sèvres# (10 -10- 1920), which granted the Kurdish nation a measure of autonomy alongside the Greeks and the Armenians, an incipient Turkish nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rejected the agreement and even stripped its Turkish signatories of their Turkish citizenship. The abandoned Treaty of Sèvres was the closest that the invaders of the region came to recognizing the rights of the region’s minorities. Once it was abolished, the great minds of colonialism created Treaty of Lausanne (24-07--1923 ), which was a version of Treaty of Sèvres adjusted to consider the desire of Ataturk and the Turkish nationalist movement to subjugate the other peoples of the region. In Lausanne, the Allied powers, headed by Britain and France, ignored the Kurds and granted the majority of the Kurdish homeland to modern Turkey. In addition to the Kurds, the Greeks and the Armenians also lost a large swathe of their ancestral land to Turkey.
Many Turkish nationalists are still proud of Ataturk’s so-called “great speech” after the treaty was implemented in full in 1927. In his speech, which is about 5,000 words, he only mentions Kurds twice – “Propaganda aimed at the setting up of an independent Kurdistan under English protectorate. The Kurds have united with the Turks,” read Ataturk’s speech. However, the Kurds did not unite with Turks as he claimed, nor they were part of “English protectorate” In fact, the Kurds were first to fight the British occupation through Sheikh Mahmud’s insurgency in Iraq, and up to today the Kurds blame Britain for the Sykes-Picot Treaty which also divided the Kurds. Ataturk’s remarks accompanied his brutal actions against Kurdish revolutionaries and civilians alike, including massacres following the defeat of the insurgency led by Sheikh Said of Piran. He even ordered the killings of thousands of anonymous peasants and the burning of hundreds of Kurdish villages. Ataturk’s anti-Kurdish rhetoric and violence were consistent features of his rule. For example, in response to the Kurdish revolution led by Seyid Riza in Dersim, the Turkish military committed another massacre, killing tens of thousands of Kurds. The Turkish government recorded 13,160 were killed, while the true figure is more than double that number. According to a British diplomat reporting on the massacre, “Thousands of Kurds including women and children, were slain; others, mostly children, were thrown into the Euphrates; while thousands of others in less hostile areas, who had first been deprived of their cattle and other belongings, were deported to vilayets (provinces) in Central Anatolia. It is now stated that the Kurdish question no longer exists in Turkey.”
The Dersim massacre was great blow against Kurdish struggle for freedom. The crushing of the Dersim revolt culminated with Ataturk’s regime then executing the Kurdish leader Seyid Riza at the age of 78! Alongside Seyid Riza, a number of his comrades were also executed. After Ataturk’s death on November 15, 1938, the Turkish state continued with a policy of denying the existence of the Kurdish identity and brutally oppressing the Kurdish people within Turkey’s borders. The Turkish state’s brutality against the Kurds was not simply a policy of Ataturk or a bloody consequence of the upheaval that followed the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire – it was a founding tenet of the Turkish state itself, and was destined to far outlive its founding leader. Nonetheless, the Kurds did not stop fighting for their survival, both within the borders of the Republic of Turkey and beyond. In 1946, Kurdish leader Qazi Mohammed announced the establishment of the Republic of Mahabad, a Kurdish state located within the borders of Iran. This short-lived republic was crushed by the Iranian regime which enjoyed the backing of western powers, less than a year after its founding, when the Soviet Union’s Red Army, which acted as a buffer between the Iranian regime forces and the Kurdish republic, withdrew from Iran. The Red Army’s withdraw is still considered by many Kurds as a betrayal, and the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2 (30 -07-1946) was a clear expression of pressure on the Soviet Union to withdraw. Following the defeat of the Republic of Mahabad, Qazi Mohammed was publicly executed. Three decades later, when the Kurds of Iraq were in the midst of a sustained campaign of resistance against the Arab nationalist regime of Iraq, the Iraqi regime, represented by Saddam Hussein, and the Shah of Iran ended their disputes by signing the 1975 Algiers Agreement. As a result, the Shah and the U.S. stopped aiding the Kurdish revolutionaries headed by Mustafa Barzani, and this revolt was crushed and Mustafa Barzani and tens of thousands of his followers were compelled to leave Iraq.
Even after the end of Mustafa Barzani’s revolution, Kurdish resistance continued. In the 1970s, Jalal Talabani led a campaign of resistance against Iraq’s Arab nationalist dictatorship and, in Turkey, Abdullah Ocalan founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which began an armed revolt against the Turkish state in 1984. Decades of resistance also included additional tragedies. In Turkey, the stare pursued a scorched earth campaign against the Kurdish people, destroying thousands of villages, killing tens of thousands, and displacing even more, all while denying the existence of the Kurdish people. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s regime pursued a systematic campaign of genocide against the Kurdish people, which included the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds of Halabja in March 1988, which killed thousands. Since the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, millions of Kurds have been killed or displaced and the demographics of their homeland has been forcibly changed.
Has the world changed toward the Kurds?
The Kurdish people captured the world’s attention over the last few years as the most effective fighting force combating the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group that emerged as a major threat to regional and international security. When the world powers mobilized to address the ISIS threat, they quickly realized that, in both Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish forces were the most dependable and effective local partners for this battle. With the backing of the US-led Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq and the People’s Defense Units (YPG) in Syria played a leading role in defeating ISIS as a territory-holding group. During the course of this campaign, approximately 15,000 Kurdish fighters lost their lives, with double that number injured.
Despite the major Kurdish role on the ground in defeating ISIS, there is hardly solid support for the Kurdish people among the world powers. For example, despite maintaining an alliance with the US since 1991, the Kurds of Iraq enjoyed no US support when holding a non-binding independence referendum on 25-09- 2017. Indeed, the US rallied the European Union to oppose this referendum. Following the referendum, Iraqi forces, including Iranian-backed militias, attacked Kurdish areas and displaced thousands of people, and this aggression was met only with silence. The Kurds of Iraq hoped that the end of the regime of Saddam Hussein would pave the way for addressing the effects of Arabization of Kurdish areas, but, despite a constitutional mandate to address this issue, no progress has been made. When Kurdish frustration with post-Saddam Iraq manifested itself in a strong vote for independence, the world stood by while Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed militias attacked Kurdish areas.
In Syria, while the Kurds were fighting ISIS, Turkey repeatedly launched unprovoked attacks against them, and initiated a brutal invasion of the Kurdish majority city of Afrin in northwestern Syria in January 2018. This invasion was allowed by Russia, who controlled the airspace over that part of Syria, and served Russia’s interests by harming and distracting the major local partner of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS. Hundreds of civilians were massacred by the Turkish air force and members of the various jihadist proxy groups used by Turkey in this campaign. Even today, kidnappings, killings, mass displacement, and other human rights violations are taking place in Afrin, targeting the indigenous Kurdish population of the area. Despite the Kurds’ assistance in clearing the region of terror groups in 2015, a major objective of Russian forces in Syria, Russia nonetheless betrayed the Kurds of Afrin by allowing the Turkish invasion to proceed.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently threatened once again to invade the rest of the Kurdish region in Syria. Erdogan’s latest threats come after deep military cooperation with Russia away from NATO which may lead to US sanctions against Turkey. Turkey is calling for the establishment for “Safe Zone” along the Syria’s border with Turkey, stretching 30 km into Syrian territory. This particular “Safe Zone” would include many major Kurdish population centers and represent an expansion of Turkey’s brutal occupation of Kurdish lands. Indeed, a true “Safe Zone” or Buffer Zone would be welcomed by the Kurds if it is implemented by an international force and under the supervision of the U.S., as this zone could protect the Kurds against future aggression by Turkey. Turkey’s argument that the Kurds of Syria threaten the “national security “ of Turkey has no basis in reality, and indeed Erdogan and other representatives of the Turkish state have made it clear that they intend to act aggressively against any manifestation of Kurdish self-determination, even within the current borders of Syria. The US, Russia, and European Union are all well aware of the negative role played by Turkey in Syria, which has been characterized by consistent support for jihadist groups since the outset of Syria’s civil war.
The United States and the international community now face another test in Syria. The local partners of the US-led coalition are not trying to break away from Syria, and are only trying to protect their safe self-governing region from the aggression of the Turkish state and terror groups such as ISIS, al-Qaida and Turkey’s various jihadist proxy militias. While the international community actions toward the Kurds nonetheless reiterates the acceptance of the Treaty of Lausanne in keeping the Kurds divided between four states, the world powers still have self-interest and moral obligation to prevent Turkey allowing a resurgence of ISIS and al-Qaida by attacking the Kurds and further destabilizing Syria and, by extension, the broader Middle East.
Disclaimer: The views, opinions, and positions expressed by authors and contributors do not necessary reflect those of the WKI.