The Kurdsand Kurdistan
There are many the so-called “stateless nations” or better to say “stateless cultures” or “stateless ethnolinguistic groups” in the world with already highly developed mutual sense of common identity who do not have as a consequence of historical accidents their own states to represent them on the arena of global politics and international relations. The Middle East Kurds are both an example of this reality and the victims of the state terror especially in Turkey and Saddam’s Iraq. In both countries the Kurds were perceived by their governments to be alien to the national culture.
Kurdistan is an imagined national independent state for the ethnolinguistic Kurds in the Middle East – a region of the most ancient human culture and civilization. Such state never existed in history what is probably one of the main injustice of Clio and surely one of the most shameful sins of the contemporary mankind taking into account several unbeatable facts:
1. The Kurds are the oldest people in the region and one of the oldest ethnolinguistic groups in the world today.
2. The Kurds are the biggest stateless ethnolinguistic group in the world and fourth ethnolinguistic group in the Middle East.
3. The Kurds are living in very compact masses in the Middle East what means to create the state borders of some kind of Kurdistan in which the Kurdish majority will be included is not so difficult.
4. The Kurds are the only regional ethnic group which lives divided into five states but in each of them they live in very compact masses.
5. The Kurds are one of the most oppressed ethnic groups in the region of the Middle East.
6. According to the standards of the UN Charter and its principle of self-determination from the colonial rule after the WWII, the Kurds deserved their own independent national state much more in comparison with many nations who received independence after 1945.
Today, the Kurds are inhabiting Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Georgia and Iran as strong minority population and also living in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Tajikistan as dispersed diaspora from imagined Kurdistan. The population of Kurds today is estimated around 30 million people of whom eleven million lives in Turkey (20 per cent of Turkey’s population), in Iran four million (8 per cent out of Iran’s inhabitants), in Iraq 2,5 million (15 per cent of Iraqi population), in Syria 800.000 (8 per cent of Syria’s population) and in Georgia 400.000 percent (8 per cent out of total Georgia’s population). The Kurds are living in exclaves in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Turkmenistan.
A glimpse of history
The Kurds are of the Indo-European origin, descending from the antique-time Medians (Medes) who are well known to the ancient Greek and other writers and who are also mentioned in the Old Testament and originating from Mt. Zagros in the North-West Iran today. The Kurds are non-Arabic people and today mainly of the Sunni Islamic denomination. They became Islamized in the 7th century when the Muslim Arabs started to call them as the “Kurds” but arrived to the region of Kurdistan up to 3.000 years before the process of Islamization began. Today there are some 800 separate Kurdish tribes in Kurdistan together with the family clans [see Figure 1]. A belonging to certain clan or tribe is reflected by the last name of the person. Kurdistan was conquered in the 11th century by the Seljuk Turks and some 200 years later by the Mongols. Before the WWI started the area inhabited by the Kurds belonged to the Ottoman Empire.
Living for centuries in the Islamic Ottoman Sultanate the Kurds like all other Muslims in this state did not have any separate official ethnic identity except of the common Muslim one. Such practice is executed even today in Turkey in which all Muslims are simply treated as the ethnolinguistic Turks that is the best way of ethnic assimilation in this formally secular state. Therefore, the Kurds and their language, like of the Muslim Albanians for instance, are not recognized by Ankara and subsequently the Kurds in Turkey are not enjoying any minority status as simply they do not exist as such group. However, in the late 19th century the Ottoman Kurds became imbued by the spirit of nationalism and national identity as all other non-Turkish ethnic groups within the Sultanate. The Kurds entered the next century with almost completely formed common national identity based primarily on the language and culture but not on the religion (Sunni Islam). During the WWI they participated in the Ottoman army taking a part in the Armenian Genocide in 1915−1916(up to 1.500.000 murdered Christian Orthodox Armenians) that was organized by the Ottoman government of TalaatEnver-Pasha followed by the Greek Genocide in Asia Minor when there were around 300.000 killed Christian Orthodox Greeks.
The first international treaty which dealt with the “Kurdish Question” was the Treaty of Sèvres (August 10th, 1920) according to which an autonomous Kurdistan had to be established (but not an independent state as it is wrongly interpreted by many historians) [see Figure 2]. It is important to notice that the Kurdish delegation participated in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Nevertheless, this treaty became never materialized as the Ottoman Parliament never ratified it. Moreover, following the victorious military campaign led by Mustafa Kemal (later known as the “Father of the Turks” - Atatürk) in the Greco−Ottoman (Turkish) War of 1919−1922 the new peace treaty was signed with the Republic of Turkey in Lausanne (July 24th, 1923) in which the Kurds have not been mentioned at all [see Figure 3]. The Kurdish land was contrary even more partitioned as the Brits succeeded to get a mandate over the Mosul oilfields region in Iraq from the newly created (by them) the League of Nations.
Probably, the fact that Iraqi and Iranian parts of Kurdistan are rich oilfields is one of the crucial reasons why the Kurdish struggle for independent Kurdistan is brutally suppressed. The first Kurdish attempt to get independence in 1924−1932 was inspired by the inclusion of the areas of Mosul and Kirkuk into Iraq which was at that time under the British sphere of control and influence [see Figure 4].The second serious Kurdish revolt and fight for the independence occurred in 1962 as a part of a wider armed conflict from 1958 to 1974 caused by the revolution in Iraq as the new Iraqi government did not respect the Kurdish rights (as it was the case in all neighbouring countries populated by the Kurds). The 1962 Kurdish revolt in Iraq was ended by formal promises by the new Iraqi government to grant a kind of limited autonomy for the Kurds but new armed struggles once again broke out in 1975 caused by the arrest and deportation of the most prominent Kurdish national leader Mustafa al-Barzani (1903−1979) who was at the same time and a President of the Kurdistan Democratic Party - Iraq.
The first national-territorial autonomy: the “Iraqi Kurdistan”
TheIraqi-Iranian War of 1980−1988 was one of decisive periods of the development of the “Kurdish Question” in the Middle East. The Iraqi Kurds at the beginning benefited from the war as they have been supported and supplied by the Shia Iranian government in getting considerable territorial acquisitions in their struggle against the US-sponsored Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein. However, at the end of the war the Iraqi Kurds have been completely defeated fundamentally due to the fact that Saddam’s army extensively used the chemical weapons against them during a clampdown in March 1988. After the war, as protected by no one, the Iraqi Kurds experienced a great scale of oppression and brutality by the Iraqi regime. The Kurdish political and national leaders were imprisoned, tortured and killed. During the First Gulf War of 1990−1991 the Iraqi Kurds once again clashed with the security forces of Saddam Hussein but without great success.
The time of repression of the Iraqi Kurds by Saddam’s government ended with the Iraqi lost war in 1991 as the Iraqi Kurds enjoyed till the end of Saddam’s regime in 2003 (the Second Gulf War) an effective autonomy protected by the NATO’s forces in Turkey. Namely, in 1991 Iraq was forced to accept the UN’s declaration on the Kurdish national and territorial autonomy in the northern parts of Iraq. In fact, the North Iraq was proclaimed as a “safe haven” for the Kurds – a practice which was implemented two years later in the cases of three “safe zones” for the Muslim refugeesin Bosnia-Herzegovina including the town of Srebrenica as well. In practice, it meant that the Iraqi security forces north of the 36th Parallel in Iraq were not allowed to be present and in the case of the violation of this deal the NATO’s air forces from Turkey were responsible to attack them [see Figure 5]. Practically, the Kurdish controlled North Iraq was not under the real administration of the central power in Baghdad after the First Gulf War partially due to the fact that the US’s and the British air-forces enforced “no-fly zones” in order to protect Iraqi Shia and Kurdish population from the state terrorism by Saddam Hussein.
The first gained autonomy in history of the “Kurdish Question” resembled on the political-territorial sovereign autonomy of Kosovo Albanians in Serbia from 1974 to 1988. Thus, there were presidential and parliamentary elections in “Iraqi Kurdistan” which were never recognized by Baghdad differently to the cases of Kosovo’s elections which have been recognized as legitimate by Serbia’s authorities. Two strongest political parties appeared to be the Kurdish Patriotic Union (the KPU backed by Iran) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (the KDP). However, the Iraqi part of Kurdistan was very badly affected in economic terms by the international sanctions (a trade embargo) against Iraq of Saddam Hussein but also and by political frictions between two main parties in breakaway part of Iraq. Exactly due to these frictions the central authorities in Baghdad were able in August 1996 to regain a part of its sovereignty in this region as the KDP collaborated with Saddam Hussein in its struggle against the KPU. The effective functioning of the autonomy for the Iraqi Kurds was limited and for the reason that the Turkish regular army several times attacked the territory of the North Iraq in its combat with the Kurdish separatists in Turkey who were regularly using Iraq as a refugee territory. For instance, in 1999 and 2000 Turkey’s army was pursuingthe Kurdish separatists from Turkey in Iraq by entering the state territory of its eastern neighbour.
The Kurds are mostly discriminated and oppressed in Turkey in comparison with all present-day states of their residence. The Kurds are not recognized in Turkey as separate ethnolinguistic minority with their own language and culture regardless the fact that they compose one-fifth of total Turkey’s inhabitants and being together with the Greeks and the Armenians the oldest population in Turkey living in Anatolia almost 3.000 years before the first (Seljuk) Turks came there at the end of the 11th century [see Figure 6].
There are three fundamental specific reasons for the current Kurdish separatist movement in Turkeyout of the common Kurdish wish and right to have their own national state as one of the oldest ethnolinguistic people in both the region of the Middle East and the world:
1. Visible economic underdevelopment of the Kurdish eastern part of Turkey compared with the rest of the country as a result of asymmetriceconomic and development policy by Ankara.
2. Stubborn reluctance of any kind of the Turkish government to recognise the Kurdish separate existence as the ethnic group of its own specific language and culture as a result of the Ottoman/Turkish assimilation policy of all Muslim inhabitants of the country.
3. The Turkish rejection to recognize a minority status of the Kurds with granting a national-cultural or political autonomous status for Turkey’s Kurdistan that is a consequence of continuation of Ankara’s unlawful administration of part of ethnographic Kurdistan as such autonomy was internationally recognized by the Peace Treaty of Sèvres in 1920.
Ankara’s discrimination and oppressive anti-Kurdish policy led finally to the establishment of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK) in 1978 for the sake to fight for unrecognized the Kurdish minority rights using and guerrilla warfare as a mean to achieve its proclaimed national-political goals. Ankara from its point of political view, declared the PKK as both illegal and terrorist organization fighting for destruction of the legal and institutional system of the country what is true from a very technical viewpointas it was also true that the Kosovo Liberation Army (the KLA) was doing the same with Serbia’s legal and security system in the 1990s but in this case politically and morally supported by Ankara. Undoubtedly, the PKK committed numerous of terrorist actions across Turkey in which, according to the official governmental sources, around 6.000 people were killed only during the first decade of the PKK activity. The limited fruits of such PKK tactics finally came as Ankara was forced to recognize at least formally the Kurdish cultural distinctiveness if not ethnic and linguistic ones. However, here the crucial question is: How it is possible to have a separate culture without а separate language and even ethnicity? It is a widespread approach that basically separate ethnolinguistic features create and separate cultural identity as ethnolinguistic and cultural identities are usually understood as the synonyms but this formula does not work in Turkey in the case of the Kurds and several other (unrecognized) ethnolinguistic minorities.
Anyway, the PKK’s requirement for either territorial-political autonomy or independence of Kurdistan is unacceptable for Ankara. Subsequently, from the mid-1980s Turkey is directly faced with its own “Kosovo syndrome”. The Turkish authorities reciprocally answered to the PKK brutal warfare by also brutal treatment of the Kurdish civilians in the war zones in the East Turkey. Hundreds of the PKK activists are imprisoned and tortured each year by the Turkish state security forces which succeeded in 1999 (a year of NATO’s military intervention against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia declaratively for the sake to prevent state terrorism over Kosovo Albanian civilians) to arrest the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan (known as Apo) who became under the mockery trial sentenced to death with the state brutality against the Kurds continued. Nevertheless, only due to the direct pressure by the EU’s Commission in 2002 the pressure against the Kurds became to certain extent eased as Turkey as a candidate state for the EU’s membership was obliged to adopt new liberal laws by which the Kurds were granted with the rights to maintain their own culture followed by the protection against arbitrary imprisonments and politically coloured court investigations. In one word, in order to become the EU’s member state, one of the requirements is to “grant every citizen the right to cultural expression, including Turkey’s main minority people, the Kurds, whose aspirations had long been suppressed in pursuit of nation-building goals by successive Turkish governments”.
The state terrorism vs. sub-state terrorism
The Kurdish desire to establish Kurdistan as an independent state is opposed by all governments of the current states in which the Kurds live. In the region, especially Turkey is a country which undoubtedly suffered from different aspects of terrorism-related activities and different types of political violence. A long standing separatist conflict in Turkey caused thousands of lives and imposed the state terrorism or “terrorism from above” by Ankara against its own citizens in the East Anatolia including and a martial law in the 1980s. The similar situation was in Iraq during the time of Saddam Hussein. That was and in Turkey still it is a clash between two levels of terrorism: the state terrorism vs. sub-state terrorism. Both sides were and are making war crimes, executions, torture and destruction of material property but the reactions by the West, especially by the US’ administration, are of the double standard nature as accusing only the Kurdish side for terrorism (the PKK) but not and the Turkish government. However, for the matter of comparison, during the Kosovo Crisis in 1998−1999 both the West and the US saw the terror acts carried out only by Serbia’s government but not by the KLA – a typical terrorist organization as a replica of the PKK, the IRA, the ETA or the Hezbollah. Nevertheless, the most “strange” thing is that Ankara never saw the KLA as a terrorist group or organization and opening at such a way the doors for the moral legalization of the PKK as the freedom fighters political-revolutionary party. Ankara made even more serious precedent by recognizing the independence of Kosovo in 2008 – the state that is governed by ex-KLA’s commanders (as the US’s clients).Subsequently, there is no one reason not to recognize the independent Kurdistan governed by the PKK’s commanders with Abdullah Öcalan as the President (as HashimTachi – a commander of the KLA in the 1990s, became a President of the Republic of Kosovo in 2016).
A similar state terrorism policy emerged in Saddam’s Iraq as he time to time enacted oppression of the aboriginal Kurds like it was the case with the “al-Anfal Operation” that was carried out in 1982 (during the Iraqi-Iranian War of 1980−1988) when approximately 8.000 Kurds were arrested and executed. The most brutal military action against the Iraqi Kurds was done in 1988 when the army of Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons and destroyed more than 2.000 Kurdish villages but at that time without any US’s sanctions as Saddam was at that time an ally of Washington in the US’s struggle against the (Shia) Islamic Republic of Iran regardless the fact that the estimations of the killed ethnic Kurds in this organized genocide range up to 200.000.
Turkey’s policy upon “Kosovo Question” is already returned back as the boomerang to the Turkish home and is going most probably to be solved according to Kosovo pattern.
The Kurdish case after the WWII is only one of the examples that state nationalism is not any more cementing the state unity as it was well done, for example, in the case of France after the 1789−1794 Revolution. The Middle East Kurds, like many other “stateless cultures” or “stateless nations” in the world as the Basques or the Palestinians, will surely continue to pursue sovereignty and independence. The Iraqi Kurds, who supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, after 2003 were seeking the independence for Kurdistan but one of the most fundamental obstacles they faced was common resistance by Turkey, Syria and Iran, which fear that their own Kurds may also try to secede and at such a way to threaten the territorial integrity of these three Middle East states. However, it is only the question of time when some kind of Kurdistan is going to be proclaimed by the Kurds [see Figure 7] and recognized by at least one part of the “international community” similarly to the case of Kosovo in 2008.
Currently, the autonomous territory of Kurdistan Regional Government composed by three Kurdish-populated provinces in Iraq is the most prosperous territory for the proclamation of the first independent Kurdistan. However, during the current civil war in Syria, the Democratic Union Party of the Kurds in Syria established the People’s Council of the West Kurdistan on December 12th, 2011 and announced on December 21st, 2013 the “Rojava’s Constitution” what can be understood as the first step towards the proclamation of sovereignty for the West (Syrian) Kurdistan which is enough rich of oil to economically support its independence.
Diplomatic means, skills and techniques, as for instance personal representatives or envoys, probably will not help the Kurds to establish Kurdistan as the best mean for the Kurdish national security. Unfortunately, there are many examples that terrorism is much fruitful (coercive) instrument in political fight than diplomacy. We have to remember that, for instance, Israel was established in 1948 due to the Jewish-Zionist terrorism against the Brits who have the mandate over Palestine or the independence of Kosovo was finally achieved in 2008 primarily due to the Albanian terrorism supported by the West. Most probably, both the Palestinians and the Kurds (maybe also the Basques) can finally get national-state independence only by carrying out the terrorism. Kosovo Albanians in this case can serve as the “prosperous” encouraging example for any separatist movement in the world.
Finally, the Kurds today deserve to have their own independent national state and according to different criteria taken into account (number of the population, economic and resources potentials, aboriginality, oppression, etc.) even more than many smaller nations today in the world; for instance, the ethnic Latvians (Lats) became the independent nation (second independence) in 1991 despite having the total national (state) population of only 2,6 million (in comparison with 30 million of the Kurds) of whom approximately 30 per cent were the ethnic Russians with no source of fuel and with a very few natural resources.
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Prof. Dr Vladislav B. Sotirović
Institute of Political Sciences
Figure 1: Tribal and family clans’ dispersion of the Kurds in the Middle East and the Southern Caucasus
Figure 2: Treaty of Sèvres (August 10th, 1920)
Figure 3: Treaty of Lausanne (July 24th, 1923)
Figure 4: The French and British zones of direct control and influence in the Middle East between two world wars
Figure 5: “No Fly Zone” north of the 36th Parallel
Figure 6: Areas populated by the Kurds in Turkey
Figure 7: Kurdistan
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