History of Kurds driving future of Iraq war


A magic moment was missed 87 years ago in Kurdistan. Because it was missed, there is no Kurdistan. And, you could say, because there is no Kurdistan, Turkish troops are threatening to create what would be the latest of the long list of crises imperiling the misbegotten U.S. project in Iraq.

For a view from Minnesotans of Kurdish and Turkish origin, see article by Abdi Aynte.

In the past month, Kurdish separatists in cross-border raids killed dozens of Turkish soldiers then retreated to their hideouts in the mountains of northern Iraq. Turkey threatens to pursue them across the border, which would destabilize what has been the most peaceful part of occupied Iraq. Washington is urging restraint on its Turkish ally.

This not an effort by me to justify the cross-border raids, nor the killing of Turkish troops, nor the threat that all of this poses to the misbegotten mission: But the border in question would not exist if a Kurdish state had been established in the magic moment. All of this borders on incomprehensible unless you know the sad tale of Kurdistan, a tale that gives rise to a traditional saying: “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” Here’s a brief introduction:

Kurds are an ethnically distinct people with their own language and culture. They are the largest ethnic group in the Mideast that doesn’t have a national homeland. Kurds have, for millennia, inhabited the mountainous region that straddles the modern borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. They are the largest ethnic minority in at least three and maybe all four of those countries. The total Kurdish population is usually estimated around 25 million, with the largest portion (perhaps 14 million) in Turkey and the second largest (5.5 million) in Iraq.

Except for brief moments, the Kurds have not enjoyed meaningful independence or self-governance for about 25 centuries, and have been conquered, dominated and controlled by their larger and more powerful Arab, Persian and Turkish neighbors (plus the various outside groups, from the Mongols to the Americans) who have conquered or controlled part or all of the region.

Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims. Saladin, the 12th century sultan who defeated the crusaders and became one of the greatest heroes of Islamic history, was a Kurd. But let’s fast forward several centuries to get to that magic moment that was missed.

It occurs in the aftermath of of World War I, when the modern map of the Mideast was created.

Heading into WWI, the Ottoman Turks were the dominant regional power. Most Kurds lived under Ottoman rule. The Ottomans lost the war; the victorious powers (mostly Britain and France) disassembled the empire and redrew the map of the Mideast, creating several new countries from former Ottoman provinces.

This was the supposedly great Wilsonian moment, when previously subjugated people would enjoy the right of national self-determination, although this principle — especially as it affected small nations — was often trampled by the interests of bigger powers.

In the Treaty of Sevres (1920) the defeated Turkish Sultan Mehmed VI agreed to boundaries for the post-imperial Turkish nation that basically included only the territory on which ethnic Turks lived. It did not include the Kurdish region. The Treaty of Sevres provided autonomy for the Kurds, with a prospect of an independent Kurdish state.

Meanwhile, the British had control of the the three former Ottoman provinces of Mosul (mostly Kurdish), Baghdad (mostly Sunni Arab) and Basra (mostly Shia Arab). In “A Peace to End All Peace,” David Fromkin’s highly-regarded book length treatment of the post-Ottoman shenanigans, Fromkin wrote that the British were torn between those who wanted to create an independent Kurdish state out of the Mosul province, and those who wanted to make it part of the new British project that would become the nation of Iraq.

The magic moment

Imagining counter-history is always risky, but it seems quite possible, even likely, that if the Kurds of southeastern Turkey and the Kurds of Northern Iraq had been granted the autonomy and self-determination rights that was almost within their grasp at this magic moment, they would have combined, formed a Kurdish state that would have and been and might still be home to the great majority of the world’s Kurds.

A medium-sized nation (a lot bigger than Kuwait, which gained independence as part of this overall story) would have had oil resources (from the Iraqi portion) and water resources (from the Turkish portion). If it could have lasted, it would almost certainly be less troublesome than those two Kurdish portions are now. As best I can tell, it would likely be a pro-American enclave (certainly the Iraqi Kurds have been the most pro-American group in Iraq and perhaps in the whole Mideast) and likely have an above-average chance, at least for that region, of becoming a prosperous, stable democracy.

But the moment passed. The Turkish Parliament never ratified the Treaty of Sevres. Kemal Ataturk took power in Turkey, freed Turkey from the occupation and control of the victorious World War I powers, abolished the sultanate, established the Turkish Republic, and successfully voided the Treaty of Sevres.

Ataturk pushed for a renegotiation, which led to the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), providing for a larger Turkey that included the Kurdish region and its valuable water resources. (Turkey, to this day, relies on that water, which is among the reasons it will always oppose Kurdish autonomy or independence). There was a rebellion in the Kurdish region, but Ataturk crushed it.

As they finalized the borders of Iraq, the Brits decided to include the Mosul Province, relegating the Kurds of that region to minority status in a predominantly Arab nation. There are various theories about why the Brits made that decision, including the belief that the oil British geologists believed existed around Kirkuk would finance the puppet regime that Britain was seting up in Iraq. Kurds revolted against British rule, but were crushed

After the Magic

For most of the rest of the 20th century, Ataturk and his successors tried to eradicate the idea of a separate Kurdish ethnicity within Turkey. Words referring to Kurdishness were banned from official use (Kurds were officially designated as “Mountain Turks”), the teaching of Kurdish language in schools, the use of Kurdish in newspapers and radio were banned and other expressions of Kurdish culture, such as the wearing of traditional garb, were repressed. Not until the 1990s, were these ethnocidal policies relaxed.

During and immediately after World War II, the Kurds of Iran declared an independent “Republic of Mahabad,” with the sponsorship of the Soviet Union, which occupied Iran. But once the Soviet troops left, the Iranian government crushed the secessionists.

Sure enough, an oil field discovered by British geologist in 1927 near Kirkuk was the richest in the world at the time, but although the oil was under Kurdish land, the Iraqi portion of Kurdistan got no special benefit, and generally suffered from mistreatment at the hands of the Arab government.

Saddam came to power promising a new, better deal for the Kurds, including cultural recognition and even autonomy within Iraq. But the deal fell through. Then, during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi Kurds sided with Iran. Once the war ended, Saddam retaliated with the so-called Anfal campaign of death and destruction against the Kurds, which included the notorious use of chemical weapons.

The Kurdish Workers Party or PKK, which has conducted the recent cross-border attacks against Turkey is the most overtly nationalist Kurdish group at present. It’s not clear, at least to me, how widespread secessionist sentiment is among the Kurds of the four countries in which most Kurds live. I assume that if a real opportunity to create an independent Kurdistan arose, the sentiment would be there.

The Iraqi Kurds, at least publicly, have repudiated secessionism and say their goal is an autonomous region within Iraq, which they have pretty much achieved at present. The Bush administration opposes any breakup of Iraq and has been sensitive to Turkish worries that too much Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq will stimulate similar demands in Southeastern Turkey.

One of the main Iraqi Kurdish political factions expresses support for the PKK, while the other (led by current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani) emphasizes the need for peace with Turkey. There’s no reason to think an independent Kurdish state is in the cards. But if one had been created in that fluid moment after World War I, how might the last 80 years of the history of the region been affected?