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Kurdistan is a region with a group of people that flows into Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. The Kurds in Iraq have de facto autonomy.


The Kurds are a people divided. Inhabiting an area that spans three time zones in five countries, the Kurds are a classic example of the principle of “divide and conquer” in action. Despite numbering almost 30 million, in every country they inhabit they are a persecuted minority, without exception. Were they all united in an independent Kurdistan, the resulting nation-state would be larger and more populous than most of its neighbors. Obviously, then, Kurdish nationalism is viewed as a threat by the other countries in the region. Instead, the Kurds are denied basic human rights, including even the freedom to speak their own language, and have been the victims of violence, genocide, and the only use of chemical weapons since the First World War.

Fortunately for the Kurds’ oppressors, Kurdish unity is not on the horizon. Factionalism is rampant in Kurdistan. In Turkey, the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), led by Abdullah Ocalan, until very recently was waging a campaign of terror against Turks and Kurdish ‘collaborators’ alike. In northern Iraq, Mullah Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) fought a bloody power struggle with Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) for nearly four years, until a power-sharing agreement was reached in 1998. The KDP also frequently clashes with the PKK.

These political divisions are deep, but not nearly so deep as the divisions of tribalism. On several occasions in Kurdish history, one or more of the larger tribes were able to build sufficient support for a nationalist movement to have a fighting chance at success. Without exception, each of these movements was put down by other Kurds in rival tribes, because they couldn’t bear to let their enemies have that victory. Kurdish nationalism has time and time again been the victim of tribal rivalries. Of course, the Kurds’ enemies have been all too willing to use that against them, playing one tribe against the other to prevent them from presenting a united front.

In recent years, Kurdish nationalist forces of various stripes have been most active in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. The only Kurd-controlled territory in the world lies in northern Iraq, and a bloody separatist movement in Turkey has claimed more than 30,000 lives so far. It is in these areas that the “Kurdish question” has resulted in the most strife, and it is upon these areas that this paper shall focus.

The Iraqi Kurds

The story of the struggle of the Kurds in modern Iraq is to a large degree the story of the Barzani tribe, especially Mullah Mustafa Barzani. No other single individual has had so great an effect on the Iraqi Kurds’ destiny as he and his tribe.

In 1943, he led a revolt against Iraqi authority which had some success until the intervention of the British Royal Air Force drove them into Iran in 1946. There, with Soviet assistance and protection, the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad was being formed, the Soviets hoping to form an “independent” Kurdish state which would then “voluntarily” join the Soviet Union along the Azerbaijani model. Slightly less than a year later, the Soviets withdrew their forces from Iran, and the embryonic Kurdish state was overrun by the Iranian army. Barzani and his followers were forced to withdraw yet again, this time to the Soviet Union, but not before forming the Iraqi KDP, a “Marxist-Leninist inspired” party along the lines of the Iranian KDP, which is to this day the dominant Kurdish party in Iraq, as well as surrounding countries.

To make a very long story short, the period from the collapse of the Mahabad Republic to the Iran-Iraq war was marked by periods of greater or lesser Kurdish autonomy within Iraq punctuated by occasional violent uprisings, quickly put down by government forces. With the outbreak of war in the early 1980’s, Saddam Hussein felt it necessary to take harsher measures against the Kurds, particularly in light of a certain amount of cooperation between some Kurdish factions and the Iranian government. On March 16, 1988, Iraqi forces carried out the first of a series of chemical attacks on Kurdish villages. Over the next several months, anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 Kurds were killed. The exact figure will probably never be known.

In the wake of the stunning defeat of the Iraqi army in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the Shi’ia minority population in the south and the Kurds in the north simultaneously rose up in opposition to Hussein. According to Mullah Massud Barzani, son of Mustafa and heir to the leadership of the KDP, “The uprising came from the people themselves. We didn’t expect it.” The Iraqi army, particularly the Republican Guard, again crushed this uprising. This led to the American Operation Provide Comfort and the establishment of Kurdish “safe havens” in northern Iraq, as well as the establishment of “no-fly zones” in both the north and the south.

These developments were by no means enthusiastically welcomed by all members of the international community. China, especially, as well as the Soviet Union, feared that these measures amounted to meddling in the internal affairs of nation-states and as such were a violation of the principle of state sovereignty.

Today, the Kurds of northern Iraq enjoy some measure of self-rule. Under the protection of American and British warplanes, Kurds live in two enclaves outside the reach of Saddam Hussein. One, consisting of the Dohuk and Hewler (Erbil) regions under the control of the KDP, the other centered on Suleimani ruled by the PUK. Talks aimed at consolidating the two and establishing a united government have to date been unsuccessful. Political and tribal rivalries surrounding the two parties have so far conspired to keep the Kurds divided.

Of course, Hussein and his Baathist government consider these territories the sovereign territory of the Iraqi state. The Iraqi Kurds are keenly aware that the withdrawal of American and British protection would likely result in a quick end to Kurdish autonomy, just as the Soviet withdrawal in 1947 did in Iran. If the two rival parties in Kurdistan could set aside their internal differences and establish a united, democratic government, the chances for international recognition of their regime would increase tremendously. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely to happen in the near future.

Elections originally scheduled for late 1999 have been postponed ad nauseum. If and when those elections ever do take place, there is a very real danger that the losing party will simply ignore the results, potentially setting off yet another round of violence. In that situation, it is questionable whether or not the Western powers would continue to protect them. The Kurds, then, are in a lose-lose scenario. Not much progress can be made on the international front until elections are held, but those elections are just as likely to be the catalyst for the eventual destruction of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan that exists today.

The Kurds of Turkey

The story of the Kurds in Turkey is, if anything, even more tragic than that of their Iraqi cousins, because in Iraq, at least, the Kurds were never under any illusions about their government’s attitude toward them. In Turkey, the Kurds were key allies in the fight for Turkish nationalism in the aftermath of the First World War, only to be betrayed and relegated to second-class citizenship once that fight was won.

In 1919, the occupying British sent a representative into Kurdistan with the goal of countering Bolshevik activities in the region. That man was Mustafa Kemal, later known as Ataturk. Immediately upon his arrival he launched his war of Turkish liberation by appealing to all Muslims to rise up and drive the infidel invaders from the land. As Morris & Bulloch write in No Friends But the Mountains, “thus, the Turkish war of independence, which was to lead to the cultural suppression of the Kurds and the total secularization of Turkey, was launched in Kurdistan under the banner of Islam.” The Kurds fought alongside the Turks because they believed they would be able to secure their autonomy within a revitalized Ottoman union of Turks and Kurds. Once victory was assured, however, Kemal declared, “The state is a Turkish state.”

Under the terms of the Treaty of Sevres, signed by the Ottoman regime, an independent Kurdish state was to have been created, with certain provisions. Once the Ottoman regime was swept away in favor of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal made it plain that no agreement signed by the Ottomans would be recognized by his government. Instead, an alternate treaty was signed, the Treaty of Lausanne. Under this treaty, no mention was made of the Kurds at all, but spoke only of the rights of non-Muslim minorities, a category which excluded the Kurds.

Since that time, the Turkish government has done everything in its power to abolish every trace of Kurdish identity. Until recently the official line was that there was, in fact, no such thing as Kurds at all, just “mountain Turks who had forgotten their language.” Until 1991, it was a crime punishable by years in prison to speak Kurdish under any circumstances at all, or even to merely imply the existence of the Kurds or Kurdistan. In one of the worst instances, a team from the organization Doctors Without Borders spent five months in prison for possession of a cassette in Turkish and a document in French about the Kurds.

During the period from 1925 to 1938, southeastern Turkey was rocked by three separate Kurdish rebellions against Kemalist oppression. The brutality of the government’s response to these uprisings was so great that the Kurdish movement in Turkey was not rebuilt until the liberalism of the 1950’s, and armed resistance was not seen until the 1970’s.

In 1978, Abdullah Ocalan, a dropped-out political science student from Ankara University, founded a group he called the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The goal of this group was the establishment of an independent Kurdistan governed by the ideologies of Marx and Lenin. From 1984 to 2000, the PKK waged a bloody war against Turkish rule. Unfortunately, most of the 35,000 casualties in this campaign were not their rulers in Ankara, but the children and families of those Kurds they believed were collaborating with the government. These tactics earned the PKK a place on the US State Department’s official list of terrorist organizations. The Turkish government, however, was far from innocent in that bloodletting. Thousands of Kurds and suspected sympathizers were arrested, abused, tortured, and killed. Many simply disappeared. Support for the PKK fell among the general Kurdish population when their ruthlessness was made plain, but rose again when it became obvious that the government was capable of being at least as vicious.

On February 15, 1999, Ocalan was abducted in Nairobi and immediately handed over to Turkish authorities. His subsequent conviction on a charge of treason, followed by his renunciation of the use of violence resulted in the PKK laying down their arms a year later, saying they would continue to press their cause “within the framework of peace and democracy.” Ocalan has been sentenced to death, but that sentence has been suspended pending a review by the European Court of Human Rights.

Turkey’s dilemma is this: Ocalan is widely viewed by the Turkish population as Public Enemy Number One, comparable to Americans’ feelings about Osama bin Laden. If the Turkish government fails to execute him, it is very likely that the current government will fall, to be replaced by a more hard-line regime. If they do execute him, it’s entirely likely that the PKK, which recently laid down its arms, will resume its campaign of violence. Additionally, any chance that Turkey may have had of being admitted to the European Union will be gone for the foreseeable future. Turkey must weigh its economic interests against its interest in punishing terrorists.

Meanwhile, the Turkish government continues its campaign against the PKK, even after they have withdrawn across the border into Iraq. The Turkish military will accept nothing less than the absolute surrender or eradication of the PKK. Repeated attacks by the Turkish army and air force on PKK camps in Iraqi territory have left dozens dead, allegedly including many civilians. Despite this brazen violation of Iraqi sovereignty, in light of its goals it cannot be assumed that the Iraqi government is opposed to the operation. Conclusion

For the moment, Kurdistan is a region of relative peace. The KDP and PUK in Iraq are enjoying some semblance of peaceful coexistence outside of Baghdad’s rule. In Turkey, the PKK has agreed to an end to violence and to use peaceful means to its ends, and the Turkish government is showing signs of lifting the most onerous of the anti-Kurdish laws. Kurds in other areas, particularly Iran and Syria, are also relatively unmolested for the time being. The danger is in the fragility of all these arrangements. In every case, there is great potential for tragedy and a resumption of bloodshed. In Turkey, if Ocalan is executed as planned, or if the electoral process in northern Iraq goes awry, the deep divisions in the Kurdish people could easily trigger a new round of killing.

The prospects for Kurdish nationalism remain dim. Even the western powers that protect the Kurds in Iraq will go no further than support for Kurdish autonomy, as opposed to independence. If the Kurds could show themselves capable of rising above petty tribal and partisan differences and present a united, nationalist front to the world, as the Palestinians have done, they would likely be able to garner a great deal more international support for their cause. Sadly, the opposite has consistently been the case. It is widely believed that even if a Kurdish state could be formed, it would quickly come to ruin as a result of the deep divisions among the Kurds themselves. Until that changes, the best they can hope for is an end to their status as persecuted minorities in the countries they call home.

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This page was last modified 21:29, 16 April 2006 by dKosopedia user Allamakee Democrat. Based on work by Andrew Oh-Willeke and dKosopedia user(s) Thinker375. Content is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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