Who Are the Kurds?

Who Are the Kurds?

By: Ismael Hossein-zadeh

Despite the occasional media coverage, usually prompted by periodic wars and conflicts, the Kurds remain a people seen but not known. Who are they?

Long before the kings of Persia, the caliphs of Baghdad, and the sultans of the Ottoman Empire came to sit in their palaces, the Kurds settled in the valleys of northeastern Mesopotamia and the surrounding mountains that lie astride the borders separating present-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and the former USSR. For thousands of years these brave and noble people have held to the love of their identity and the love of their freedom. They fought the Sumerians, Assyrians, Persians, Crusaders, Mongols and Turks for their freedom from oppression and assimilation. And they gave Islam one of its best defenders—Saladin (Salah El-Din Ayyubi), who battled Richard the Lion-Hearted and the Crusaders to regain Jerusalem in 1187.

The Kurds are a people of Indo-European stock who have lived in a geographically cohesive area called Kurdistan, and who constitute a nation with a distinct language, culture, and heritage. By the seventh century, they were writing poems in their own language and introducing music into the palaces of Arab princes. Ensuing literary works were at certain historical periods of high quality. For example, Ahmed Khani’s 17th century masterpiece, Memozin , continues to rank among the chief works of epic literature.

Despite their long and proud history, this ancient people have the unfortunate distinction of being perhaps the only community of over 28 million which has not enjoyed some form of national state in the post-World War I period.

While the Kurds, like many other non-Turkish peoples, were officially part of the Ottoman Empire prior to World War I, they in fact enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. The Kurdo-Ottoman pact formally recognized sixteen independent Kurdish principalities, with many of the attributes of sovereignty: they could even strike coinage, they did not have to pay tribute to the sultan, and they were not accountable to him.

Although the defeat and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire during World War I gave birth to a number of independent nation-states of the non-Turkish minorities (for example, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine/Israel), the Kurds who were also promised self-determination were actually denied this right. The Treaty of Sevres, signed by the allies and the Turkish government on August 10, 1920, specifically stipulated the right of the Kurds to self-determination.

Unfortunately, this promise was soon rendered meaningless by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which effectively divided Kurdistan among Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. The Iranian Kurds had long ago been separated from the rest of Kurdistan in the early 16th century (1514) when the Ottoman and Persian Safavid Empires set their borders right in the middle of Kurdistan, following a long and bitter war.

As far as the Kurds are concerned, the Treaty of Lausanne represented a deal between Britain and Turkey regarding the division of Kurdish territories: as Britain detached the oil-rich province of Mosul from Kurdistan and attached it to its mandate (Iraq), it in return gave Turkey a free hand to subject the rest of Kurdistan to increased oppression. Soon after the Treaty, Mustafa Kemal, the nationalist leader of modern Turkey, banned all expressions of Kurdish national identity such as art, music, literature and, in particular, the use of their mother tongue. To deprive the Kurds of all rights, Kemal passed laws that denied altogether the very existence of the Kurds in Turkey, by calling them “mountain Turks”! That policy, essentially written into the Turkish constitution, continues to subject the Kurds to forced assimilation to this day. For example, a recent report on the continuation of that policy in Turkey notes: “To date, 3,124 Kurdish villages have been destroyed, and more than 3 million of their residents have been forced to become refugees, either in Kurdistan or abroad” (U.S. Representative Frank Pallone, New Jersey, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, May 1, 1997).

In return for the forced attachment of the Kurdish oil-rich province of Mosul to Iraq, Britain promised the Iraqi Kurds national autonomy. A 1922 joint Iraqi-British declaration recognized the Kurds’ right to “form a Kurdish government within the Iraqi frontiers.” But when the Iraqi government reneged on this promise and the Kurds rebelled, the British Royal Air force aided the Iraqi army to crush the rebellion—once in 1932, and again in 1945.

This cruel breakup of Kurdistan and denial of their national identity and has been the source of the continuing struggle of the Kurdish people to reestablish their historical heritage. In Iraq alone there have been some eleven such insurrections since southern Kurdistan, now called Iraqi Kurdistan, was forcefully attached to Iraq at the end of World War I.

Surrounded and/or ruled by regimes hostile to their aspirations for self-determination, the Kurds have always welcomed gestures of assistance from abroad. Sadly, however, geopolitical power players in the region have often taken advantage of their desire for liberty, and their eagerness to embrace any external support they are offered. For example, in the early 1970s, the United States collaborated with the Shah of Iran to supply the Iraqi Kurds with arms in their resistance against a military onslaught ordered from Baghdad. That struggle was prompted by Baghdad’s default on an important autonomy agreement it had signed with the Kurds in March 1970. When the Kurds revolted in protest, the U.S. and the Shah maneuvered to derive political dividends from their national cause for their own purposes.

Their “support” of the Kurds was therefore designed not to help them gain their national autonomy, but to teach the Iraqi regime a lesson for (a) having just signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, and (b) making repeated territorial claims concerning the border waterway between Iran and Iraq. A 1976 report to the U.S. Congress, the famous Pike Report, provides a powerful testimony of how the Kurds were used:

“Neither the foreign head of state [the Shah of Iran] nor the President [Richard Nixon] and Dr. Kissinger desired victory for our clients [the Kurds]…. They merely hoped to ensure that the insurgents would be capable of sustaining a level of hostility just high enough to sap the resources of the neighboring state of Iraq.” The report added: “Our clients, who were encouraged to fight, were not told of this policy. It was a cynical enterprise, even in the context of a clandestine aid operation.”

In March 1975, when the Kurds gained the upperhand in the fight and forced the Iraqi army to retreat, the U.S. and the Shah abruptly dumped the Kurds in exchange for the Iraqi concession on the border waterway between Iran and Iraq. As a result, the rebellion turned to rout, and the Kurdish people were once again subjected to all kinds of brutalities by the Iraqi regime:  expelling some 300,000 Kurds to Iran; demolishing about 4,000 Kurdish villages and deporting hundreds of thousands of the Kurds to other parts of Iraq; poison-gassing some 5,000 Kurds in the city of Halabcha in August 1988; deforesting the hills, burning hundred-year-old walnut trees and choking springs with concrete so the Kurds could not live off their land. All these brutal measures were taken as part of the genocidal policy of “Arabization of Kurdistan.”

Because of their thirst to realize their dream of national identity, the Kurds have frequently been used by the major world powers for their own geopolitical purposes in the region. Each of these powers has at one point or another offered help and promised self-determination “when the job was done.” Each time, although the Kurds fought bravely and honorably, they were abandoned in their struggle for freedom. Successive regimes of the countries where the Kurds live have systematically subjected them to forced assimilation and genocidal schemes, while the world powers have stood by in silent compliance.

The Kurds have never made territorial claims over other peoples’ lands. All the atrocities committed against them are simply because they demand the right to be identified with their historic heritage and culture, and the economic resources in the lands where they have lived for centuries.

Is this too much to ask? It is not; except for the fact that the geopolitical and economic interests of the big world powers are most often a function of their propping up the dictatorial regimes that oppress the Kurds and other ethnic minorities. Considerations of “regional stability” based on dictatorial rule, or nefarious geopolitical calculations, should not prevail over moral obligations regarding democracy and the rights of various peoples to self-determination. The suffering of the Kurds must come to an end, and the assimilation and annihilation of this ancient people must be stopped.