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The Kurdistan situation, part I: History

9 min read

While I’ve spent the last couple days writing about events in Spain, it’s important to remember the other major separatist/independence news story: Kurdistan. So, while Catalonia engages in am organized “work stoppage” (to avoid restrictions on official “general strikes”), let’s take a look at Kurdistan

As before, let’s start off with some history and background. But this time, it’s going to be a full diary of history. If you’re not interested in what happened in 1534, or why the Kurds are bitter about the end of World War I, or why the US can’t seem to pick a side consistently… then this diary is not for you. For everyone else, if you thought the Catalan situation was complicated, hold on to your seats…

Who, for example, are the Kurds? Regional myth identifies them as the descendants of 500 local women and King Solomon’s djinns. In reality, the Kurds are an ethnic group, primarily located in parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. They speak their own language, Kurdish, which is linguistically a Northwest Iranian language, although its evolution involves some unclear intermediate steps. Indeed, much of the early history of the Kurds is very much unclear. The name “Kurd” itself is (probably) derived from an Middle Persian word for “nomad”. Modern scholarly consensus is that the Kurdish ethnic group formed from the union and intermarriage of several formerly nomadic tribes, probably first coming into existence as a separate entity in the 7th century. 

These early Kurds raised sheep and cattle in Adiabene, the region around what is now Erbil in Iraq (Irbil on the CIA map at the top). This region was disrupted by the Muslim conquest of Persia, which reached Adiabene in 641. The Kurds were involved in several broad periods of insurrection and unrest over the next several centuries. By the 10th century, there was a small collection of functionally independent Kurdish holdings. There’s some historical evidence to suggest they were on the path to a more unified nation. But then, like everyone else in the area, they were conquered by the Seljiuk Empire. This period is important in Kurdish history, however, because the Seljiuks established Kurdistan as an administrative province, giving a sense of unity to the region for the first time. As the Seljiuk Empire then crumbled, the Kurds in modern-day Syria rose to positions of actual power as the Ayyubid dynasty. Many people are likely familiar with the Crusader-era leader Saladin; he was in fact Kurdish. The Kurds really do have a long history of military prowess.

But then Kurdistan was conquered by the Mongols.

Then it was conquered by the Persian Safavids. And that’s when things get ugly. Well, uglier. A lot uglier. In the 16th century, the Safavids were at war with the Ottomans, leaving the Kurds in the middle. The Safavids forcibly resettled Kurds away from the border as part of a strategy to deny the Ottoman army access to supplies (that they would otherwise gain through conquest). Around 1534, the Safavid Shah Tahmasp I took this policy to a new level of scorched earth, demanding the complete removal of everyone from the Kurdish regions, as the Ottomans pushed forward, combined with the destruction of all crops and the razing of settlements of any size. Kurdish resistance (and that of other ethnic groups) was met with village-scale massacres. Also, the strategy didn’t work, because it turns out that enemy armies can easily conquer empty, uncontested land.

Under the Ottoman empire, Kurdish resistance was forcibly suppressed, often violently, which seems to be a theme for the region… because it is. For about 17 years beginning in 1847, Ottoman mismanagement permitted an actual independent Kurdistan to exist, from Kirkuk in the south, almost to Yerevan in the north. It ended the way you probably expect. 

After WW I, the Western powers forcibly dissolved the Ottoman Empire, initially under the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres. This treaty explicitly provided for the creation of an independent Kurdistan. However, there was considerable disagreement about precisely where to draw the borders, including a dispute between Kurdish interests and Armenian ones. Ultimately, in order to resolve other problems with the Sèvres solution, that treaty was replaced with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which permitted the creation of modern-day Turkey. And… just sort of neglected to mention anything about establishing Kurdistan. Sorry, folks, we were just kidding about your country!

Kurds finding themselves in Turkey weren’t thrilled with the situation, as they viewed the new nation as essentially the Ottoman Empire with the serial numbers filed off. A cycle of local revolts followed by brutal oppression by the government in Ankara began as early as 1925. As this situation escalated, Turkey refused to recognize the Kurds as an ethnic group whatsoever. It’s really hard to overstate how Orwellian some of this was; for some time, it was illegal in Turkey to even describe the people in question as “Kurds” or “Kurdish” because by law they were renamed “Mountain Turks”. In 1980, use of the Kurdish language was banned, even in private, a band not lifted until 1991 (and still partially in-force: private schools may now teach Kurdish, for example, but public schools do not permit its use). The cycle of violence led to the formation of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in 1978, which took zero time before evolving from a political party to a nascent terrorist organization. In the 1980s and 1990s, the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government devolved into a hot war; the PKK would blow something up, and the Turks would raze a Kurdish village. Along the way, the US and EU branded the PKK officially a terrorist organization, although the UN, China, India, Russia, and a handful of other states continually declined to do so. In 1994, a Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish parliament made a statement at her swearing-in ceremony: “I shall struggle so that the Kurdish and Turkish peoples may live together in a democratic framework.” You’d think that would be non-controversial, but the other members of parliament shouted her down, called her a terrorist, and tried to call for her arrest. In general, if you’re looking for which side is the “good guys” in the Turkey/PKK conflict, you’ll… have to keep looking. Both sides have legitimate reasons to believe they are in the right, but both sides spent decades rolling around in utterly indefensible human rights abuses. Beginning in 2013, the PKK agreed to a peace process where they would withdraw their weapons and paramilitary forces to Iraqi Kurdistan in exchange for peace; that agreement broke down in 2015. The PKK killed two police officers in Ceylanpınar (near the Syrian border), who they claimed were working with ISIS and had been involved with an ISIS bombing in Suruç earlier in the year. Either as retribution, or just because it’s how Turkish President Erdogan rolls, the Turkish military briefly paused from bombing ISIS to bomb PKK facilities in Iraqi Kurdistan. Regardless of which side (if any) you believe, that conflict is back on.

Meanwhile, for awhile in the 1920s, Iraqi Kurdistan was nominally independent, but you know how that story is going to end. And the situation didn’t really get better for Kurds in Iraq afterward. In 1975, Iran and Iraq signed an agreement to cut off their Kurdish regions from supply shipments and to engage in, essentially, Israeli-style settlement construction in traditionally Kurdish areas. During the Iran-Iraq war, the situation degraded further, with Saddam Hussein essentially waging civil war against the Kurds. This culminated in the Al-Anfal campaign (named after a passage in the Qur’an and essentially meaning Spoils of War), where the Iraqi government waged near-genocidal war against the Kurds. This famously included the destruction of the Kurdish town of Halabja in a chemical weapon attack involving both mustard gas and various nerve gas agents, but also included the establishment of Kurdish concentration camps and no shortage of mass executions. Figures vary, but likely somewhere around 100,000 Kurds were killed; Sweden, Norway, and the UK officially consider Al-Anfal to have been a genocide. Following that, a political split divided Iraqi Kurds between two political parties: the KDP in the northwest and the PUK in the southeast; this led to actual civil war in the 1994-97 (or thereabouts), although after the Second Persian Gulf War, the two sides have moved at least somewhat towards a unified middle ground.

In Iran, the situation has been historically better because many Iranian Kurds have largely viewed themselves as part of Iran’s history. That aside, in 1941, a joint British and Soviet army invaded Iran as part of the widening of WW II. Officially neutral, Iran was believed to be sympathetic to the Axis powers, so the invasion was calculated to seize oil for the war effort and depose the Iranian ruler Reza Shah. After WW II ended, the Soviets retained control of part of this region, and in 1946, propped up an independent Kurdish nation called the Republic of Mahabad, in what is now northwest Iran. This was intended as a prelude to annexation, but the Kurds disagreed with Soviet political policy; regardless, the perceived closeness of the relationship between Mahabad and Moscow led the Western powers to back Iran. For their part, the Soviets considered the experiment more trouble than it was worth, and cut a deal with the Iranians to leave the province to its fate. President Qazi Muhammad was executed by the Iranians, and literature written in Kurdish was seized and destroyed (including the burning of the Kurdish library in Mahabad). The leader of the Mahabad military survived and returned to Iraq; his name was Mustafa Barzani, and he’ll be rather important when we get to Part II. Since then, however, the the Iranian government has (mostly) tolerated their Kurdish population so long as they avoid any sort of push for nationalism. At all. And they mean it.

American involvement in the region has been, shall we say, inconsistent. We opposed the Kurds in the 1940s, when we viewed them as erstwhile political puppets of the Soviet Union. Then, the US backed the Kurds against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. But at the same time, we deemed the PKK a terrorist organization and gave the Turkish government our full support, largely turning a blind eye toward their own human rights violations. After we ousted Hussein, we essentially supported the Iraqi Kurds, who de facto ran their own independent country, although we explicitly did not support their desire for sovereignty, because we’re still ostensibly allies with the Baghdad government. With the rise of ISIS’s would-be caliphate, we deemed the Kurds in Iraq and Syria to be explicit allies (and armed them!), while still telling now-NATO member Turkey that we 100% agree that there will be no support for Turkish Kurdish nationalism. When Turkish and Kurdish forces periodically took time off from their busy schedule to bomb each other instead of ISIS, the US government just… sort of… found other things to pay attention to. 

And that brings us to where the regional situation was, say, 2 weeks ago. The Iraqi Kurds control a big chunk of the country, including profitable oil fields. They, and the Syrian Kurdish population are well armed and well-trained, thanks to a proud local military tradition and a history of use as a Western proxy against first Saddam and then ISIS. Meanwhile, the Turkish Kurdish population remains deeply disadvantaged and subject to widespread discrimination… and that doesn’t even take into account renewed hostilities with the PKK. All told, the ethnic Kurdish population in the Middle East has centuries of reasons to distrust (at best) or outright detest the people who run the nations of the modern Middle East, and a long-deferred dream of an independent homeland.

In Part 2, which I’ll likely get up tomorrow unless there’s major activity in Spain, the Iraqi Kurds vote for independence… and if you’ve read this whole history, I’m sure you can guess that the outcome isn’t likely to be a happy ending for everyone involved.

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