The Kurds: A History of Betrayal

April 14, 1991|By FRANK STARR

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- When the United States encouraged revolt in Iraq for its own reasons, then changed its mind and abandoned the Kurds to massacre and deprivation, it was only the latest event in an ancient pattern of exploitation, betrayal and tragedy that is the life story of the Kurds.

They are a people as old as history who have never been united as a political entity and whose land, known as Kurdistan, has more claim to nationhood than does Iraq itself, though it lies in a broad crescent across parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and a small corner of Syria.

Like their neighbors, the Armenians, they were promised a nation-state then betrayed to great power interests when nation-states were being handed out at the fall of the empires after World War I. In that betrayal, too, the United States was a player, having encouraged a Kurdish state then dropped the idea.

The story of the Kurds is less known but longer, and to that extent more tragic, than that of the other great homeless people of the Middle East, the Palestinians. Like Palestinian Arabs, their loss of a modern state was the byproduct of Britain's division of the Middle East to suit its interests. But the Kurds' domination by others goes back to waves of Turk and Mongol invaders from the 6th to the 10th centuries A.D. and a historic division of their territory between Turks and Persians early in the 16th century.

Though historically ruled by Turks, Arabs and Persians they are none of these. They are an Aryan people with an Indo-European language distantly related to Persian and a culture -- dress, music, poetry, cuisine, marriage customs -- entirely their own. Yet, in Turkey their very existence as a people has been denied -- since the 1920s they were referred to only as "mountain Turks" -- while Iraq and Iran alternately supported and suppressed Kurdish minorities as a tool against the other.

There are varying estimates of Kurdish population. The Kurdish Library of New York says there are about 28 million Kurds -- about half in Turkey, a quarter in Iran, a sixth in Iraq and small fractions in Syria and the Soviet Union.

Respected in the Middle East as brave and stoic fighters, good shooters and horsemen, Kurds have a tradition of self-reliance, living as they have in remote mountainous regions where individual villages have their own isolated economies and national borders counted for little.

Though they have a centuries-old reputation for uprisings and revolts against local rulers -- one Kurdish authority cites over 50 insurrections during the 19th century -- Kurds have often been divided among themselves. Anthropologist William Beeman of Brown University says "there is nothing inherently fractious in Kurdish society." Their tribal rivalries are largely the result of pressures imposed on them by the West, he says.

The stirrings of Kurdish nationalism began late in the 19th century with the disappearance of the last Kurdish principalities in Turkish territory and the Turkish revolution of 1908. A Kurdish newspaper appeared in 1897. But their situation changed radically in the blooming of nationalistic spirit after World War I.

Kurdish committees were formed everywhere. A Kurdish representative to the Paris Peace Conference presented two memorandums of Kurdish claims and a map of "Kurdistan integral." And when President Wilson presented his Fourteen Points for peace to Congress on January 8, 1918, point 12 called for the non-Turkish nationalities of the Ottoman empire to be "assured of an absolute unmolested opportunity of autonomous development."

Thus, when the allies concluded the Treaty of Sevres with Turkey on August 10, 1920, there was provision not only for a separate Armenia but "a local autonomy for the land where the Kurd element predominates" in eastern Turkey, about 20 percent of the whole of Kurdistan.

If it were later determined by the League of Nations that "a majority of the Kurd population of these regions desires to be independent of Turkey and if the [League] then thinks that this population is fit for independence," Turkey was obligated to give the area and the allies agreed not oppose a voluntary union between the Kurdish state and the part of northern Iraq where Kurds predominate, then called Mosul province.

That agreement was Kurdistan's best chance to join the new class of young nation states that included Iraq, Transjordan and Syria. But it was as close as the Kurds ever came, and it was fatally flawed.

Britain had little intention of allowing Mosul province to become independent because it contained more than half the oil reserves of what is now Iraq. It had taken for itself the League of Nations mandates of Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan, turned over the Syrian mandate to France and offered to the United States two mandates: Armenia and Kurdistan.

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