The Kurdish Problem

Afrin solidarity protest. Berlin, March 2018.

Most of the modern states of the Middle East were created as a result of agreements between the British and the French at the end of World War I. Much of the region had belonged to the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years. Since Turkey was defeated in the war, Britain and France became the chief beneficiaries of the dismemberment of Ottoman colonial holdings.

The area was divided into British and French spheres of influence by the arbitrary drawing of national borders without regard to ethnic and religious lines, or ancient water rights and tribal holdings. Great Britain in 1918, only four days after signing the armistice, occupied what had been the oil-rich Ottoman province of Mosul, in the southern part of Kurdistan. The Turks bitterly protested, but Turkey was too weak to oppose the British.

In 1920, the British and other Western allies established, in the Treaty of Sevres, a Kurdish homeland out of the remnants of an area in the eastern Ottoman Empire which the Kurds had demographically dominated for centuries. In 1921, the Turks, after having defeated the Greek army in Anatolia gained the leverage to demand the treaty’s revision.

The British then abandoned the idea of a pro-British Kurdistan and concentrated on keeping oil-rich Mosul. The plan was to attach the Kurdish-inhabited Mosul area to two other former Turkish provinces—Sunni Baghdad in northern Mesopotamia and Shiite Basra in southern Mesopotamia.

This would have created a wealthy, pro-British protectorate strategically located on the Gulf. These early manoeuvres by the powers of the day to control both natural resources and transportation routes with little regard for the indigenous people reflect the accepted norms of victors of war throughout history. The lack of sophistication and overall cohesion, tribalism, multiple language dialects and most importantly the lack of a powerful sponsor are factors which contributed to the Kurds being left again without any territory of their own after World War I.

Some 20 million to 25 million Kurds inhabit the rugged highlands cutting across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Armenia; the largest segment resides in Turkey. The Kurds’ distinct language and culture, semi-nomadic life, and tribal loyalties have endowed them with a sense of separate national identity. Their allegiance to the host states is often tenuous, and they have frequently rebelled. The Kurds have existed as a tribal people with their own cultural tradition and language for at least 3000 years.

As we trace the Kurds over the years since World War I, it becomes clear that successive governments in Iraq and the other countries with large Kurdish populations have, in varying extremes, attempted to assimilate the Kurds into their national fold by eradicating the Kurdish culture and suppressing them politically.

In 1925, a League of Nations commission mandated that the province of Mosul be incorporated into the new British protectorate called Iraq. It also provided that the Kurds were to be given local autonomy and Kurdish made the official language. The Turks, determined to be pro-Western, finally agreed to give up Mosul and all of its oil for a mere 500,000 British pounds.

Many Turks consider this a terrible decision and have never accepted this oil-rich, non-Arab region as part of an Arab state. The Kurds, however, have never been able to achieve autonomy or the freedom of unrestricted use of the Kurdish language. They remain the only grouping of over 15 million persons which has not achieved some form of statehood.

Turkey’s Kurds, driven not just by a general desire for self-rule but also by unhappiness over the modernizing and centralizing reforms introduced by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s and 1930s, staged large-scale uprisings on several occasions earlier in the 20th century. Turkish authorities ruthlessly suppressed these revolts and subsequently sought to eliminate all manifestations of Kurdish nationalism and limit expressions of Kurdish culture.

Neither the twin forces of suppression and cooptation nor the conservative influence of local Kurdish chieftains has been able to quash the drive for autonomy or independence. The Kurdish language continues to flourish, and Kurds retain a separate identity. Indeed, Kurdish culture remains a wellspring of nationalism.

Even so, the Kurds have never been united under one ruler. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office reports in a May 1992 Background Brief that tribal divisions have always been deep and that this coupled with political differences between conservative feudal leaders and left-wing radicals have led to easy exploitation by central governments.

Internalised stereotypes also play a role. The Kurds have historically been perceived as warlike, dirty, backward and generally slow-witted people. Their long history of militancy, as reflected in them serving as mercenaries in the armies of the Middle East and southern Caucasus, have led to characterisations of them being lawless and violence-prone.

The Kurds have been perceived in literature as a people with severe dialectal differences within their language which serve as obstacles to their unity. Although there are four major Kurdish dialect groups, all varieties of Kurdish are Indo-European and thus belong to the same linguistic family as Farsi. Efforts to develop a standard, pan-Kurdish language despite have been unsuccessful.

This is attributable, in large part, to the physical fragmentation, mutual isolation and constant restrictions suffered by the Kurds. Such a goal is not insurmountable as was demonstrated by neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria who overcame their own dialectal differences. These countries were able to overcome the problem, at least partially, through government promulgation of national languages and educational policies that enhanced the learning of a common language.

The teaching of the Kurdish language itself or teaching subjects using Kurdish has been restricted in varying degrees in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. Literacy in Arabic, however, has been encouraged. Levels of literacy tend to be higher in areas where Kurdish is used in school curriculums. Some estimates reflect that as many as 91% of Kurdish women are illiterate.

Iraqi Kurds have received sporadic education at the primary and secondary levels in Kurdish as well as Arabic and have enjoyed the benefits of their own university established at Sulamania (recently moved to Arbil). Thus, Iraqi Kurds by far have the highest literacy rate and are the best educated of all Kurds in Kurdistan.

Turkey forbade the use of Kurdish in 1924 but partially and unofficially relaxed the policy in the 1950s. However, in the 1980s the policy was reversed and toughened. Such restrictions have resulted in a marked imbalance in the level of education between Kurds and other citizens in Turkey, with Kurds attaining less than half the national average for education.

Language is basic to the perpetuation of a nation. History is replete with examples of the suppression of minority languages by repressive governments as a measure to control minorities in the assimilation process, ensuring the stability of the state or status quo. Whether the Kurds have fully understood the ramifications of the language issue beyond the cultural aspects is not clear.

Adapted from CIA briefs, courtesy of Published under a Creative Commons license. Photograph by Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.