The question of the Kurds

There’s awareness in Scotland about Catalonia’s looming independence referendum. Or at least there’s awareness if you don’t confine yourself to BBC Scotland news. The Catalan vote is due to be held a week on Sunday, 1 October. However there’s another nation which is going to hold an independence referendum even sooner. On Monday Iraqi Kurdistan will hold a referendum to decide whether the region’s future is as the first independent Kurdish state.

The Kurds have been described as the world’s largest stateless nation. Split between Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, there are between 30 and 45 million people who regard themselves as Kurdish. The numbers are uncertain because the countries concerned do not ask census questions about command of a Kurdish language or about ethnic identity. There is no single Kurdish language, rather Kurdish comprises a grouping of closely related languages which as a whole are related to the Baluchi language of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and somewhat more distantly to the Farsi language which is the state language of Iran. Most Iraqi Kurds speak Sorani Kurdish, which is written in a form of the Arabic alphabet. Most Syrian and Turkish Kurds speak Kurmanji Kurdish, which is written in the Latin script.

The Kurds have been present in their historic homelands for thousands of years. They claim descent from the Medians, one of the ancient civilisations of the Middle East. Over the centuries they have adapted and adopted aspects of neighbouring cultures. Although a large majority of Kurds are Muslim, many Kurdish speakers still preserve pre-Islamic and pre-Christian religions, of which the Yazidis are the best known. Other minority ethnic groups are also present within the Kurdish region, most notably the Assyrians and the Turkmen. The Assyrians are Christians who traditionally speak varieties of modern Aramaic – which was once widespread throughout the Middle East before the spread of Arabic and a dialect of which was the native language of Jesus Christ. The Turkmen speak dialects closely related to Turkish.

Before the Ottoman Empire committed the Armenian genocide of the First World War, there were also large Armenian speaking communities living side by side with the Kurds. The Kurds were also victims of the Ottoman authorities, who deported hundreds of thousands of Kurds into the south east. Untold thousands died.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, as the British and French carved the Middle East up into areas of influence, the Kurds were promised an independent homeland of their own. The British and French reneged on their promise, and the Kurdish lands were divided between British occupied Iraq, French occupied Syria, with a large area to the north remaining under the control of the newly established Turkish Republic. British and French officials sat down with maps and pencils and drew lines through the centre of Kurdish lands. The interests of the Kurds themselves didn’t even register.

With the loss of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, the new Turkey was concerned to reshape itself as an ethnic state for Turks, and the Turkish state refused to recognise the the Kurds as a national minority.  Officially the Kurds in Turkey became “Mountain Turks”, and the public use of their language was prohibited. Even the very existence of the Kurdish language was denied.  Rather similarly to certain Daily Mail journalists who opine about Scots, the Turkish state did not regard Kurdish as a real language. The Kurds responded to the violent repression by turning to violence themselves.

In Syria and Iraq the situation was little better. As these countries achieved full independence they became dominated by their Arabic speaking majorities. The dictatorships in Iraq and Syria severely repressed the Kurds. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s regime embarked on a campaign of oppression which can only be described as attempted genocide. The Al-Anfal campaign of the late 1980s killed an estimated 180,000 Kurds. Hundreds of thousands were interned in camps, their villages systematically destroyed or repopulated by Arabs from the south. It’s believed that as many as 1 million Iraqi Kurds were displaced. Some Kurdish villages were victims of chemical warfare. A gas attack on the village of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988 killed an estimated 5000 and injured as many as 10,000 more.

Given this history, the Iraqi Kurds enthusiastically supported the Western overthrow of Saddam Hussein and seized the opportunity to take control of their own territories in Iraq. Ever since the Second Iraq War which led to the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Kurdish areas of Iraq have de-facto governed themselves with a parliament and government based in the city of Erbil. The region was and remains the most peaceful and securely governed part of that unfortunate country. The constitution of post- Saddam Iraq recognises the autonomy of the Kurds, and defines Iraq as a federal state with Kurdistan as one of its constituents.

The Kurds have taken advantage of the insecurity and instability of Iraq to extend the territories under the control of the autonomous Kurdish administration, most notably taking over the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, which was outside the boundaries of the Kurdish region as agreed with the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Kirkuk is where vast oil reserves are located. The non-Kurdish population of the area, predominantly Arabic and Turkmen speaking, have accused the Kurdish administration of favouring ethnic Kurds and of promoting Kurdish settlement in the city in order to secure Kurdish rule. The Kurds reply that they have always regarded Kirkuk as the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. A referendum is supposed to be held in order to determine the final status of Kirkuk. A vote was originally due to be held in 2007 but was postponed repeatedly. As yet there is no date for a referendum to settle the question of Kirkuk. As the Kurdish administration is in full control it is in no hurry to organise the vote.

Iraqi Kurdistan held an independence referendum in 2004 which the Kurdish administration considered informal and advisory. The referendum produced a vote of 98.8% in favour of independence, but was widely boycotted by the non-Kurdish population. The Kurds had repeatedly stated their intention to hold a formal and binding referendum, but faced the impaccable opposition of the Iraqi government, the other regional powers, the Western powers, and China and Russia. The on-going war in Iraq and the rise of the so-called Islamic State caused the Kurdish government to put its plans for a binding referendum on hold. However following the recent defeat of IS in Iraq and their being driven from the city of Mosul, the eastern outskirts of which are held by Kurdish forces, the Kurdish government of Masoud Barzani announced its intention of holding a unilateral independence referendum. The vote will also take place in the Kirkuk, Sinjar, and other regions controlled by Kurdish forces but which are claimed by the Iraqi government to be outside the Kurdish autonomous region.

The referendum due on Monday enjoys the support of all the main Kurdish political parties with the exception of the centre left Gorran party, but it is also supported by some of the parties representing minorities within Kurdistan. Some of the Arab tribal leaders in the region have come out in favour of independence. One of the two main Assyrian parties, and one of the Turkmen parties support a yes vote in the referendum, and another Turkmen party has said that it will support a yes vote providing certain guarantees are given to protect the rights of the Turkmen minority. However one of the major Turkmen parties remains opposed to the vote.

The Iraqi government remains vehemently opposed to the referendum being held, but since it has no effective power in Kurdish regions has no means to block the vote. The government in Baghdad has threatened that a declaration of independence by the Kurdish government in Erbil will be seen by Baghdad as a declaration of war, and it is determined to resist Kurdish independence by force. The Kurds are gambling that they have the strongest army in the country, and the weakened Iraqi government will be in no position to act on its threats. Turkey and Iran are likewise strongly opposed to Kurdish independence, having an eye on their own restive Kurdish populations. The West, as well as Russia and China, are also strongly opposed to a Kurdish declaration of independence, seeing it as a source of yet more instability in an already unstable region.

The Kurds in Syria support the independence of the Kurds in Iraq, but have no current intentions of seeking independence themselves. The official position of the Syrian Kurds is to seek self-government for Rojava (meaning West in Kurmanji Kurdish, the Kurdish name of Syrian Kurdistan) within a federal and secular Syria.

The vote on Monday will almost certainly produce a majority for indepencence. However any declaration of independence on the part of Iraqi Kurdistan will equally likely not be recognised by Iraq or by the wider international community. Even so, it will represent an important step in the long Kurdish campaign for self-determination and a state of their own. One day, one way or another, the Kurds are determined that they will have an independent nation to call their own. The Kurds will give their own answer to the Kurdish question, and that answer is independence.


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0 thoughts on “The question of the Kurds

  1. The clerks of the European Empires sit in a room and divvi up the Third World Territories and Oil Reserves amongst each other.
    The White Man’s Burden.
    A wonderfully balanced comment on the Kurds history in the Middle East.
    Imagine Welsh, Irish, and English squaddies patrolling the streets of Airdrie and Coatbridge?
    I can; if the Brit Nats realise that they have ‘lost’ Scotland.
    Boris Johnson and the Eton Oxbridge Boys are a direct Time Portal back to the Days of the Raj.
    They were bred to conquer and rule the world, as part of an Iron Heel Oligarchy.
    Theresa May actually had the gall to speak for all Brits by observing that none of us ever felt ‘European’, and were glad to be getting out.
    This woman speaks for the Merrie England Establishment.
    It has been apparent this week that Scotland has been airbrushed from the UK Map.
    Not a mention at UK level broadcast or Dead Tree Scroll rags.
    We are ignored even by native born Jocks like Marr Smith and Neil.
    England Rules; London is the Centre of the British Nazi Universe.
    White is the new black.
    England is taking back control. 3 million Europeans have been relegated to ephemeral labour with their rights removed.
    Johnny Foreigner Go Home, but now is not the time. Give us another two years so we can train up replacements from the Bradford and Bristol sink Estates first. Another two years should do it. Then you are no longer welcome.
    We are Scots, not Kurds, or Catalonians.
    The Scottish Office is attempting to model itself on the old Brit Empire colonial Lines, that’s for sure.
    I’d imagine that Lord Duncan, Mundell and his Dirty Dozen actually cling to the Manchurian Candidate belief that they are in charge of Scotland’s Destiny because they have 85% of the English Parliament backing them.
    Mundell, I’d start to pile the furniture behind the door of the Grand Ballroom if I were you.
    England is about to be rudely awakened from its slumber.
    It’s not going to be nice.
    And we are not ‘right behind you’, Little England. We never were.

    • If May never felt “European” than at least she should understand the way many of us Scots feel who have “never felt British” but they are a bit like Americans this lot – can’t understand why anybody wouldn’t want to be “one of them”.

      • I can give 5 of them why I’d never want to be one of them 1 deny the truth of the countrys state that’s very common among the English people oh we are strong we can survive anything we don’t need Scotland we are doing well etc 2 live on past glories we ruled most of the planet we won the world cup in 1966 blah blah blah 3 take credit for others ideas or hard work the telephone television the nhs being created breakthroughs in cancer treatments Scotland did most of these except the nhs that was Wales yet england took all the credit for those even though they did no work there 4 england is superior i every way this one really gets me mad saw this growing up in England a lot making out they are the master race.Mostly personified these days by torys and and the farages known as die hard brexiteers 5 ignore the views of everyone else this is another thing that makes me mad there refusal to listen to what others say or want in this union governments of England foisted on us other 3 nations is not the only thing ignored brexit Scotland and northern Ireland voted remain yet that’s ignored because England wants to leave the eu compromise options binned fishermen and others used as barging chips against there wishes Scotland rejected trident yet it’s still here the list goes on

    • Well said, as always, Jack. If May is correct (which is doubtful and would be a first) and British people never felt ‘European’ – then the British Establishment should understand why so many Scots never felt ‘British’! Their hypocrisy in this matter is breathtaking.

  2. “The British and French reneged on their promise”. Some day soon that will be written on the gravestone of European Imperialism. Just the the wheezing shrunken Brits left staggering to the hole in the ground.

    • The last time both did something horrible together was the treaty of Versaille which lead to ww2 do people never learn from mastakes of the past

  3. The main opposition to Kurdish independence is Turkey and President Erdogan has, by a narrow margin in a referendum, attained almost HenryVIII type powers, which he will use to attack the Kurds.

    And who is one of President Erdogan’s chinas???? Strong and Stable, herself.

    The Eton Rifles are surely on the parade ground now!!

  4. Seems to be a running thread and a pattern developing , namely repression , state repression , now where have we encountered that now ? .

  5. You can’t help but admire the courage and tenacity of the Kurdish people. Being governed by Westminster or Madrid is bad enough – but Baghdad would be something else altogether.

    The very best wishes to them.

    • That was my response to, Mark. I found this article most illuminating, full of solid factual research and good summary comment. Because I feel strongly for Scottish Independence, I easily identified with the thread of nationhood being pursued by the Kurds, and equally felt a desire to wish them well. Just one footnote on your comment – our perception of Baghdad as a nest of vipers is very media driven. Many have said that Hussein,for all his failings, brought more stability to a turbulent country than any other solution – and so it is proving. Viewed from Planet Zog, I believe that Britain/Westminster’s role in national and world affairs has been just as dominating, violent and partisan as Hussein’s was, but coloured by a veneer of Public School sportsmanship which we cannot see in the Arabic nations cutthroat ways.

  6. Thanks for an excellent history lesson, Paul. I feel I now have a much clearer understanding of what it means to be Kurdish. All I can say on the subject is “power to their collective elbow”.

  7. As an individual I am interested in history. One area I have read a lot about is the middle east and therefore the hopes of the Kurds. Your article was spot on Paul. I hope that the Kurds manage it but they have a tough time ahead I think.

    Iraq will not be happy about this, ever. The trouble with Iraq is that it is a British construct from WW1 when three different main tribal groups were put together as a country in an arbitrary manner as you say Paul. Turkey is the big anti Kurd state however. They have lots of blood on their hands against minorities.

    It is a shame that the people of Turkey are allowing this dictator to move them away from being a secular state to being a Moslem one. I reckon if Kurdistan manage to survive as a free state and prosper then there will be a time when Turkey will use military force against it.

    I wish them all the best.

  8. Paul, I am filled with admiration at your incredibly readable article on a such complex subject. How on Earth do you know these things and how on Earth can you write so eloquently?

    If I had been taught history by you I would have been spared the comment in fifth year when I was told, “You may have failed, Bremner, but you made a good job of it.”

  9. Thanks Paul. The history books always state that the Turks used the Kurds to kill the Armenians. Your account disproves that. Next you’ll be disputing that Xenophon’s10000 were hounded by Persians and not Kurds.

    • Kurds were not innocent in the Armenian genocide. I didn’t say they were. Nevertheless it is a matter of historical record that the Ottoman Turks also deported and massacred hundreds of thousands of Kurds.

  10. Curiously enough, Rojava has embarked on an experiment in living without central governance, similar to the anarchist system which flourished for a time in Catalonia during the civil war in Spain, which was crushed eventually, firstly by the Communists and then the Nationalists. Statists, whether of the right or left, have never favoured anarchism.

    Rojava has embraced a vision of libertarian municipalism with self-governing communities, the ideal of a a co-operative economy and ethnic and gender equality. It is an inspiring and humane model of living without a stifling bureacratic state. All of this, while fighting off Isis. The world allowed the Catalonian experiment to fail and it looks as though the same might happen to the Kurds’ brave enterprise.

    To have managed this in a war zone speaks to the courage and resilience of the Kurds. I hope sincerely that they thrive. They have resisted whatever horrors which have been visited on them for decades, having had the bad luck to exist in what is a white-hot zone of conflict – the Middle East. (Just out of interest, Salahuddin was probably of Kurdish ethnicity though I doubt very much that he was an anarchist!)

  11. Thankyou, weegingerdug’sman, for a superb piece. It was very timely to read, when we are excited about events in Barcelona, and it brought a lot of perspective. It makes me feel that nation states in many places have regions aspiring to Independence, with a historical imperative and a contemporary mandate. The list must be long, and Kurdistan is certainly a prime example.

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