Tuesday, November 13, 2007


What follows is the research assignment that I mentioned YESTERDAY. This assignment (RE: Kurds, Kurdish history, and the possibility of a future autonomous Kurdistan) was unexpectedly rewarding. I gained so much out of the experience that I felt compelled to share the fruits of my labor; hence, the project that you see below.

I should warn you that the text below registers just over 4,000 words and it is, for the most part, dry historical accounts. However, if you are interested in the Middle East, you may (I hope) find the bulk of the essay insightful. Plus, I am sure there are plenty of neigh-saying readers that would love to find mistakes in the facts that I present and, for that reason, may choose to read the text in its entirety. However, I realize that most will only want to glance at the “juicy” stuff. For that reason, at the very conclusion, I BOLDED all the text that think is most pertinent to Educated Soldier. This includes my own conclusions drawn from the research RE: the likelihood of the establishment of a sovereign Kurdistan and even some audacious predictions for the region (which I would love to see commented on).

Well, I hope you enjoy the following. Again, this is a research paper that I composed to meet a requirement for an International Studies class. Bibliography follows the text.

Kurds: From Nation to Possible Nation-State

The objectives of this paper are dual: to discover who the Kurds are and then to assess the possibility of these people in developing their own sovereign nation-state. In order to meet these objectives, a historical approach is going to be taken initially. This is to say that the Kurds will be described in terms of their development through time. This approach will focus on distinct periods in Kurdish history that should help the critical analyzer assess the possibility of a future independent Kurdistan. The periods to be studied follow: Early (pre-Ottoman Empire history), Ottoman Empire history (focusing on the era from the 17th through early 20th centuries), World War One, and, finally, the period from the 1970’s through the early 1990’s. While discussing the latter period, two Kurdish groups will be analyzed: the PKK and the PUK (with some, but less, emphasis on the KDP).

Following this study, the paper will then move to a more intellectual, critical tone. The discourse will focus on the matter currently at-hand: Has the history described in the paper thus far shown feasibility in the possible creation of an independent Kurdish nation-state?

To best understand how the Kurds perceive their own identities, one must first recognize the myths that are associated with the Kurdish people. While these myths are probably nearly wholly false in their factual details, they hold importance nonetheless. These myths have served (and, in some instances, continue to serve) as the social glue that binds the Kurdish people to each other.

David McDowall, in his Modern History of the Kurds tells of three significant myths that explain the origin of the Kurdish people. As the Kurds are a society that have historically dwelled in the mountains of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and north and western Iran, predictably two of the three myths involve the mountains.

• Kurds are said to be descendents of children that originally fled to the mountains to find safety from a child-eating monster named “Zahhak” (4).

• Another myth suggests that Kurds trace their ancestry back to children who were borne of King Solomon and any of his several slave girls. Because of their association with their slave mothers, the children, in this story as well, fled to the mountains. This time, however, they weren’t attempting to evade a monster, but – instead – an angry king (4).

The third story doesn’t account for the mountains but does cement the Kurds within the major monotheistic religions:

• The myth suggests that the Kurds are descendent from the Prophet Abraham. This story also suggests that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was a Kurd herself (4).

While these stories hold significant social value, their value as historical explanations for the recognition of a Kurdish nation is less. It is much more likely that the Kurds trace their roots to Indo-European tribes that traveled through the area that is now Iran in the 2nd millennium BCE (McDowall 8). The first recognition of a distinct Kurdish nation occurred in the 2nd century BCE when they were referred to as “Cyrtii” (McDowall 9). The first texts published in a distinct Kurdish language occurred in the 7th century CE (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 11).

On pages 9 and 13, McDowall explains that, historically, the term “Kurd” referred to a social-economic class rather than an ethnic class. He suggests that the term originally referred to an ethnically diverse band of nomads (McDowall 13). To best understand the development of the Kurdish nation – a society that has been characterized by near constant political dissidence – one must understand the religious makeup of the people; this composition is a point of volatility amongst the Kurdish people and its surrounding neighbors.

Currently, 75% of the Kurdish people are of the Sunni Muslim denomination (McDowall 11). Most of the remaining 25% are Shi’a Muslim, although there are Kurds of other religious types including Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian (McDowall 11). The Sunni composition of the majority of Kurds has caused strife with the mostly Shi’a population and government in Iran (as will be discussed later). However, even within the Sunni community, the Kurds have met opposition. The Kurds tend to follow a particular interpretation of Muslim Sharia law known as the Shafi’i school of interpretation (McDowall 11). Most non-Kurd Sunnis, however, and including those in Iraq, tend to follow the Hanafi interpretation of Sharia law. This point of contention between Sunnis has been a source of conflict. The Islamic makeup of the Kurdish people will also become an important rallying point when the discussion turns to the World Wars and the Christian / Muslim divide that most directly displayed itself for the Kurds during their struggles with the Armenians. Finally, to ensure complete understanding of the societal composition of the Kurdish people, one must also recognize that the Kurds are obedient foremost to their tribal affiliations before any other form of government – a fact that has been true throughout Kurdish development (McDowall 13).

Throughout the Kurdish region’s early history, the area was continuously battled over. In 637 CE, the Kurds created a force in order to ward off invading Arab armies (McDowall 21). Later, the Kurdish area would be forsaken by the Mongols. The largest city in the Kurdish region, Diyarbakir, was sacked by Mongol raiders in 1230, leaving all residents dead (McDowall 24). After the Mongol invasion, Diyarbakir was again sacked, this time by Jalal al Din Miranshah (McDowall 24).

However, this nearly constant struggle would eventually reach a period that could be considered Kurdistan’s most successful; an era under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

David McDowall suggests that Kurdistan was most politically independent while under the rule of the Ottoman Empire (25). This independence was mostly due to strategic location. Kurdistan was located in a geopolitically important location; between the Ottoman and Safavid empires (McDowall 25). Many of the most influential Kurdish leaders came to prominence under the Ottoman Empire including three that will be discussed in this paper: Idris Bitlisi, Badr Khan, and Shaykh Ubayd Allah.

Kurdistan’s independence while under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire was ensured early in the 16th century. A compromise was met between the leaders of the Empire and the Kurdish people allowing for the establishment of sixteen nearly sovereign Kurdish principalities (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 12). These principalities would maintain their status of near independence until the mid-19th century.

Much of Kurdistan’s freedom while under Ottoman control can be attributed to a single individual, Idris Bitlisi (McDowall 26). Bitlisi was a leader amongst Kurds because of his family’s high religious status. He also maintained strong allegiance with the Ottoman Empire by obtaining high-ranking government office. From his position of liaison, he was able to ensure that Kurdistan would receive the liberties from the Ottoman Empire that the Kurds desired.
This agreement between Kurds and the Ottoman leaders was successful for a number of years. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first signs of unrest were expressed by the Kurdish region. During this time, the Kurds established a sort of fiefdom system based on their tribal allegiances. The fiefdoms then refused to pay taxes to the Ottoman government (McDowall 40). Meanwhile, wars being fought on Kurdish territory but not being fought by the Kurds themselves caused contention. Such wars fought on Kurdish lands included the Russo-Turkish War and the Turko-Persian War (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 25). This situation of growing dissension from the Kurds towards their Ottoman leaders set the stage for the arrival of an influential Kurdish leader, Badr Khan.

McDowall describes Khan as “the most illustrious of an illustrious dynasty” (43). Khan first established control of the Kurdish principalities. His style of rule was described as civil. His reign was characterized by freedom for all people, including those non-Muslim and non-Kurdish; this included the Christians and Assyrians whom were free to practice as they chose (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 29). In the mid 1840’s, Khan began to desire fuller freedom for his Kurdish territories and began a war against the empire that would ultimately last three years (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 29). His efforts were largely successful while in action. He was able to expand the Kurdish area and was even able to declare full independence from the Ottoman Empire temporarily (McDowall 47). However, two proceedings ultimately doomed Khan’s campaign: First, the Ottomans persuaded American and British missionaries to convince Christians to rebel against Khan (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 29). The second action that ended the Khan rebellion was the betrayal by Khan’s own nephew (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 29). These two events led to Khan’s failure and he was eventually exiled. Moreover, Khan’s bet ultimately resulted in the loss of independence for the Kurdish regions as the Ottomans reasserted control over the principalities (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 29).

Khan’s eventual downfall, however, led to the rise of the third influential Kurdish leader (as mentioned in the opening of this section). This third individual was Shaykh Ubayd Allah whom McDowall describes as being considered by many Kurds as “the first great Kurdish nationalist” (53). The Skaykh Allah was notable for two actions. First, he is credited with establishing the “Kurdish League,” the earliest group with recognized nationalistic goals among the Kurds (McDowall 58). As a Kurdish leader, he also organized a resistance force that invaded Persia in 1880 in the name of the “Kurdish nation” (McDowall 53). While his battle was largely unsuccessful in military-terms and was defeated by Iran within a year, it was significant nonetheless in establishing nationalistic passions among the Kurdish people.

While these events were occurring in Ottoman Kurdistan, the Kurdish regions in other countries were transitioning as well. In Iran, in the late 18th century, the Qajar dynasty was established (McDowall 66). The Qajars in later times would have difficulty maintaining order within their own Kurdish regions. Azarbaijan, for example, fell within the boundaries of Iran but was more fully under the control of the Ottoman Empire (McDowall 73). Moreover, as Russian influence grew prior to the buildup to World War One in the early 20th century, the Kurdish regions in Iran would be particularly susceptible to Russian manipulation.

Around 1907, Russia had established de facto control over much of Iran’s Kurdish regions (McDowall 83). In 1913, Russia fully annexed Azarbaijan (McDowall 84). The Kurds in Iran (at that point under Russian authority) weren’t exhibiting strong nationalistic desires. This was not true of their Ottoman Empire counterparts whom were beginning to fully recognize themselves as ethnically distinct people (McDowall 101).

In 1908, for example, the Mus club was established (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 36). The objectives of this organization were nationalistic in aim. This club was one of the first of its kind among Kurds. Its numbers began in the hundreds but quickly swelled to the thousands.
In 1912, the first Kurdish political party was established, the Kurdish Hope (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 36). By 1913, this organization was publishing a daily newspaper and had established a platform based on the reformation of the Kurdish alphabet, the development of nationalistic ideals, and the goal of better educating the Kurdish people (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 37).

In 1910, cooperation was shown amongst the Kurdish people of several different countries (excluding Iran). Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire established a petition demanding for the adoption of the Kurdish language, exemption from national taxes, and the adoption of Shafi’i interpretations of Sharia law (McDowall 98). While the petition eventually failed, it exhibited the building recognition of a desired independent Kurdish state.

Ultimately, scholars will never know if this momentum would have eventually led to the creation of such a Kurdish state. These efforts, unfortunately, were negated by the onset of World War One.

For the Kurds, World War One was categorized by manipulation by competing interests. One must understand the state of fear that was being felt by both the Russians and the Ottomans and, by extension, many others. These fears caused state entities to distrust minority classes. This was reflected in the treatment of both the Kurds and the Armenians. By 1915, for example, the Ottoman Empire was exterminating and/or deporting Armenians because of fear of their possible cooperation with the Russians (McDowall 103).

Meanwhile, as the war began to come to fruition, many of the Kurds under Ottoman control were influenced to fight on behalf of the Ottoman Empire (McDowall 104). The common interest of the Ottomans and the Kurds was their Muslim faith. This rallying point was manipulated by the Ottoman leaders and, eventually, the Kurds became associated with the actions of exterminating many Christian Armenians (McDowall 103). However, the Russians were also exerting their own control, in this case, over the Armenians. They, in turn, destroyed many Kurds (McDowall 103).

However, leaders from the Ottoman Empire unexpectedly turned on the Kurds (McDowall 104). Despite the Kurdish efforts in the war on behalf of the Empire, they were expelled to the eastern edges of what is now the mountainous region of Turkey.

And none of this is to suggest that, in some cases, the Kurds didn’t fight the Ottomans. In Iraq, for example, Shi’a Kurds battled Sunni Ottomans (McDowall 106). The Kurds played as pawns to power-players Russia and the Ottoman Empire during World War One with shifting allegiances and no lasting objectives of their own.

The results of World War One were devastating. The Kurdistan areas throughout the Middle East were left destitute. Cities which once had populations of 20,000, for example, dropped to populations less than 2000 (McDowall 108). Kurds were dying of exposure, hunger, and typhoid. It was daily routine in the mornings to collect the bodies of the dead for burial (McDowall 108). In conclusion, over 1 million Armenians were dead and over 800,000 Kurds were counted as fatalities (McDowall 109). British convoys were able to eventually gain some admiration from the Kurds by distributing much needed aid (McDowall 109).

However, the void left by the end of World War One could have been successful for the Kurds. As stated in The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire, “This period of October 1918 to June 1919 presented the Kurdish people with their best ever opportunity to set up their own national state” (38).

Another result of the war was a Middle Eastern region with no ruling authority. To deal with this situation, western victors developed the Sykes-Picot Agreement in May, 1916 (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 38). While Russia was involved in the drafting of this agreement, they eventually blew the whistle on the document, revealing the intentions of the western nations to carve a new Middle Eastern map. Government in Russia, at the time dealing with its own strife, opted out of developing imperial interests of the type in the Middle East (McDowall 115). In Russia’s place, the United States stepped in.

The United States had a plan of its own. They suggested the development of three independent states where the former Ottoman Empire existed. These states would include: a Turkish state with Istanbul as the capital, an Armenian state, and a Kurdish state with Diyarbakir as the capital (“The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire” 41).

However, several factors eliminated the Kurds’ opportunity to establish a nation-state of their own. First, leadership in England, tasked with developing the Kurdish state, could not establish influential Kurdish political leaders to maintain order in such an entity (McDowall 121). Moreover, many Kurds still held to deep-rooted fears of Christians based on their vicious fighting with the Armenians (McDowall 127). This made them suspicious of any plan backed by westerners. Finally, many Kurds – despite being betrayed by their Ottoman leaders – still held to allegiance to Turkish authorities (McDowall 127). With these dilemmas present, a sovereign Kurdistan would not be developed.

Instead, the results of this period were these: an autonomous Turkey was established and Kurds in the region would be integrated into the new nation-state and Iraq was established with a northern area zoned solely for Kurdish inhabitation under Iraqi rule (McDowall 146).

Now understanding the basic history of the Kurdish people, the discourse moves to the discussion of two (and, to a lesser extent, a third) Kurdish organizations that have been more influential in modern times and may have influence on the future prospects of an independent Kurdish nation-state. The two primary organizations of focus are the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Partiya Karkari Kurdistan, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Lesser attention will be focused on the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

The PUK was established by Jalal Talabani (current Iraq president) on June 1st, 1975 (McDowall 343). While the PUK was formed by the convergence of two socialist movements, the goals of the PUK were: the establishment of autonomy for the Kurds and the development of democracy in Iraq (McDowall 343).

Throughout the PUK’s history, it sparred with the KDP. However, all Kurdish organizations had a common enemy: Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (McDowall 347). However, the Iran/Iraq conflict shuffled the relationships amongst the Kurdish groups and made odd bed-fellows of various factions.

For example, the Iranian government, in addition to its anti-Hussein goals, had an objective of destroying the PUK (McDowall 348). This caused Talabani and the PUK, in an order to survive, to explore the benefit of joining Saddam Hussein. Hussein saw the advantage of drawing Kurds into his side of the fold in a war on Iran. The PUK/Hussein relationship showed early signs of blossoming.

However, when western influences (such as those from America and Russia) promised to support Hussein in his efforts against Iran, the Iraqi President saw less reason to associate with the Kurds (McDowall 350). The intervention from America and others would result in the collapse of the Hussein/PUK partnership.

Following the dissolution of this coalition, the PUK again returned to allegiance with their Kurdish brethren groups. Eventually realizing the potential dangers emanating from Baghdad, the Kurdish organizations ceased inter-hostilities and joined together to form the Kurdish National Front (McDowall 352).

Following the initial Gulf War, the Kurdish Front was temporarily successful in maintaining order in the Kurdish zone of northern Iraq. On May 19th, 1992, democratic elections were held within the region to establish parliament. The results included a legislative body almost evenly split amongst the formerly combative KUP and KDP parties (Laizer 58).

The peace in the region would be short-lasting. In 1992 war broke out amongst many Kurdish factions including the PUK and the hitherto unmentioned PKK (Laizer 59).

The PKK was established by Abd Allah Ocalan in the 1970’s but came to prominence during the following decade (McDowall 418). The anger of the PKK was initially focused on local landlords (McDowall 419). Fighting viciously for the liberties of local people, the Kurdish peasantry quickly developed an interest in the newly formed organization.

Because of the organization’s violent and rebellious natures, it was outcast from Turkey and established headquarters in Syria in 1980 (McDowall 420). In Syria, they were obstructed by no such interference from the government. In 1983, the PKK convinced Kurdish organizations within the region to allow them to develop bases in northern Iraq (McDowall 420). It was around this period that the PKK came to international forefront. In 1984, PKK guerillas crossed back over to Turkish Kurdistan and conducted several daring attacks on Turkish military forces (McDowall 418).

In response, governments in Turkey and Iraq established citizen-soldiers to work as “village guards” to defend against the PKK for monetary compensation (McDowall 423). The PKK reacted violently. They savagely and relentlessly destroyed the village guards (McDowall 423).
Meanwhile, like the PUK, the PKK intermittently fought with the KDP (McDowall 426). The result of the turmoil would come after the initial Gulf War when the PKK was established as the most dominant Kurdish political party in Turkey (Laizer 90).

The PKK has been successful, certainly, because of its peculiar natures and abilities. First, the PKK has been successful in marrying Islam with socialism- two ideologies that seemed at their cores contradictive to each other (Lazier 90). Moreover, as shown by their violent attacks on the village guards, the PKK has not been shy in attempting unconventional tactics. For another example, in an effort to make the western world aware of atrocities being committed by Turkey on Kurds, the PKK peacefully kidnapped westerners to force them to see, firsthand, the violent nature of the Turkish government (Laizer 92). However, the objectives of these kidnappings were misinterpreted by westerners as evil acts themselves and were largely unsuccessful in establishing their intended point. However, the kidnappings are evidence of the extremes that the PKK is willing to reach in order to achieve its goals.

Now, the only aspect that remains is the critical assessment: Will the Kurds ever be successful in their transition from nation to sovereign nation-state? The only reliable answer can be derived from history.

And the history suggests an answer: No.

There are several reasons why one would make such an assumption. First, it seems that the Kurds are much too reliant on a network of tribal leaders to ever transition to a form of government independently superior in hierarchy. The only evidence in Kurdish history of being successful in such an endeavor comes from the period in which Kurdistan existed under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire. Even in this example, however, Kurdistan was still under the control of an outside authority. It seems that the Kurds are committed too strongly to local levels of leadership to allow for the successful establishment of an independent national government.

Moreover, (and while it seems chauvinistic to describe an outside ethnic group in the following manner) the Kurds seem completely susceptible to the manipulation to forces greater than their own. This could be the product of their relatively small size in comparison to the populations of Arabs, Russians, Europeans, and others. Whatever the reason, throughout Kurdish history, these people have been rather easily influenced by outside forces. The Ottomans, the Turks, Europeans, and Russians have all had turns successfully manipulating Kurds. A social disposition of such inferiority doesn’t bode well for nationalistic intentions.

There is also the problem of in-fighting amongst the Kurdish factions. It has already been shown that, almost without fail, the various Kurdish organizations (including the PKK, the KDP, and the PUK), when given responsibility, tend to delve into squabbles over the prospect of even greater responsibility. The ability for these organizations to unify seems to be only a temporary quality that quickly dissipates with time and freedom.

Finally, one can simply look at a geopolitical map (even ignorant of history) and conclude that there is hardly area for a successful independent Kurdistan in the Middle East. Iraq will not abandon its Kurdish region because of the area’s rich oil fields. Bad blood exists between the Kurds and Turkey. The same is true of the spoiled relationship between Kurds and any Christian states in the region (such as Armenia). Certainly a sovereign Kurdistan would eventually end up in battle with either or both of those states. There is also little doubt that Shi’a Iran would attempt to conquest Sunni Kurdistan on religious grounds and in search of oil prospects. Location is not on the side of a floundering Kurdistan.

In conclusion, it seems more likely that- for the near future- the closest the Kurds will come to a sovereign nation-state will be their inhabited northern region of the currently conflicted Iraq. Even this area, however, has been newsworthy recently as Turkey has struggled with and responded to the consequences in its own country of an independent Kurdish region in Iraq. I would conclude that, eventually, the Kurdish region in northern Iraq will also be, ultimately, unsuccessful. The area is too rich in resources (oil) that are severely required by a global populace. The probable global battle for oil in the region, along with enemies established by history- should prove strong enough to overshadow Kurdish nationalistic desires. I would conclude that it is much more likely that the region will experience a regional war based on several fronts (Shi’a from the East, Sunni from the South, Turkish from the West, and possibly Christian from the north) violently congregating in the area that is now Iraqi and Turkish “Kurdistan” before we see the establishment of a sovereign Kurdish nation-state.

Works Cited

Kendal, "The Kurds Under the Ottoman Empire."People Without a Country . 1980.

Laizer, Sheri. Martys, Traitors and Patriots (Kurdistan After the Gulf War) . London: Zed Books Ltd, 1996.

McDowall, David. A Modern History of the Kurds. 2nd. London: I.B. Tauris and Co. Ltd, 2000.

"Who Are the Kurds?" Washington Post. 1999. The Washington Post Company. 01 Nov 2007 .


BrianFH said...

You might be interested in this book, which has a thesis that countries and ethnic groups etc. don't make war: only organizations do. And in de Mesquita's ideas on ruling coalitions and types of government.

BTW, "neigh-sayers" could only be horses. "Nay-sayers" are, however, negative humans. ;)

BrianFH said...

As to the oil thesis in your write-up: it may be that a saw-off could work. It turns out that Iraq's total reserves are almost double what was thought because of untapped deposits in Anbar (Sunniland). So the Kurdistan reserves are not crucial to Iraq in any meaningful sense.