An ancient yet modern people
Constantly ignored in the divisions of land and power, the Kurds are still prominent in the political gambits in the Middle East, alongside the West.
- Wednesday, 31 October 2018
The identity of the Kurdish people was formed primarily around a language and a lifestyle, nomadism. Sons of the very diverse mountain landscapes that from the Caucasus stretch into the Taurus Mountains of the Anatolian peninsula and then move east along the extensive and barren Zagros Mountains, the Kurds speak a language that belongs to the north-western Iranian group, the same group as the ancient Medes people and the Parthians, the undaunted rivals of the Roman Republic. A language which, as often happens in mountain regions, is divided into different idioms, each specific to a particular region. The oral tradition equally led to the survival of ancient faiths, such as the syncretic beliefs of the Yazidis, as well as those of many diverse Sufi brotherhoods which can be traced back to the Qādiriyya or the Naqšbandiyya, as well as non-conformist groups such as the Yarsanis. A territory that the Kurds have shared with Turks and Persians, all part of that northern Islamic denomination which left its mark throughout Central Asia and beyond. A world where Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans, heirs to the ancient Christian communities, have lived alongside the Kurds and other Muslims in an interwoven community that oftentimes has led to tragedy. To this day anyone wishing to compare the maps of the greater Kurdistan and the greater Armenia will see an extensive overlapping of territories which both would like to call homeland.
Today the Kurds are the largest people of the Middle East without a homeland. We have no certainty about the numbers, but if we suppose there to be 40 million individuals divided between the various countries that host the communitywe wouldn't be far from the truth. Yet the Kurdish identity, viewed as the sense of belonging to a nation, much like many other nationalist movements, was only formed in the 19th century and became fully shaped by the events at the beginning of the 20th century that led to the demise of the Ottoman Empire. One of the most famous Middle Eastern sultans, the Ayyubid leader Salah ad-Din, the liberator of Jerusalem, a prototype of the fierce Saladin we read about in our youth, was undoubtedly a Kurd by birth, but always believed himself to be the leader of a vast realm that spoke Arabic and believed in Islam.
The tensions that permeated the region during the years of the First World War, the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Young Turks accelerated the birth of a national Kurdish awareness, as was the case with other peoples in the area. The call for independence was in principle accepted by the European powers in 1919 in Paris and confirmed by the Sèvres Treaty signed on August 10, 1920. This partial and soon forgotten success was owed to the perseverance Šarīf Paša, who had been appointed as representative in Paris the year before and who in March of 1920 presented two memorandums explaining and motivating the need for a Kurdish state. A position shared by the Armenian representatives, who like their neighbours were also aiming to establish an independent state in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. This treatise, signed with the representatives of the Ottoman Empire, at the time reduced to a vestige of its former self, was detrimental to Turkish interests, as it envisaged the creation of an independent Kurdistan, withnorth-western Anatolia becoming part of Armenia. The text was never accepted by the Turks led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who, having hoisted the flag of Turkish nationalism, embarked in a victorious war starting from Anatolia. The new situation produced by the balance of forces on the ground and the general lack of interest shown by the European powers led to the signing of the Treatise of Lausanne on 24 July 1923, which put an end to the bloody Anatolian war, culpably sweeping the Kurdish issue under the carpet. In 1925 the Ottoman Wilayahof Mosul was definitely assigned to King Faysal's Iraq. Ever since then a strong independence movement has grown in both Eastern Turkey and Northern Iraq, whose actions have never been entirely effective owing to the divisions between too many rival factions.
In spite of the serious blow dealt to Kurdish nationalist claims by the Treatise of Lausanne, this ethnic group, owing to its strength in numbers and what by this time was a consolidated national identity continued to play its part in the politics of the Middle Eastern region. Once the Qājār dynasty came to an end, during the first half of the 20th century, the charismatic figure of Reẓā Pahlavi attempted to consolidate Iran, limiting the interference of the major powers of the time. He could not however, put an end to the protectorates installed by the British in the south and the Russians in the north of the country. Once the Second World War drew to a close in order to retain its influence, the USSR backed the birth of two small states in the western part of Iran; the People's Republic of Azerbaijan, and the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, officially proclaimed on 22 January 1946 instigated by Qāzi Muḥammad.Another major figure of the Kurdish nationalist movement, Muṣṭafā Bārzānī, who soon became the secretary of the PDK, came to the aid of the insurgents and was appointed minister of war and commander of the army. As had been the case in Lausanne, the Kurds were soon abandoned by their Soviet allies, which in the meantime had reached an agreement with Tehran over the exploitation of Caspian oil; a year later the brief adventure of the Mahabad Republic came to an end. Qāzi Muḥammad was hung in the public square on March 30, 1947 and once again the Kurdish claims were drowned in blood.
The last part of our story, which is necessarily brief and has had to leave out many important events, starts in 1991 with the imposition of the no-fly zone in the north of Iraq, beyond the 36° parallel. Elections were held the following year in Iraqi Kurdistan, won by the two major traditional parties in the region, the PDK (Kurdistan Democratic Party) headed by Masoud Barzani and Jalāl Ṭālābānī's PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). The equal weighting of these two parties and the leadership qualities of the two leaders, who were to be appointed President of the Independent region of Iraqi Kurdistan and President of the Iraq Republic respectively, enabled the Kurdish region to achieve what was essentially a form of independence, despite remaining within the Iraqi state. The gradual weakening of Ṭālābānī's leadership, due to illness and the rise of the rival party Gorrān, founded by Nūšīrvān Mustafā, among the founders of the PUK, in the region of Sulaimaniya, a traditional stronghold of the PUK, and the serious error of judgement made by Masoud Barzani when he called for a referendum on the independence of the region governed by the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government)to be held on 25 September 2017, have put the very existence of this independent region within the federated Iraq at risk. Over 90% of the vote was in favour of independence, but this only led to a year of terrible isolation during the course of which the Kurds have felt betrayed once again by their allies. Luckily the situation today seems to have returned to normal, allowing the government in Erbil to resume its effortsto modernise the region. What has happened does however show that at least in the near future the likelihood of an independent Kurdistan is remote, but a path towards a greater recognition of the Kurdish ethnic group by the hosting states could perhaps be taken. Traditionally better integrated in Iran than in other parts, the Kurds have recently obtained a significant victory in this direction. The Islamic Republic has now allowed them to start teaching certain subjects in the Kurdish language at the University of Sanandaj, the capital of the Ostān (region) of Iranian Kurdistan. In Iraq the Kurdish region has been granted considerable independence, and signs in this direction have also been seen in Syria. For a time, albeit briefly, even Erdogan seemed to be open to a dialogue with the Kurdish community in Turkey. However strewn with obstacles, this is the path that Europe should back for a possible solution for Kurdistan.