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Kurdish Independence and Russian Expansion [1946]

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Editor's Note: Interest in the Kurdish question suddenly revived at the end of the Gulf War. We decided that our readers might benefit from reading excerpts of an article originally published in the July 1946 issue of Foreign Affairs that has become a standard reference. The late Dr. Westermann, then Professor of History at Columbia University, wrote this piece amid concern in Washington over the links between the Kurdish rebellion and the Soviet Union; hence the outmoded title. That particular crisis over a Kurdish republic eventually disappeared, but Dr. Westermann's article contains some sage observations that have stood the test of time.

A Kurdish independence movement was officially inaugurated at the San Francisco Conference in April 1945, in a letter addressed to the delegates in the name of the Kurdish League. . . . The demands for Kurdish autonomy may be exaggerated to the point that many readers of liberal intention will consider them ridiculous. Certain facts, nevertheless, remain. There is a Kurdish independence movement. It has three active propaganda centers, one located in Syrian Beirut, a second at Sauj Bulagh in western Iran. The third center is in the "communist" party of Iraq, which has published a program of reforms with the resounding title of "The Charter of the Kurdish People." Its 17 clauses include: collaboration of the Arabs of Iraq; "real" independence of the Kurds and Arabs (implying that Iraq is under British imperial control); freedom of political opinion and expression; distribution of lands in fee simple to the peasants; old age, sickness and unemployment security; freedom of worship for religious minorities, with special mention in this regard of the Turcomans, Yezidis, Arabs and Assyrian Christians; and encouragement of public instruction for both sexes, with native schools and teaching in the Kurdish language. All of this is admirable enough, if one can grant that Kurdish independence is feasible or that it is advisable from the point of view of world security. . . .

In January last the Kurdish Democratic Party published a statement throughout Iran, Iraq and eastern Turkey that an independent Kurd republic had been formed at Mahabad in Iran (noted on many maps as Sauj Bulagh), a town some 20 miles south of Lake Urmia. The claim was made that the attendance at this meeting represented the Kurds who are resident in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. More important are the persistent reports of attacks launched from Iran against Iraqi defense patrols across the border. It is said that the military leader of the movement is a Kurd, outlawed from Iraq, named Mullah Mustafa of the Barzani tribe, and it has been further reported that he is the acknowledged commander in chief of some 30,000 Kurdish troops. Allowing a 50 percent deduction for probable exaggeration, the movement would still be an important one. . . .

The reports coming in to the American press indicate that Kurdish tribes, with Iranian troops from the rebelling Iranian province of Azerbaijan, have been extending their control rapidly southwestward in a direction parallel to the western border of Iran. This follows the Zagros mountain heights, separating Iraq and Turkey from old Persia. Recently it was said that cavalry of Azerbaijan have taken towns and prisoners of leftist tendencies, around Zenjan, lying east of Iranian Azerbaijan-if one may still correctly call it Iranian. Russian troop movements are occurring . . . Always "rebellious Kurdish tribesmen" are involved in these matters.

Who are these Kurds? Why are they rebellious? What do they want? Obviously some of their leaders hope to found an independent Kurdish republic. What are the justifications of this demand? If they could establish it, is there good reason to believe that they could maintain it? We Americans are a generous people and particularly susceptible to the charm of the slogan of "self-determination of peoples." Before our sympathies become involved in behalf of the Kurds, it might be well that we know something about them.

II

One fact may be disposed of at the outset. The Kurds can present a better claim to "race purity," meaning ethnic unity, and to a continuity of their cultural pattern for a much longer period than can any people now living in Europe. The culture pattern is essentially of the nomad-herdsman type, of course; but the claim, in that particular pattern, is quite justified. Since about 2400 B.C., originally under the name of Guti, they are known to have lived in the central part of the area over which they are now scattered. This is a limited district, on both sides of the Zagros mountain range and stretching south and west from it through lower Anatolia into the mountainous districts of northern Iraq and present-day Syria. Because their nomad life gives these tribesmen a high degree of mobility, Kurdish "splinters" are found also in Afghanistan and Baluchistan. There are, indeed, Kurdish population groups even in Aleppo and Damascus.

The only element of Kurdish culture which has changed much in the 4,300 years of known Kurdish life is the language. The Kurds took the Iranian basis of their language from the Medes and Persians about the twelfth century B.C. They still resent any invasions of their lands and any other intrusion upon their independence just as sharply as they did when Xenophon, the Athenian, led his ten thousand Greeks northward out of Mesopotamia through the "Karduchian" villages in 400 B.C. In this respect, the only thing which has changed among the Kurds is the type of weapon used. Indeed, the only progress worth recording in Kurdish life is that where once the Kurds fought with bows and arrows, they now shoot guns. A predilection of the Kurds for shooting at moving objects, preferably at human beings, has not altered much since Xenophon's time. . . .

The social and political organization under which the Kurds have always lived is tribalism. Once, in the tenth century A.D., they established a fairly extensive Kurdish kingdom-but only for the lifetime of one chieftain. Although constantly under the nominal suzerainty of larger powers, from the time of the Persian Empire of antiquity to the end of the Turkish Empire in 1918, the Kurds have actually maintained a considerable degree of autonomy of a noncooperative and purely negative type. Particularly they have refused to accept two signs of subjection-taxation and conscription for the military purposes of their nominal rulers. Resistance to these demands, resulting in revolts, has been chronic with them.

During the years between the Treaty of Lausanne and 1942, two serious revolts of the Kurds had occurred in Turkey, three in Iran and three in Iraq. These revolts indicated a vital spirit of resistance to control on the part of the Kurds; but it is a mistake to interpret them as evidence of a conscious and active feeling of Kurdish unity and nationalism or even of an overwhelming desire for statehood. The rebellion of the Kurds of Turkey in 1937-38, though little known, was a large-scale affair, and was followed by bloody reprisals upon the Kurdish leaders in which several thousand are said to have been slain. A rigid censorship was exercised by the Turkish authorities over the fighting and over the stern treatment meted out to the Kurdish chieftains, but the seriousness of the revolt is disclosed by the measures subsequently adopted. The Kurdish provinces were divided into smaller districts; the Turkish forces used as guards were heavily increased; the Kurds received, officially, the nationalizing name of "Mountain Turks"; and many of them were moved down from their mountains and the summer pasturages they had used for several thousand years to be settled in the plains as sedentary farmers.

III

In no one of the parts of geographic "Kurdistan," which may be defined as including only the territory occupied by the Kurdish tribes of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, does the Kurdish element form more than a strong minority of the total population. During the negotiations conducted before the League of Nations in 1923-26 regarding the sovereignty over the Mosul district, and since that time, the Turks have refused to acknowledge the Kurds as a population element alien to themselves, preferring to regard them as an assimilated people. . . .

The Kurdish tribes of Iran, located chiefly in the provinces of Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Kermanshahan, were conquered and disarmed by the former shah of Iran, Riza Khan, so far as this was possible. When, in 1941, the Russians came into the Persian highlands from the west via the Zagros passes, the Persian army in those areas collapsed. By the end of September of that year it had disintegrated and its peasant soldiers had walked back home. The Kurds thereupon helped themselves to the arms stored in large arsenals in the towns of Urmia, Sinneh and Mahabad. Thus equipped, they set about restoring the traditional position of freedom from supervision which they had lost in the previous two decades. But whether the unified Kurdish independence movement will be something to reckon with or whether it will suffer a sudden and total collapse depends upon whether it continues to receive Russian support. . . .

IV

There is little chance that any strong backing for an independent Kurdistan will be found in the United Nations. Such a state would have to be formed by taking large areas out of three sovereign states, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. It would absorb some of the chrome lands of Turkey. . . . It would include the British-controlled oil wells of the Mosul and Kirkuk districts in Iraq. If it should be established, it would offer no promise of internal stability or permanence. For the Kurds have never been a unified people. They have no national tradition, no background of unity and no experience of self-rule. But even though the idea of a unified Kurdish state is completely unfeasible, the Kurdish movement for Khoiboun is the most dangerous of all the troubles which now beset the Middle East-because of the support which it has from Soviet Russia. Even if a limited Kurdish region were to be set up as an independent unit in Iran alone, the situation would be bad. The Kurdish tribes of Turkey, numerically the largest group, could almost certainly become involved in the independence movement. In that case, the Turks would go to war to maintain the unity of the state which they have knit together with so much self-sacrifice and expenditure of blood.

No one denies that the Kurds are good fighters. Those who know them best call them "trigger-happy." The tribes of Iran are supplied with arms and ammunition of a quality and in quantity such as they have never known before. All of the Kurds have grievances against the states of which they are now subjects. Grievances, ammunition and a fighting people-this is the explosive combination with which the Soviet Union is playing the hoary tsarist game of expansion.

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