AKURDISH 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 letter was accompanied by a memorandum on the "Kurdish Question." It makes little difference that the material presented was strongly reminiscent of what had appeared in brochure form upon the same subject at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The figures in the memorandum may not be acceptable. 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 with 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. Certainly Kurdish Communism is something quite different from the Moscow brand.

The educated and intellectualized Kurdish leaders who supply charters and slogans to the tribesmen (who can shoot much better than they can read) seem to be thoroughly sincere. The movement for Kurdish independence has also found some degree of sympathy among French political commentators and British military personnel who have had actual contact with the problems of the Middle East. Yet when one recalls the Armenian massacres of the First World War and the harrying of the Assyrian Christians since that time by the Iranian Kurds, as well as by the Arabs of 'Iraq, one is given a moment of pause. The writer once knew a young Kurdish chieftain who had attended an American university for two years. He talked of baseball with wide knowledge of batting averages, and of football with shining eyes. When asked to use his influence to stop the massacres of the Assyrian Christians he responded: "Don't worry about them. We will kill them all."

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. This would particularly be the case if it had Russian backing -- as has been persistently claimed in documents sent out from Kurdish sources.

If Kurdish publicity which emanates from Persian Tehran can be believed, Russia is supporting the Kurd liberation movement in several ways. Iranian headquarters at Mahabad are said to have received a printing press and accessories for its propaganda activities. More significant is the statement that the Mahabad center had obtained 20 tanks, four trucks and some mortars from a Russian post at Mianduab, situated about a dozen miles northeast of Mahabad. This is all detailed and specific information, and in itself credible enough. One might dismiss it as unimportant by assuring oneself that 20 Russian tanks and a printing press do not necessarily constitute a fixed foreign policy. If Russian officers are, as the Iranian Kurds claim, taking part in the training of a thousand Kurdish soldiers, they can at any moment easily be disavowed by the Russian Government. These are comforting thoughts. Regarding the Kurds, also, one's faith in the alleged strength and unity of their movement for liberty is somewhat shaken by the observation that the Kurdish propagandist newspaper of Beirut, Le Jour Nouveau, was apparently willing last October to accede, in the interest of unity, to the Communistic program of the 'Iraqi Kurds. In one of its November issues, however, it takes quite lightly the "accusation" that the Soviet Government favored Kurdish independence. This discrepancy might be explained as one dictated by the needs of local Arab politics in Lebanon and Syria or by the wider consideration of its effect upon readers of the western world. More likely is the explanation that the four groups of Kurds in the area -- those of Iran, Turkey, 'Iraq and Syria -- are by no means ideologically unified, at least as yet.

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, it is reported, in Kurdistan province, fantastic as it may seem that the Soviet state would use Russian troops to attain ends in western Iran which it can so easily induce the Kurds and the acquiescent elements among the Iranians themselves to achieve for them. 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.


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 invasion 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. During the revolt of the Iranian Kurds in 1942, and in the fighting which is now going on, a part of their weapons, particularly machine guns, has been of Russian manufacture. A predilection of the Kurds for shooting at moving objects, preferably at human beings, has not altered much since Xenophon's time.

Against this tendency is to be placed a fine sense of hospitality to strangers who have been accepted as their guests. An incident typical of this trait was related of Ibrahim Pasha, a chieftain who headed the Milli tribes of the Kurds until his death in 1909 at the hands of the Young Turks. He had seen the massacres of Armenians in Constantinople in 1897. A French career diplomat was sent to the Mosul district to make a report upon Ibrahim's connection with these events. When he was about to leave, Ibrahim Pasha presented him with his own mount, a beautiful white mare, which the Frenchman felt compelled to refuse. After some thought, Ibrahim said: "I understand. Your report would be suspected. Then I shall send my oldest son with you. He will ride your horse beside you. You will ride my mare; and when you reach the border of my land, you will return the mare to him and he will tell you farewell for me." It was a gracious act.

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 non-coöperative 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.

In the early months of 1919 a certain Chérif Pasha appeared at Paris as head of a "Kurdish delegation" to the Peace Conference. He had been appointed by a group called the Committee of Deliverance which had been negotiating with the old Tsarist régime in Russia during World War I for help in establishing Kurdish autonomy. The memorandum circulated at the Peace Conference which bore the name of Chérif Pasha actually had nothing to do with subsequent events. It was quite a different set of forces which resulted in the clause embodied in Article 62 of the Treaty of Sèvres calling for a state of Kurdistan, which was to be an autonomous area of the new Turkey. It provided for the selection of an International Commission of three members (one British, one French and one Italian) which was to draft within six months a plan for local autonomy in "the predominantly Kurdish areas" of Turkey. These Turkish areas lay in the southeastern part of the Turkish state, as that sadly truncated country was delimited in Article 27 of the Treaty of Sèvres. The whole Treaty was, of course, stillborn. There is no available evidence that this particular "Kurdish Commission" was ever established. Certainly it never went to Kurdistan or otherwise showed any sign of life, because the able Turkish leader, Ghazi Mustapha Kemal, had already closed the mountain regions of eastern Anatolia against invasion, even against inspection.

The motives which lay behind this plan for an autonomous Kurdistan are now hard to determine. Its purpose may have been, in part, to eliminate all chance of the resurgence of a powerful Turkey. Certainly it would have provided a neat buffer district to the north of Mesopotamia between the British mandate of 'Iraq, with its oil fields about Mosul and Kirkuk, and any development in the north which might eventually be a danger to British control of the Mosul area and the 'Iraqi state. The French may have acceded to it in the expectation that their hold upon Alexandretta and its hinterland (the present Hatay province of Turkey) would thereby be strengthened. If so, French leadership of the time was ill-advised regarding the forces and the possibilities involved.

Aggressive Turkish nationalism won a complete military victory over the Greeks in 1922; and in the Treaty of Lausanne, which put the seal of futility on the provisions of the Treaty of Sèvres in the fall of 1923, it won a resounding diplomatic victory over Britain, as represented by the anachronistic figure of Lord Curzon. For the following three years the Kurdish question took the form of a territorial dispute between the Government of 'Iraq and the new Turkey, regarding sovereignty over the vilayet of Mosul. Actually the dispute was one between Turkey and Great Britain, which still controlled 'Iraq as mandatory Power. This controversy was settled by a decision of the League of Nations in 1926, whereby the Mosul vilayet, with its total population of about 800,000 -- which included 265,000 Kurds and about 147,000 Turcomans -- became a part of the mandated Kingdom of 'Iraq, and the highly productive oil wells of the Mosul and Kirkuk area were amply protected for the British Empire.

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.


The propagandist newspaper of Beirut, Le Jour Nouveau, has recently published the standardized Kurdish version of the population of Kurds in the five important areas of their residence. It comes to more than 4,000,000 in Turkey (estimated); 1,000,000 in 'Iraq; 3,500,000 in Iran; 160,000 in Transcaucasian Russia; and 250,000 in Syria. Thus is reached the fantastic total of almost 8,000,000 Kurds. Taking no account of the numbers in distant Afghanistan and Baluchistan, the best available estimates show them dispersed as follows among the five sovereignties mentioned above:[i]


In Turkey (census of 1926) 1,000,000
In 'Iraq (census of 1924) 494,000
In Iran (general consensus of guesses) 700,000
In Transcaucasian Russia (census of 1911) 125,000
In Syria 100,000
    Total 2,419,000

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 linguistic test, however, fails to substantiate this claim, because Kurdish speech is of the Iranian language group, though with intrusions of modern Persian, Turkish and Arabic words.

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 Iranian Azerbaijan from the north, and British troops crossed 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.

From one point of view this "rebellion" of the Kurds of Iran may be regarded as part of the series of endemic and automatic native Kurdish uprisings against the restrictions and controls imposed upon their independence since 1920. But it has two features which make it unique in Kurdish history and give it a small spot in the picture of present large-scale strategy. The first is that it took on the aspect of a unified movement of the Kurdish tribes of the three states of Iran, 'Iraq and Turkey, and that it was supposed to be conducted under the centralized leadership of a single Sheik named Mehmet Ali Rashid. The second new feature is that the revolt of the Iranian Kurds has had from the outset the tacit support, at least, of the Russian troops which had entered the northwestern Iranian province of Azerbaijan in 1941. This advance of the Russian troops into Iran from the north simultaneous with the advance of British forces into northern 'Iraq from the west can be justified as a necessary measure of the war plans of the Allies. 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.

That the strength of the Kurdish movement lay in the "sympathy" which the Russians felt for it was apparent to the Turks as soon as this 1941 rebellion began. Turkish leaders had believed that their vicious reprisals upon the "Mountain Turks" in 1937-38 had put an end to Kurdish troubles for years to come. Now they had broken out again, after only three years. What the Turkish leaders threatened to do, if the Kurdish rebellion of 1941 was permitted to continue, is unknown to the writer. Certainly it was no time for the Allied nations to play fast and loose with Turkey. Rommel's eastward advance in North Africa against Tobruk and Alexandria, and the great Nazi effort to take the oil wells of the Caucasus region, were in the offing. In the latter half of May 1942 the Russians "suppressed" the Kurdish revolt in Iran. This probably meant that they were induced to use their influence to have it called off. What form the inducements took is not yet known. The nearest guess would be that the methods of persuasion were closely tied up with lend-lease to Russia. In any event, at the Tehran Conference in November-December 1943, Joseph Stalin signed, along with President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, a renewal of his declaration of "the maintenance of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iran," a clause taken from the British-Soviet-Iranian Treaty of Alliance of January 1942.

In 1942, and for a time thereafter, a certain amount of agitation for independence emanated from a Kurdish independence society, called the Khoiboun. This Khoiboun movement, organized in 1927, had established a connection with elements of the old revolutionary Armenian society called the Daschnakzoun. Its object was to promote a union of the Kurds of 'Iraq, Syria and Turkey, enlisting in its aid the old Armenian hatred against Turkey. During 1942 an obvious attempt was made to bring in the "Assyrians" (Nestorian Christians) of Iran and 'Iraq as well. Even without any foreign backing this combination might conceivably have caused trouble to the three states of Iran, Turkey and 'Iraq, supposing its propaganda could have overcome the centuries of hatred which separated these three incompatible elements; but the chances of this were small. The religious differences which separate the Moslem Kurds from the Gregorian Armenians and the Nestorian Christians are too deeply felt by the peoples involved; and the massacres of the past century are unforgotten -- massacres of Catholic Armenians by Gregorian Armenians, of Kurds by Armenians, of Armenians by Kurds, and of the Assyrians by all parties concerned. Such massacres in the Middle East are to be regarded somewhat in the light of political activities, like voting with us, except that the massacres do not occur at fixed times -- and they are much longer remembered.

Khoiboun is the Kurdish word for "independence." To the time of the Russian troop movement into northern Iran in 1941 the Khoiboun was solely a Kurdish movement in origin, direction and ultimate aims. It was only six months, however, after the signing of the Soviet-British-Iranian treaty early in 1942 that suspicions began to be expressed regarding Russian intrigue among the inflammable elements which are always available in the Near and Middle East. Armenians from the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic were appointed to replace the disarmed Iranian police in Tabriz, headquarters of the Russian zone of occupation. Letters were received by members of the Assyrian Christian community of Baghdad extolling the treatment which their co-religionists in northwestern Iran were receiving at the hands of the Soviet authorities and soldiery in that region. The deduction to be drawn was obvious. The Assyrians of Baghdad, too, should ally themselves with the Khoiboun movement.


As late as 1945 honest friends of Russia could still protest the assertion that the U.S.S.R. was pursuing a policy of political and economic expansion southward into Iran. Today there are few persons conversant with Middle Eastern affairs who would deny that this expansionist policy is a fact, few who would reject the conclusion that its ultimate aims are both economic and political. The Russians have, apparently, obtained the oil concessions which they have been demanding in Iran. Probably they are working toward the attainment of a warm seaport on the southern shore of Iran. It is no more than common sense to assume that Russian diplomacy is fully conscious of the danger which any pressure southward in Iran must spell for the British Empire.

The Russian need for oil concessions and an ice-free port may well be justified. It is the methods used in moving toward these ends which brings further consternation to a world already so sick of intrigue and of the smothering of the helpless. The pattern of the Russian advance in Iran is quite familiar. It is a policy of political fragmentation. The Romans had a word for it -- divide. Amidst mutually hostile groups, this one is pitted against that. In the turmoil which ensues, the rest is easy for a strong Power. Thus the able leader of the Mukri tribe living about Mahabad, Qazi Muhammed, was called to Tabriz in Russian-controlled Azerbaijan in 1945, there to receive instructions, or guidance if you prefer. A small group of Kurdish chieftains had previously visited Baku. They, too, had been urged to set up an autonomous Kurdish state. According to the wording of the Russian Treaty with Britain and Iran, all Soviet occupational troops should have been out of Persia by March 6 at the latest. But before the withdrawal was accomplished the Iranian province of Azerbaijan had become a separatist region, with puppet leaders who do what they are told to do. To all intents and purposes the Caspian Sea is enclosed at its southern end by Soviet power. It has become a Russian inland sea.

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 which were so important a weapon against von Papen's Nazi diplomacy during the war. 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, would 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.

[i] Taken from a doctoral thesis of the University of Paris by Messout Fany, "La Nation Kurd" (1933), p. 31-41. This estimate is fairly close to one given by a League of Nations Boundary Commission in 1930, which put the total of the Kurds at about 3,000,000.

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  • WILLIAM LINN WESTERMANN, Professor of History, Columbia University; Adviser on Turkish Affairs and Chief of the Division of Western Asia, American Commission to Negotiate Peace, 1919
  • More By William Linn Westermann