The Public Humanist

The Kurdish Experiment: Mandates that Made the Middle East


The Kurds are an ethno-religious minority group that has no country of their own, but exert varying levels of autonomy in regions of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. They have played important roles in both Gulf Wars and more recently in the fight against ISIS. In recent weeks, the world has closely followed their substantial progress towards ending ISIS’ occupation of the city of Manbij. Despite their important role in Middle Eastern affairs, they are still a marginalized group, and are a cause celebré in the West. As with much of the modern Middle East, the modern Kurdish nationalist movement grew during in the mandate period. As an influential minority in the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds began to push a nationalist agenda in the 1880s. That nationalism gained new vigor following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire; the Treaty of Sevres promised a new state of Kurdistan, carved mostly out of territory in modern day Turkey. The Turkish War of Independence changed all of that and the Treaty of Lausanne, which replaced Sevres and ended the Turkish rebellion, did not include the Kurdish state. When the Middle East Mandates were finalized, Kurdish territory was spread across Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.

During the mandate period, treatment of Kurds varied from substantial autonomy to severe discrimination. Within Turkey, Kurdish nationalism continued to simmer, boiling over occasionally into revolts, which were put down in bloody fashion. Kurds in Turkey saw their rights restricted, including prohibition of the use of the Kurdish language in government and business dealings. In particular, the success of Mustafa Kemal and the Turkish Republic proved disastrous for Kurdish hopes for independence. In efforts to promote a more secular, homogenized Turkey, the Republican regime cracked down on all expressions of “Kurdishness.” This included not only restrictions on the use of language, but also on dress, cuisine and celebration of holidays. The forced relocation of thousands of Kurds was among the more drastic measures, part of what was known as “Turkification.” Not limited to Kurds alone, this program’s aim was to make Turkey more homogeneous in order to help build national unity and make it more “European” Resistance to relocation led to violent repression by Turkish armed forces. The most infamous such event was the Dersim Massacre, which occurred in the Dersim region in Eastern Turkey. This tragedy unfolded between March 1937 and December 1938 and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Kurds. Estimates of the final toll range from 7,500 to 13,000, with thousands more forcibly relocated.

Distribution of Kurds in the Middle East

Distribution of Kurds in the Middle East

Kurds fared somewhat better in Iraq and Syria; the British divided Iraq into Kurdish and Arab administrative areas, while Kurds benefitted from the “divide and rule” strategy the French enacted in Syria. (For more on French Syria, see my previous post.) In the latter case, this local autonomy persisted throughout the French mandate period. French Syria also absorbed many of the Kurds who fled oppression and war in Turkey. In the Kurdish section of Iraq, the British dealt primarily with Kurdish leader Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji. After a hopeful start, relations between the two parties fell apart and Barzanji launched a short lived and futile rebellion in 1919. Elsewhere in Iraq, the British continued to offer local autonomy to many of the rural Kurdish areas. Though the Kurds never received full autonomy, the British ensured that rights for Kurds were protected in the Iraqi constitution. Kurdish regions served as pieces on the board of Britain’s Iraq policy; their status was altered a number of times due to diplomatic or military concerns in the region, including Britain’s negotiations with Iraq’s King Faisal.

When examining the history of the Kurds post-Ottoman Empire, it is easy to think of them as one of the groups Europe betrayed and left out of the remade Middle East. However Europe is not entirely to blame; the most consequential event for Kurds was the success of the Turkish nationalists, which did far more to sink Kurdish aspirations than any actions taken by the European powers. Kurds elsewhere benefited from the mandates; it was only after Arab regimes took over that Kurdish rights began to be eroded (perhaps most strikingly in the much-publicized atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein).

I’d like to conclude this post and this series with the following suggestion; that Arab nationalism may deserve more credit for shaping the Middle East following World War 1 than it sometime receives. The map of the Middle East was drawn partly in response to the unexpected success of Turkey, and the well-supported aspirations of groups like the Kurds. The European powers certainly had ulterior military and economic motives, but there were strong voices in the European governments that supported Arab nationalist groups. The efforts of nationalists were not always successful and the results were sometimes ugly, but it still marked an unprecedented experiment in that part of the world, one driven by Europeans and Arabs alike. I suggest that what we are now witnessing in the Middle East could be the rejection of that experiment; ISIS, the rise of the AKP and Erdoğan in Turkey, and some elements of the Syrian rebel coalition are all signs of a movement away from Arab secular nationalism and a challenge to the borders that were carved from the fallen Ottoman Empire.

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