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May 27, 2015 / 9 Sivan, 5775
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Justice for the Kurds?

Pro-Kurd protest

Photo Credit: Gili Yaari/Flash 90

Much ink has been spilled about the desirability or even the inevitability of a separate State for Palestinians, whose identity stems from the middle of the 20th century, but what has been much less discussed by the international community — and for the most part ignored — is a similar claim by the Kurds, a people with a truly separate ethnic identity as well as a long history.

A Palestinian state would encompass 5 to 6 million people, the separate identity of whom stems only from the middle of the last century. Until that time those living in the area of Palestine did not consider themselves Palestinians, but as part of the Pan-Arab or Pan-Islamist movement. A Palestinian identity was not regarded as distinct from the identities of other Arabs who inhabited adjacent regions. The concept of such a separate identity arose, among other reasons, partly as a response to the Zionist movement and the establishment in 1948 of Israel, which until then was called Palestine: all citizens, including Jews, had on their passports that their country of origin was Palestine. There is now a demand for a Palestinian state separate from that of other Arabs.

The Kurds, on the other hand, are a frequently forgotten people, numbering over 35 million, who have a distinct identity and who have been pleading, fighting and dying for an independent state of their own since the 19th century.

The Arab League with its 22 members, along with Turkey, and many countries and groups in the international community have passionately advocated that part of the disputed land in the formerly Palestine area become a Palestinian state. The same individuals and groups, however, have opposed the creation of a Kurdish non-Arab state, on territory it claims as its own, and with it is unwilling to cooperate in sharing, even as they discount Israel’s claims – from 1800 BCE, up to the Balfour Delaration, the British White Paper and UN Resolution 242 — to all or part of what they want as Judenrein [with no Jews] Palestinian land.

By any reasonable and objective historical and cultural criteria, however, the claim of the Kurds for political sovereignty is infinitely stronger than that of Palestinians. In contrast to the Palestinians, the Kurds have few friends in the international community. Kurdish nationalism emerged a century earlier than did Palestinian nationalism. Collectively the Kurds, who are not Arabs, live in an area usually referred to as “Kurdistan,” despite its uncertain borders. The Kurds make up a significant ethnic group that speaks its own language, part of the Indo-European language group.

During the late 19th century the Kurds made demands, mounting uprisings, and pressed for political autonomy in the areas in which they lived or independence free of any control by the Ottoman Empire or Persian authorities, each of which ruled Kurdish areas. Although the uprisings for an independent state in 1880 were particularly fierce, the Ottomans and the armies of Qajar Persia suppressed them.

After World War I, the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920, the peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and the victorious Allies of the war, dissolved the Empire and replaced it with a number of new nation-states — Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Turkey — but not by a Kurdish state. The newly created Turkey renounced all rights over Arab Asia and North Africa. Two Articles in the Treaty were relevant to the issue of the Kurds. Article 62 of the Treaty suggested the creation of an autonomous region for Kurds in the new Turkey. Article 64 proposed the later possibility of an independent Kurdish state “inhabiting that part of Kurdistan which has hitherto been included in the Mosul vilayet(of the Ottoman Empire).”

However, the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in July 1923 and put into effect in August 1924, ended the continuing state of war between Turkey and a number of the victorious Allies. Between the time the two treaties were signed, the monarchy in Turkey had been overthrown and a republic establish under Kemal Ataturk. The new Treaty defined the borders of the modern Turkish state and ignored the earlier proposal for a Kurdish state. Political machinations, particularly by the British who were concerned with the threat of Communist Russia, led to decisions by which the territorial integrity of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey were heightened to counteract that threat.

The Treaty of Lausanne made no mention of Kurdish independence; instead, the Kurdish population was divided into different areas of Northern Iraq, Southeastern Turkey, and parts of Iran and Syria. Exact figures are difficult to calculate and in dispute, but it is clear that Kurds now constitute large minorities in these different countries. In Iraq they constitute 17% of the population, in Turkey 18%, in Syria 10%, and in Iran 7%. In all these countries they have suffered from oppression. In 1962 about 120,000 Kurds were denied citizenship in Syria on the specious grounds that they were not born in that country. Kurdish land in northern Syria in 1973 was confiscated and given to Arabs. Their language and books were banned from schools and their traditional celebrations prohibited.

Kurds challenged the state of Turkey by an armed insurgency in the 1980s but were suppressed. Turkey had outlawed the Kurdish language and forbidden Kurds to wear their traditional dress in the cities. It encouraged the Kurds to move from their mountain base to the cities to dilute their identity. The Turkish Constitution includes an apartheid clause that all citizens of the country must be ethnic Turks.

Aggression against the Kurds has not only been political and constitutional; it has also been physical. In the armed fighting between Turkey and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Part (PKK) — formed in 1984 and the leader of which leader has long been imprisoned– about 40,000 people were killed, many of whom were PKK fighters. In the 1990s, more than 3,000 Kurdish villages on the borders of Iraq were destroyed by Turkey. Turkish planes have, on many occasions in the last few years, attacked PKK bases and killed civilians in northern Iraq. And in March 2012, Kurds in a number of Turkish towns, including Istanbul, who were celebrating the Kurdish New Year (Nowruz) were arrested or wounded by riot police.

In Iraq chemical weapons were used against them in 1988: their villages were burned, thousands were killed. The attempted rebellion by the Kurds after the Gulf War of 1991 was crushed by Iraqi troops. Saddam Hussein destroyed more than 4,000 Kurdish villages and killed perhaps as many as 180,000 civilians. Only after the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein had ended did Iraqi Kurdistan become an autonomous but not fully independent regime, an area that was extended after the U.S. invasion of 2003. The alternative Kurds face is either greater autonomy in the individual countries in which they live, or an independent state of their own.

The international community and the world media have argued feverishly for a Palestinian state. No such attention or concern has been accorded the Kurds — or the brutality towards them or the oppression they have suffered — both of which are very much greater than anything experienced by the Palestinians.

The Turkish government donated the funds for the 70 foot high monument recently dedicated to “international activists” and erected in Gaza City’s Port. The monument bears the names of the nine “martyrs” killed by Israel commandos in May 2010 when they were on the Mavi Marmara, one of the vessels that tried to break the legal Israeli naval blockade of Gaza to prevent armaments being shipped that could be turned on Israelis. The Turkish Foreign Minister, who referred to the “oppressed” Arabs in Gaza, ignores with a mote in his own eye, the oppression of the Kurds in his own country. Those purportedly concerned with human rights and self-determination have rarely, if ever, expressed support or even paraded for an independent Kurdish state. If a Kurdish state is “unthinkable,” as Arabs argue, so, logically, is a Palestinian one. Surely the conclusion should be clear that if a Palestinian state is justified and endorsed by the international community, shouldn’t similar approval and endorsement be given simultaneously to the creation of a Kurdish state?

Originally published by the Gatestone Institute http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org 

About the Author: Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, and author of the forthcoming book, Should Israel Exist? A sovereign nation under assault by the international community.


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