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Kurdish Question: An untold story about the division of Kurdistan

Signed on 24 July 1923, the Lausanne Treaty divided Kurdistan between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Azerbaijan. Even though we are entering its 94th anniversary now, one serious aspect of the Treaty has often, wittingly or unwittingly, been omitted. The dominant narrative maintains the view that it was the Allies who divided Kurdistan for it was not in line with their imperial design. A closer analysis of the period between 1919 and 1923, however, not only challenges this view but may also falsify it as a “conspiracy theory”. In this paper, I trace the trajectory of those events which resulted in the consummation of the Lausanne Treaty.

Historical evidence tells us that the period from 1919 to 1921 presented the Kurdish freedom movement with most political opportunity structures needed for the formation of an independent Kurdistan, prompting some historians to name it as “the golden opportunity” era.[1] During this, Kurdish revolutionaries organised numerous rebellions in different parts and areas of Kurdistan. Among those were the Şêx Mehmûd Rebellion of 1919 in Silêmanî province, the Koçgirî Rebellion of 1920 in the Dêrsim area, and the Simko Rebellion of 1920 in Urmiye. This range of armed rebellions shows the motivation of the Kurdish population for freedom, which is the first opportunity structure for the triumph of any revolutionary movement.[2]

The second opportunity structure—severe political crisis paralysing the state’s administrative and coercive capacities—had during that period presented itself to the Kurdish movement. Towards the end of the First World War, the Allies had occupied the Ottoman territories and imposed the Treaty of Sevres on Sultan Abdullhamit. The paralysing pressure compelled Kemal Ataturk to appeal to certain Kurdish circles to help him out in expelling the occupying forces.[3]

The third opportunity structure—division among the state’s elites—had also been present, as the Turkish ruling elites had suffered from serious internal disputes. While the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, the ruling elite bifurcated into two opposing camps represented by Sultan Abdullhamit and Kemal Ataturk. Based in Istanbul, the Sultan’s faction sought to preserve the Sultanate system. Not acknowledging his mandate and decrying him for the signing of the Serves Treaty, the Ataturk faction found an alternative government in Ankara, which became an incubator to the Turkish Republic.

The fourth opportunity structure—a crosscutting alliance between major classes of society or a national coalition between principal political groups—was lacking. There is no trace of any cooperation among major Kurdish forces who fought in different parts of Kurdistan. Nor there was an alliance of any sort between Kurdish forces of the same part of Kurdistan. For example, the Kurdish movement in Bakûr, North Kurdistan, was divided between the independent-seeking faction led by the intellectual circle under the influence of Bedirxanis, and the autonomy-seeking section represented by Seîd Qadirî Nehrî, among other traditionalist and religious circles.[4]

The fifth opportunity structure—international permissiveness and foreign aid—was to some extent available to the Kurdish movement. Historical data reveals that the Allies offered the Kurds diplomatic support for the formation of an independent Kurdistan. The reason was because Kurdistan, along with Armenia, would serve as a buffer between Turkey proper and the rest of Turkic areas in Central Asia called Turan, the Young Turks aspired to take over in order to form the Turanian Empire.[5] To prevent this, the Allies supported both the Armenian and the Kurds. The first document indicating the West’s diplomatic aid to the latter was the Fourteen Point Declaration of Woodrow Wilson, the American president, on the rights of peoples to self-determination. Article 12 of the Declaration demanded in 1918:

The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development…[6]

The second document is the Sevres Treaty of 1920 which stipulated:

Article 62: A Commission sitting at Constantinople and composed of three members appointed by the British, French and Italian Governments respectively shall draft within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty a scheme of local autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish areas lying east of the Euphrates, south of the southern boundary of Armenia as it may be hereafter determined, and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia…

Article 64: If within one year from the coming into force of the present Treaty the Kurdish peoples within the areas defined in Article 62 shall address themselves to the Council of the League of Nations in such a manner as to show that a majority of the population of these areas desires independence from Turkey, and if the Council then considers that these peoples are capable of such independence and recommends that it should be granted to them, Turkey hereby agrees to execute such a recommendation, and to renounce all rights and title over these areas…[7]

As I said, Western support was limited to diplomatic initiatives and there is no evidence of military or financial aid. It was the Kurds’ adversary which received political, military and financial support from the Soviet Union under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. Historical data shows that from 1919 onwards, Ataturk’s alternative government in Ankara received a substantial amount of aid from the Soviet.[8] After the conclusion in 1921 of the Treaty of Friendship with Ataturk, Lenin was the first to recognise the Ataturk government in Ankara, in opposition to that of Sultan in Istanbul.[9] During these critical years, the Soviet was the main provider of much of the military, economic, and moral supports Ataturk needed to drive the Allies out of Turkey and to consolidate the foundations of the Turkish Republic.[10]

As such, Soviet aid helped Ataturk in 1921 to extract a treaty from France to withdraw its forces from Cilicia. In the following year, Ataturk also managed to expel the Greeks from Anatolia, after which to launch an assault on the Straits Zone, under British control. This led to a formal armistice between the two when the Turkish representative in London met with British officials to negotiate a new treaty to remodel or replace that of Sevres.[11] By this time, furthermore, Britain had lost interest in the creation of an independent Kurdistan, as that might have instigated into rebellion the Kurdish population in the British-mandated-Iraq.[12] The desire to secure a peace agreement with the Turkish government and not to encourage it to foment disturbance on the Iraqi borders seems to have been yet another reason for the relinquishment.

Probably it was upon a request from Ataturk that in 1923 Lenin withdrew the autonomous status he had earlier granted to the Kurdish enclave in the Soviet territories known as “The Red Kurdistan” and subsequently attached it to the Azerbaijan Republic.[13] Having a land area of approximately 5,200 square km, the Red Kurdistan was scrapped into the dustbin of history and has never been talked of. Beyond all this, the Third International, which had been under the influence of the Soviet, denounced the Kurdish rebellion of 1925, known as the Şêx Seîd Revolt, as a “reactionary” move designed by “British imperialism” to weaken the Turkish Republic.[14]

After the October Revolution of 1917, it should nevertheless be noted, the Soviet adopted the policy of supporting anti-colonial movements in what was then termed as the “Third World”. The intention behind this was not only to ignite an international revolution against the capitalist system but also to consolidate the socialist revolution at home.[15] The first initiative the Soviet did in this respect was to organise in 1920 the First Congress of the Peoples of East, which was held in the capital city of Azerbaijan, Baku. Invited to the Congress was, also, a group of Azeri-Turkish activists from Iran including General Lahuty from Tabriz.[16]The Vietnam’s revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Min, who was present at the Congress, claimed:

After this historic Congress, despite all internal and external difficulties, the revolutionary Soviet never hesitated to support those peoples who had awaken up as the result of its historic revolution.  One of the most important decisions made in the Congress was to open the University of the East.[17]

The Soviet established the University of the East in order to educate future revolutionaries of the colonised world.  According to Ho Chi Min, who received ideological and political education in the University, it boasted 150 lecturers and 1,022 students from 66 countries.[18] Among them were three Iranian activists named Hussein Sharqy, Karim Nikkhah, and Ardashir Ovasiyan.[19] In the evaluation of the University, Ho Chi Min maintained; without exaggeration, the future of colonised peoples lies under the ceiling of this University.[20] Not only did the future of the colonised Kurds not lie under its ceiling, but Lenin’s sustained collaboration with Ataturk in the formation of the Turkish nation-state proved too costly for the Kurds.

More importantly, Lenin set a model the subsequent Soviet leaders did not hesitate to emulate. In the Agirî Revolt of 1937, for example, Soviet aid to the Turkish state was crucial in the final crushing of the rebellion. When the Soviet closed the Araxes border on Kurdish revolutionaries and allowed the Turkish army to make use of its rail facilities, the fate of the Agirî Revolt was sealed.[21] Above and beyond, the Soviet mediated between the Turkish and the Iranian regimes in settling scores springing from the Revolt.[22]

It may come as a surprise that the Soviet in the 1980s provided the Turkish army with Mi-1 Hip-M and Sikorsky helicopters, armoured personnel carriers, and night vision equipment, all of which were used in operations against PKK guerrillas and its civilian supporters.[23]

To conclude, I argue that the Lausanne Treaty was the result of a paralysing disunity among assorted Kurdish groups, and a sustained supply of foreign aid the Ataturk government secured from the Soviet under the leadership of Lenin. Had the Kurdish groups managed to merge into a unified front of a sort, and had the Soviet not propped up the flattened Turkish army to reverse the Sevres Treaty, Kurdistan may not have been split into five pieces, with one forgotten for good.

[1] Izady, Mehrdad. The Kurds: A Concise Handbook (Washington: Taylor & Francis, 1992) p. 58; Kendal, Nizan. “Kurdistan in Turkey”. In: Chaliand, Gerard. ed. A People Without A Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan (New York: Olive Branch, 1993, [1980]) p. 30.

[2] For the discussion of opportunity structures see Greene, T. Comparative Revolutionary Movements; Search For Theory and Justice. Third Edition. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990, [1974]); Goldstone, J. (Ed.). Revolutions; Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical Studies. Second Edition. (Forth Worth: University of California, Davis, 1994, [1986]); Goldfrank, W. “The Mexican Revolution”. In: Goldstone, J. ed. Revolutions; Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical Studies. Second Edition. (Forth Worth: University of California, Davis, (1994, [1986]).

[3] Kendal, 1993, p. 48.

[4] Kendal, 1993, p. 32; Dêrsimî, Nûrî. Dêrsim le Mêjûy Kurdistan da, (Dêrsim in the History of Kurdistan), trans from Turkish to Soranî by Dizeyi, F.A. (Hewler: Mukiryanî, 2001, [1952]) p. 145-46

[5] See Mann, M. The Dark Side of Democracy; Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) p. 131-2; Hewitt, C. and Cheetham, T. (2000) Encyclopaedia of Modern Separatist Movements(California: ABC-CLIO, 2000) p. 232.

[8] McDowall, David., A Modern History of the Kurds (London: I.B. Tauris, 1997) p. 130.

[9] McDowall, 1997, p. 138; Romano, David., The Kurdish Nationalist Movement: Opportunity, Mobilization and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) p. 36; Kirişci, Kemal. and Winrow, Gareth., The Kurdish Question and Turkey: An Example of a Trans-state Ethnic Conflict (London: Frank Cass, 1997) p. 71.

[10] Dunn, John., Modern Revolutions: An Introduction to the Analysis of a Political Phenomenon (London: Cambridge University Press, 1972) p. 193-95; Harris, Nigal., National Liberation (London: Penguin Books, 1990) p. 118-9; Olson, Robert., “The Kurdish Question in the Aftermath of the Gulf War: Geopolitical and Geostrategic Changes in the Middle East”, Third World Quarterly 13: 3 (1992) p. 480-92; Bedirxan, Sureya., The Case of Kurdistan Against Turkey (Stockholm: SARA Bokförlag, 1992) http://www.saradistribution.com/thecaseofkurdistan.htm; Vanly, Ismet Sheriff., “The Kurds in the Soviet Union”. In: Kreyenbroek, Philip. and Sperl, Stephan. eds., The Kurds; A Contemporary Overview (London: Routledge, 2005 [1992]) p. 158; Jwaidah, Wadia., The Kurdish National Movement; Its Origins and Development(New York: Syracuse University Press, 2006) p. 122; Dêrsimî, 2001, p. 290; Kendal, 1993, p. 49.

[11] McDowall, 1997, p. 140.

[12] Kirişci and Winrow, 1997, p. 70.

[13] Vanly, 2005, p. 158-9.

[14] Harris, 1990, p. 119; Bozarslan, Hamit., “Some Remark on Kurdish Historiographical Discourse in Turkey 1919-1980”. In: Vali, A. ed. Essays on the Origins of Kurdish Nationalism (Costa Mesa: Mazda, 2003) p. 29; van Bruinessen, Martin, Agha, Shaik and State: The Social and Political Structures of Kurdistan (London: Zed Books, 1992) p. 292.

[15] DeFronzo, James. Revolutions and Revolutionary Movements (Oxford: Westview, 1996) p.43-44-47.

[16] Abrahamian, Ervand. Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982) p. 119.

[17] Minh, Ho Chi. On Revolution: Selected Writings, 1920-66, Fall, B.B. edition (New York: Praeger, 1967) p. 44.

[18] Minh, 1967, p. 46.

[19] Abrahamian, 1982, p. 130-32.

[20] Minh, 1967, p. 46.

[21] McDowall, 1997, p. 205.

[22] Jwaideh, 2006, p. 123.

[23] Laizer, Sheri. Martyrs, Traitors and Patriots; Kurdistan after the Gulf War (London: Zed Books, 1996) p. 83.

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