1990s >> 1994 >> no-1083-november-1994

The Kurdish Question

The biggest dilemma facing the Kurdish nationalists is that the “Kurdistan” they propose is spread out across five countries — Turkey, Syria, Iraq. Iran and the former Soviet Union — none of which has been prepared to concede any part of their territory to allow the formation of a Kurdish state.


When the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany, the allied forces promised the Kurds an independent homeland on condition they remained hostile towards the Ottoman Empire. In 1920, following the collapse of Ottoman rule, the Kurdish nationalists believed they were close to realizing their dream when the Allies began carving up the Middle East at the Treaty of Sèvres. One of the new political entities was to be Kurdistan, a strip of land running from northern Iraq to the southern border of Armenia.


Britain, however, soon realized that giving the Kurds such a homeland would mean losing the oil-rich regions of Mosul and Kirkuk. So a new treaty was drawn up at Lausanne in 1923 which left the Kurds divided up between British-held Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria and the Soviet Union. The Kurdish nationalists, angry at having again been betrayed, began an armed revolt, quickly suppressed by the RAF. Further rebellions in 1931 and 1944 were crushed in a similar way.




It would be 1971 before the West found a use for the Kurds again. Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State, thought it would be a good idea to encourage the Kurds to revolt against Saddam Hussein, at that time embroiled in a border dispute with the then US-friendly Shah of Iran. Again the Kurds were betrayed when Iraq and Iran signed the 1975 Algiers agreement. The US stopped supplying the Kurds and began supplying Iraq and Iran with the arms with which they put down the Kurdish rebellion.


In 1991, as the Gulf War was ending, it was George Bush’s turn to encourage a Kurdish rising, promising them full support if they would attempt to weaken the Baghdad regime. Then came the mother of all betrayals. Saddam came down heavy on the Kurds and the US deserted them, realizing that any successful attempt at founding an independent Kurdistan would in turn encourage Kurds in Syria and Turkey to take on their respective governments, thus upsetting important allies of the West in the Middle East.


After the Iraqi chemical weapon attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988, the West made a token protest and then went on to double its credit to Saddam to $350 million. The net result was that Saddam’s offensive against the Iraqi Kurds destroyed 3,000 out of 4,000 villages, leaving upwards of 150,000 dead.




If Iraq takes first place in human rights abuses against Kurds, then Turkey, the most pro-Western of the Kurdistan-straddled countries, takes a close second. It is only the past two years that Ankara has lifted the ban on the Kurdish language, games and music. This was hardly an altruistic gesture towards Turkey’s 12 million Kurds (20 percent of the population). Rather it was an attempt to tidy up a human rights record that has always acted as a barrier to Turkish entry into the Common Market.


Between 1983 and 1988, Turkey enjoyed a hot pursuit agreement with Iraq, enabling it to attack alleged PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) villages across the Turkish border. Meanwhile, the Turkish authorities, devoid of logic, also endorsed the Kurdish aim of autonomy in Iraq. The “Marxist-Leninist” PKK views Ankara’s reconciliation with the Iraqi Kurds as an attempt to outflank and isolate the Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey itself.


Here we have a further dilemma for the Kurdish nationalists: there is no single set of ideas that they all hold. The PKK leader Abdulah Ocalan believes in the “original” Kurdish homeland, a state that would be the largest in the Middle East. Ocalan’s “Marxism” is indeed ambiguous. As he states himself: “you would need a thousand witnesses to realise what kind of Marxist I am” (Guardian, 28 March 1992). Massoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish leader, declares he is “diametrically opposed” to Ocalan. He condemns the PKK method and mentality in fighting for an independent Kurdish state, believing the PKK to have a “self-righteous regard for themselves as the sole representatives of Kurds everywhere” (Guardian. 2 April 1992).


The PKK began their armed struggle in 1984, and evidence has emerged that they have had the backing of Iraq since 1990. However, since the Gulf War ended, the PKK has increased its activity in northern Iraq, taking advantage of a power vacuum created chiefly by the enforcement of the Allied air-exclusion zone protecting Iraqi Kurds from Saddam.


Recently, Peshmerga forces representing Barzani’s KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) have also began attacks on PKK strongholds, blaming them for endangering everything they have accomplished since the Gulf War — an “Independent Kurdistan” (unrecognized by the international community) with a parliament and supposed attributes of self- determination.


In March it looked as if the PKK was moving in a new direction when they announced a ceasefire. However, the ceasefire only lasted until May when PKK guerrillas ambushed and shot 30 Turkish soldiers in the town of Bingal. Two weeks later the PKK announced they were reverting to an all-out offensive against Turkey — promising to carry their cause to Turkey as a whole, attacking economic and tourist targets.


In late August this year, Iranian state radio announced that 600 members of the KDP and PUK had been killed in clashes in northern Iraq, giving fuel to the argument that the Kurds are not only a “nation” at war with their neighbours, but that they are also a “nation” at war with themselves.


In mid-August, the PKK leader Abdulah Ocalan was telling the Turkish government that “the situation is suitable for a ceasefire”, and urging a federal solution to the Kurdish question (Guardian, 22 August). While the PUK and the KDP were battling it out in northern Iraq, Turkish forces made another attack on a PKK base, killing 250 on August 30, further compounding the situation and incensing PKK rebels.


The PKK and the Kurdish people they claim to represent — many of whom have long been assimilated into the nations Kurdistan straddles — would do well to realize that nationalism is a tumour in the path of socialism, made all the more malignant by the contradictions of capitalism. As an organization claiming to be Marxist the PKK should be aware that workers have no nation and that an armed struggle by a vanguard is no way to bring about Socialism.


The complex rivalries between the capitalist powers have turned the Kurdish people into a reserve army of pawns. As one Guardian writer put it: “The Kurds have all too frequently linked their struggles to the realpolitik of the powerful, serving as useful but dispensable tools in the perennial Middle East game of nations” (9 November 1992).


John Bissett