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The Kurdish Tragedy

Éditeur : Zed Books Date & Lieu : 1994, London & New Jersey
Préface : Pages : 120
Traduction : Philip Black ISBN : 1 85649 099 8
Langue : AnglaisFormat : 135x215 mm
Code FIKP : Liv. Eng. Cha. Kur. N°3578Thème : Général

Table des Matières Introduction Identité PDF
The Kurdish Tragedy

The Kurdish Tragedy

Gerard Chaliand

Zed Books

Gerard Chaliand, an internationally acknowledged authority on guerrilla wars and resistance movements, was commissioned by the United Nations to report on the situation ot the Kurds following the Gulf War. His book serves as an excellent introduction to the Kurdish issue. It provides a history of the Kurdish communities from their foundation, covering their eventual incorporation into the Ottoman Empire during the 15th century, the great Kurdish revolts of the 19th century, and the crucial period following the First World War.

Chaliand documents the precarious situation of the Kurds in recent times, culminating in the tragic exodus of Kurdish refugees f leeing from Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression to a dubious welcome in Turkey. He also deals with the situation in the UN-protected ‘safe havens’, where the Kurds have achieved a degree ot autonomy in the teeth of the opposition of all the surrounding

What makes this book unique is the detailed analysis of the political situation of the Kurds in contemporary Iran, Iraq and t urkey. Chaliand explains the position of the multifarious Kurdish political groups, examines the legislation affecting Kurdish life, and considers the role of the Kurds in recent Middle Eastern confrontations. His portrayal of the Kurdish political parties and their often conflicting aspirations offers insights that even the specialist reader will find of great relevance.


The Kurdish question

During the final days of March 1991, in an immense exodus broadcast live by the television networks of the West, some 1.5 million Kurds were propelled towards Iran and the approaches of the Turkish border. This exodus, the result of the terror inspired by the elite troops of Saddam Hussein’s regime, brought to an end the spontaneous insurrection that had given the
Kurds ephemeral control over Iraqi Kurdistan.

Following the Gulf War, the Shi’ites, who make up just over half the population of Iraq, concentrated mainly in the south of the country, rebelled and took control of the main southern towns. Saddam Hussein’s regime reacted swiftly and brutally. The danger of the Shi'ites taking over Iraq, or exercising an influence proportional to their share of the population, was averted.

This is precisely why Saddam Hussein, with the help of Saudi Arabian pressure on the United States, remained in power, and why the ground war came to an end, with the National Guard, the strong arm of the regime, still operational. The survival of the Sunni minority at the head of the country was ensured. This strategic minority — some 22 per cent of the population — has been in power since the British created Iraq after the end of the First World War. It remains important for Saudi Arabia that there should be no strengthening of a Shi’ite community, having more in common with Iran than with the Wahhabi monarchy, so close to its vulnerable borders.

On 6th March a spontaneous uprising broke out in the important Kurdish village of Ranya, a few dozen kilometres from the Iranian border. Ever since June 1990, Ranya, like many other Kurdish villages, had been living under the threat of being wiped off the map and its population moved to a more controllable area. On the same day, the Kurds took over the police stations and barracks, arrested the local Ba’ath representatives and generally took the situation under control. The insurrection was fast and completely successful, incurring hardly any losses. It spread like wild-fire.

In the eight days from 6th to 14th March, the main urban centres of Arbil and Sulaymaniya fell, one after the other, under the weight of popular pressure. The Kurdish political movements were taken by surprise and could do nothing but join in with this wave of passionate feelings that they had neither engineered nor foreseen. After some fighting, Dohuk fell. As of the 14th March the peshmergas of the Unified Kurdistan Front decided to take control of Kirkuk, the country’s second town, whose status had for a long time been a bone of contention between Baghdad and the Kurds.

After four days of fighting, a large part of the military base fell to the insurgents. Iraq decided to send in its air force and on 22nd March an Iraqi SU 22 was shot down by the allies. However, the United States let it be known that they would not object to the use of helicopters to put down the uprising, which now extended across the whole of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The ground-based counter-offensive of Baghdad’s elite troops began on 27th March. As the peshmergas only had light arms, the towns were recaptured quickly and the repression was brutal, particularly in Dohuk. The population, overcome by panic and fearing massive repression as well as a repeat of the 1988 use of chemical weapons, fled en masse towards the borders.
According to different sources, between 1.5 and 2 million people tried to escape from the advancing Iraqi troops. About two thirds crossed the Iranian border and approximately 600,000 people crowded into the approaches of the Turkish frontier.
The altitude and prevailing cold of the region during those last winter days made the situation even worse. The Kurds were experiencing the most tragic hours of their history since the great repressions and deportations of the 1920s and 1930s in Turkey. However, this time, the involvement of the United States, Great Britain and France in the Gulf War put the Kurds, at long last, at the centre of international current events.

On 2nd April, in the United Nations Security Council, the French called for humanitarian intervention. Great Britain quickly allied itself with the French position.

On the other hand, on 4th April, the president of the United States ruled out any intervention of a military nature which might put ‘precious American lives’ at risk. On 5th April, the Security Council of the UN condemned the repression of the civilian population and asked Baghdad to facilitate access for international humanitarian organisations. That same day, under pressure from France, Great Britain and Turkey, who did not want to see over half a million Kurdish refugees settling on her territory, the American president agreed to launch an operation to bring humanitarian aid to the refugees. The first supplies were parachuted in on 7th April.

On 8th April, the Twelve approved the British proposal to set up a ‘safe haven’ for the Kurds under United Nations mandate, but the proposal was rejected by the United States.

On the 10th, Washington banned Baghdad from conducting any airborne operation in the north of Iraq.
On the 16th, the president of the United States finally agreed to a ground-based intervention on Iraqi soil. From 20th April American soldiers, soon to be reinforced by British and French contingents, arrived in Zakho close to the Turkish border and established an allied ‘security zone’.

In the meantime, a strong feeling of solidarity with the Kurdish people was becoming apparent, particularly in western Europe and North America.
Even Turkey authorised a nation-wide collection for humanitarian aid for the Kurds. During the whole period of the tragic Kurdish exodus, however, there was no reaction from any of the countries of the Arab world.
For the first time since 1920, the Kurdish question was being debated by official organisations, and, at France's request, by the United Nations Security Council which passed resolution 688, (see Appendix 1), recognising its obligation to intervene on humanitarian grounds.

On 24th April, after several days of negotiations in Baghdad, the Kurdish movements of the Unified Front, whose two most important representatives were Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq (KDP-Iraq), reached an ‘agreement of principle on the status of Iraqi Kurdistan’. This dramatic turn of events was the indirect result of the presence of allied troops in the security zone in northern Iraq and on the Turkish border.
The agreement of principle on autonomy was based on an earlier agreement on the autonomy of Kurdistan, which Saddam Hussein had proposed in March 1970. One of the obstacles that the 1970 agreement had come up against was the status of the oil-rich town of Kirkuk. This setback led to the resumption of hostilities and the collapse in 1975 of the Kurdish movement whose leader at the time was Mustafa Barzani.

The halting progress of the negotiations during the summer was a very bad sign. As the Allied disengagement continued, the Kurdish movements failed to achieve their essential objective, an agreement on autonomy — even, if necessary, a more modest one than the one they were demanding — guaranteed by the international authorities. Failing this, they can be assured that, true to himself, Saddam Hussein will wait for the most favourable moment to regain control of the situation with his usual brutal determination.

The Kurds have the twofold distinction of having been, for the past sixty-five years, one of the most heavily repressed minorities and one of the most numerous, with a population of some 20 to 25 million individuals spread unevenly between Turkey, Iran and Iraq. There is also a small Kurdish settlement in Syria’. Present in the Ottoman Empire and Persia until the end of the First World War, the Kurds were soon divided into three and even four countries. Great Britain, after receiving the Mesopotamian mandate following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, united the two Arab vilayets (provinces) of Baghdad and Basra with the vilayet of Mosul, whose oil reserves were known to the British and whose status was to remain uncertain until 1925. Mosul had a majority Kurdish population at the time.2

The treaty of Sevres, which anticipated the creation of a Kurdish state in the southeast of today’s Turkey, was rendered null and void by the energy and determination of Mustafa Kemal, admirably supported by a section of the empire’s military commanders. This war of national independence, waged mainly against the Greeks, but also against the French mandate in Cilicia and the Armenian state (1918-1920), was widely supported by the Kurds in the name of Moslem solidarity.

A section of the Turkish elite had, on the other hand, adopted the European notion of modem nationalism.3 After the signing of the treaty of Lausanne (1923) which guaranteed him full sovereignty, Mustafa Kemal, thirty years before Nasser, enthusiastically embraced a policy mix of narrowly nationalist zeal and modernisation (suppression of the caliphate, introduction of a system of common law, romanisation of the alphabet, etc.).

In 1924, the Kurdish language was banned. The Kurds thus lost, by decree, their very identity, since no one in Turkey could be anything but Turkish, unless they belonged to one of the landless religious minorities whose rights were recognised in the treaty of Lausanne. These consisted of some tens of thousands of Armenians who still remained in Turkey after the 1915-1916 deportation and massacre in transit of the entire Armenian population of Anatolia; 4 the Greeks, equally few in number after the physical elimination of those of the Pontus (1915-1916) and the massive population exchanges (1,250,000 Greeks against 650,000 Turks) following the Greek defeat; finally a small community of Sephardic Jews who had been welcomed and well treated when the Jews were expelled from Spain.

The treaty of Lausanne recognised no other minorities, nor did it grant this status to the Kurds, despite the fact that from 1918 to 1923 they had acted as loyal allies to their Turkish co-religionists.
Unlike the Armenians and the Arabs of Syria, the few modernist Kurdish elites of the period did not grasp that the defeat of the Ottoman Empire opened up entirely new possibilities.
Meanwhile, the Kemalists quickly filled the power vacuum left by the Sultan, thereby frustrating Greek, French and Armenian aspirations to take advantage of the situation.

A Kurdish delegation did attend the peace conferences in an attempt to gain acceptance of Kurdish demands. However, the absence of an enlightened intelligentsia along with the general backwardness of Kurdish society blocked the spread of any nationalist ideology imported from Europe. Despite the existence at the time of a few modernist influenced groups, it wasn’t until the 1940s that Kurdish political organisations gradually began to take shape.

Even after that, Kurdish political organisations were marked by the tribal conflicts characteristic of a segmented society. There were many personal rivalries between their leaders, who were usually drawn from families of religious or tribal dignitaries. The conflicts between the Marxists and non-Marxists of the 1960s, 1970s and beyond, were often ancient tribal power struggles in a modem guise.

The great rebellions of the 19th century had been uprisings, at the heart of the Ottoman Empire, of traditional religious or non-religious leaders against the Sublime Porte’s ever more strictly enforced policies of centralisation. The rebellions of the 1920s and 1930s in Turkey, Iraq and, to a lesser extent, in Iran, were expressions of a mixture of religious conservatism (in Turkey), regional insurrection (in all three countries) and local patriotism tinged with nationalist demands. There were no programmes, political organisations, or cadres. There was no overall co-ordination; no overcoming of family, tribal, or regional rivalries.
The Kurds were no match for the old states of Turkey and Iran, with their diplomatic, political and military traditions. In Iraq, where their numbers are proportionally greater,5 the situation was better, in so far as it was not possible for the Sunnis in power to dominate the political scene with the same efficiency as the Turks or the Persians — at least not until the mid 1970s.

The geographical isolation of the Kurdish regions, with no access to the sea, makes it easy to understand the Kurdish political organisations’ constant search for external alliances, particularly from the 1960s onwards. The USSR, the United States and Israel have all played the Kurdish card to weaken, indirectly, a regional adversary. At the beginning of the 1960s, Iran supported the Kurds of Iraq. However, nobody, either from fear of the internal repercussions or from fear of contagion, would consider helping the Kurds achieve a real political victory.

Moreover, from the 1960s onwards, the ambiguous situations created when a state was giving support to a Kurdish movement in a neighbouring and rival state, while at the same time repressing another one at home, provoked an outbreak of conflicts between the different Kurdish parties, as in the case of the relations between the Kurdish political organisations of Iraq and Iran during the 1960s and beyond.

During the war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988), each of the two states gave military support to the Kurdish movement opposed to its rival. The Kurds of Iran were aided by Iraq; those of Iraq by Iran (and sometimes by Syria, Iraq’s Ba’athist rival). It is nearly always easier for a state to win a complex game of this sort than it is for a movement that risks finding itself suddenly deprived of support.

Dominated by Turks, Persians and Arabs, the Kurds are confronted with policies that vary from one state to another. Turkey’s approach to cultural assimilation is the most systematic. In this respect Iran operates a more open policy; even though Kurdish is not taught in the schools, at least the state broadcasts programmes in the Kurdish language.

On the other hand Iraq accepts Kurdish as its second official language and recognises the principle of autonomy, on condition that it remains completely under the control of the Ba’ath party.
Mass deportations or the resettlement of populations into areas where they could be more easily controlled were used by Turkey throughout the 1920s and 1930s and, given a decree issued in 1990, could be used again. These methods were also used by Iraq after 1975 and, in an increasingly systematic way, at the end of the 1980s. We do not yet know all the consequences of the mass exodus of March-April 1991 that propelled perhaps a million refugees towards Iran, not to mention all those who ended up in camps along the Turkish border.

There has been no major industrial investment in Kurdish areas by any of the three states. The poverty of their infrastructures is patent, the health and education systems widely deficient. In each of the three countries, there is considerable Kurdish emigration towards large towns situated outside Kurdish areas.6
It has been official policy in Turkey from 1924 until the last few years to deny the very existence of a Kurdish minority. The Turkish sociologist Ismail Besikfi has spent more than a decade in prison for having written about the existence of the Kurds and of Kurdish particularism. Nevertheless the Kurds are an ethnic minority with a language totally unrelated to the Turkish family of languages. Formerly known as the ‘Mountain Turks’, in recent years they have at last achieved open mention in the press.

During the Gulf War, the Turkish president, Mr Ozal, even announced the lifting of the 1983 ban on speaking Kurdish in public.7
The Kurds of Turkey have been granted no other rights: neither the right to learn Kurdish at school; nor the right to publish officially in that language. Since 1990, the extraordinary powers available to the governor of those provinces in a state of emergency due to the guerilla activities of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK)8 leave the population with virtually no rights.
The Turkish state, relying sometimes on traditional leaders, sometimes on elements of the urban population, had endeavoured to enforce, within the limits of its capabilities, a policy of ‘turkisation’. This policy came up against, on the one hand the underdevelopment of the Kurdish regions, which were still far from having any universal school system in which Turkish was compulsorily taught, and, on the other hand, from the 1960s and particularly from the 1970s, the awakening of Kurdish particularism.

Nevertheless, in the large towns of western and central Anatolia, amongst Kurds urbanised for over a generation, whose children have been taught Turkish at school, this cultural integration seems to have succeeded. In these areas Kurdishness is being reduced to the status of folklore. Some Kurds — although never as such — have been or are parliamentary de-
puties, even ministers. The most famous success story is that of the novelist Yashar Kemal, a Kurd but a Turkish author who writes exclusively in Turkish and does not refer to his origins.
The opposite example is that of the Kurdish film director Yilmaz Gilney9 whose films are in Turkish, but who has laid great stress on his ethnic identity and has been an active campaigner for the recognition of Kurdish rights.

Until recently, the great fear of the Turkish authorities was that the use of the Kurdish language, and the political ends to which it might be put, would sooner or later break up the cohesion of the Jacobin national state defined by Mustafa Kemal. One could, of course, argue to the contrary, as do certain Turkish liberals, who insist that the root of the Kurdish problem in Turkey lies in the cultural negation that has been official policy since 1924.

The present situation in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, subjected to a state of emergency with particularly repressive laws, would hardly seem to favour any fundamental reforms. Since 1984, priority has been given to counter-insurgency measures against the PKK, with frequent incursions by the Turkish army across the Iraqi border.
However, the Turkish position is being modified, at least in so far as the official existence of the Kurds in Turkey is concerned. In February 1988, the Turkish government complained when a report of the US State Department mentioned a Kurdish minority on its territory and criticised Turkey for infringements of the human rights of this minority.10

The State Department’s report described the situation in the following manner: ‘Even though millions of Kurdish Turks are fully integrated into the political, economic and social life of the nation, the policy of complete assimilation conducted by the (Turkish) government has led to a ban on the publication of any book, newspaper or other material in the Kurdish language. Anything that deals with Kurdish history, culture or ethnic identity is proscribed and there have been cases of the arrest of performers for singing or acting in Kurdish. The preceding limits on cultural expression are a genuine source of discontent amongst many Turks of Kurdish origin, particularly in the economically less developed southeast where they are in the majority.11

In recent years the press has begun to question Kemalist dogmas. In April 1991 Mr Ozal told the Turkish newspaper Tercuman that it might be possible to find a solution to the Kurdish problem ‘based on the Basque model’. If he was referring to the autonomy given to the Basques and other groups by Spain, then there remains a long way to go since, for the time being, only the ban on speaking Kurdish in public has been lifted.

In Iraq, the opposition between the Kurds and the Iraqi government has followed a specific pattern for the past three decades. Any administration in a position of weakness in Baghdad engages in negotiations with the Kurdish movement, which demands autonomy within the framework of Iraq. These negotiations drag on long enough for Baghdad to rebuild its offensive potential. In the best of cases, an agreement is signed, like the one of 11th March 1970 recognising an autonomous status for Kurdistan. Then the negotiations come to a standstill over the definition of the territorial basis of Kurdistan, over the areas rich in oil reserves, over the distribution of revenues, etc. A fresh confrontation erupts whenever the government feels it has the means to emerge as the winner. From then on, a renewed weakening of authority is necessary, either through a change of regime or a war, before the Kurds can again exert pressure on Baghdad.

From all the evidence, the present negotiations between Saddam Hussein and the Kurdish leaders of Iraq are conforming to the same rules. The Iraqi head of state is trying to gain time, while the Kurds attempt to extract on paper an agreement that will be violated tomorrow.
In Iran, integration into Persian culture is open to both Kurds and Azeris. However, neither the Kurds nor the Azeris have ever had the right to study their own language at school.

The situation today is not hopeful. From 1925 to 1930, Reza Shah’s policy was that of a brutal bringing to heel of the semi-nomadic tribes that had always sought to escape from central state control. The uprising led by the Kurdish chief, Simko, was progressively ground down and its leader assassinated during the course of peace negotiations. Following the founding of a republic at Mahabad immediately after the end of the Second World War, events moved fast The situation that had led to the establishment of this short-lived republic, crushed a year later by the Iranian army, stemmed from two factors: that in 1945 the state of Iran no longer controlled the north of the country and that the Soviet Union was determined to extend its influence by supporting the creation both of an Azerbaijani republic and of a (Kurdish) republic of Mahabad in Iran. The latter, with its uncertain status, equipped itself with all the attributes of autonomy, along with a military force, and developed completely independently of Tehran. Once the British re-established themselves in Iran, the Shah was given the means to regain control. All the leaders of the Mahabad republic were hung. Mustafa Bar-zani, who had been in charge of the armed forces, managed to beat a path to the Soviet Union, where he found refuge and remained until the downfall of the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq (1958).

From 1946, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) was outlawed and its activists hunted down, tortured and imprisoned. The KDPI, at the time close to the Tudeh, the Iranian Communist Party, supported Mossadegh’s nationalist and ‘anti-imperialist’ experiment until he was overthrown in 1953 with the active collusion of the CIA. Once again, the KDPI endured a severe repression. In the 1960s there was a rural uprising in the Kurdish regions. It was crushed. Relations between the Iraqi KDP and the Iranian KDP became strained. Indeed, Mustafa Barzani, who had taken control of an important armed faction struggling for autonomy in Iraq, and was receiving aid from Iran, handed over to the Iranian authorities, at their request, a number of cadres of the KDPI who had taken refuge in Iraq.

It wasn’t until the demonstrations against the Shah in 1978 that the KDPI, under the leadership of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, was once again to play an active role. The KDPI took part in the demonstrations in the towns, notably at Mahabad, which resulted in the rout and collapse of the regime.
In 1979 a de facto autonomy was established in Iranian Kurdistan. But the Ayatollah’s regime, like the subsequent one of the mullahs, drew the line at autonomy. During the war between Iraq and Iran, the pasdaran (revolutionary guards) conducted several campaigns to regain control of Iranian Kurdistan. As the years went by, the Kurdish forces mustered on the other side of the border, in Iraq.

The official negotiations which A.R. Ghassemlou entered into with envoys from the Iranian government in July 1989 ended with his assassination in Vienna by the Iranian delegates, just as Simko had been murdered thirty years earlier.
In Syria, where the Kurds do not occupy a continuous stretch of territory, they have not been granted any cultural rights. The situation for the Kurds was particularly difficult during the 1960s, when population transfers were carried out to facilitate the resettlement of the Arab populations. With the coming to power of Hafiz al-Asad and the Alawites —who only make up some 15 per cent of the total population — the situation changed, although there has been no improvement as far as rights are concerned. Since the Alawites are very much in the minority themselves, they need the support of other minorities. As long as they collaborate, material circumstances for some Kurds are much better than before Asad came to power. This ambiguous situation could deteriorate swiftly were the present regime to fall.


1. The Kurdish Identity

The geographical term ‘Kurdistan’, which has never signified a state, was used under the Ottoman Empire to denote a territory equivalent to the province of Diyarbakir in the Turkey of today. Similarly in Iran, the province called Kurdistan is only one of the regions which is ethnically Kurdish.

As a majority population, the Kurds occupy a strategic crossroads situated mainly between Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Frequently referred to by the geographical term ‘Kurdistan’, this country of high mountains was often used as a place of refuge during successive waves of invasions over the centuries. The Taurus mountains (in modem Turkey) and the Zagros (in Iran), are mountain chains facing north-west/south-east whose heights overlook the Mesopotamian plain. Towards the north and northeast are high plateaux where the Armenian populations were based before they were progressively driven out by the Kurds over the last two centuries. The genocide of the Armenians in 1915 turned the Armenian plateau into a mainly Kurdish population zone. The territorial area of Kurdish population, in relation to that of the Arabs in the south and that of the Azeris in the east, is clearly demarcated: the Kurds occupy the mountain areas. But in the northwest the Kurdish and Turkish populations are intermixed, sometimes closely.

Geographical Kurdistan is very continental and winters there are particularly harsh. Travellers tales tell us that Kurdistan was still very wooded a century ago. Deforestation caused by demographic pressure and the need for firewood is today a serious problem for agriculture, having caused accelerated soil erosion.
Geographical Kurdistan harbours reserves of chromium, copper, iron, coal and lignite, but its main wealth is oil. There are oil fields at Mosul, Kirkuk and Khanaqin in Iraq.

Since none of the countries concerned has made a census of its Kurds, only approximations of Kurdish demography can be established, varying considerably from one author to another. It is estimated that some 12 million Kurds live in Turkey, around 4 million in Iraq, over 7 million in Iran and a community of about a million in Syria. In total there are probably some 25 million Kurds, split up unevenly between these four countries.

Contrary to popular belief, only a small fraction of the Kurdish population is nomadic. Most are farmers and, to a much lesser extent, stockbreeders. The mountains afford no more than a subsistence level economy, whereas the plains of Syria and Iraq provide good yields of grain. Tobacco is a traditional crop in Iran, Iraq and south-eastern Turkey whilst …

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