Any discussion of minority identities in Mesopotamia almost always ends with one group, the Kurds.This week’s class discussion about the League of Nations mandate system in the post World War I Middle East coupled with current events sparked an interest in the Kurdistan region. Kurdistan is a subject which is often brushed over when learning about the Middle East. Certainly, this can not be due to any lack of importance in the region. A quick search of recent headlines was littered with stories about Kurdistan. In fact, recent developments have some questioning if the Kurdish people’s quest for independence, dating back to post WWI era, is close to being realized.
A belief exists that following WWI the victorious United States, Britain, and France split the Middle East up into colonial territories, veiled under the new name of mandates, with little attention to the wishes of the indigenous people. This claim is no better evidenced than in the case of the Kurdish people. The Kurdish people have historically occupied parts of what is now western Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran. United in language and history the Kurds are indigenous to the mountainous region they inhabit. The Treaty of Sevres in 1920, between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies powers, promised the Kurdish people an opportunity of self-rule. However, fighting among Kurdish parties and Great Power politics saw to it that Kurdistan was never created. A similar promise of self-rule, granted by the British Mandate in Iraq, was also dissolved for many of the same reasons. Following the 1920s the Kurds would have to wait until 1992 for another chance to govern themselves.
After the U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, and under a protective U.S. no-fly zone, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government was founded in northern Iraq. Although the KRG has been littered with partisan politics, violence, and gridlock at times, it has proven to be a successful model for a future Kurdish government. Hydrocarbons, specifically oil, found in the mountainous region of northern Iraq has provided much-needed cash for the KRG but has also pitted them against the Iraqi government in Baghdad. A recent argument over Iraq’s ability to station troops at the Iraqi-Syrian border within the region of Kurdistan as well as Baghdad’s ability to collect money from Kurdish oil sales was cooled after a U.S. brokered agreement was reached.
In neighboring Syria it appears that an autonomous Kurdish region may be on the horizon as well. Embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently withdrew his troops from the Syrian Kurdish region in an apparent move to re-deploy troops to the embattled city of Aleppo. The result appears to be an opportunity at replicating the KRG’s success in Iraq. Syria’s Kurdish political parties, historically known for deep divides, were recently united in an agreement brokered by the president of Iraq’s KRG. The recent move toward self-rule came with many detractors, the most vocal being neighboring Turkey. Since the failed attempt in 1920 to create an independent Kurdistan, the Turkish government has been fighting a long a bloody war with Kurdish separatists, most notably the Kurdistan Workers party, or PKK.Turkey fears that the new autonomous Kurdish region on its southern border will become a base for future attacks in Turkey.
It is clear that Kurdistan is an important topic in the study of the Middle East. The Treaty of Sevres and the system of mandates that followed WWI continue to have a direct impact on the Kurdish people and current events. The KRGin Iraq has managed to create a semi-autonomous success but are still locked in political battles with Baghdad. Syria’s Kurds are in the midst of realizing a long-awaited dream. Is it likely that they will create a lasting government similar to the KRG or will they again become the victim of Great Power politics? What similarities and differences would help or hinder the Kurds of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran in the creation of a greater Kurdistan? These are questions I hope to answer as I continue my study of identities, ideologies, and culture in Mesopotamia.