Kurdish struggle for self-determination has long history
(First of two articles)
BY SAM MANUEL
More than 1,000 U.S. soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted into northern Iraq March 26 to start a northern front in the U.S.-led war. The invasion is aimed at overthrowing the regime of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, taking over the country and its resources, and dealing a blow to Washington's imperialist rivals--especially Paris and Berlin. The area where the U.S. paratroopers landed is under Kurdish control.
As part of its efforts to masquerade "Operation Iraqi Freedom" as a war of liberation for the country's inhabitants, Washington has attempted to portray its actions as helping the Kurdish people shake off the yoke of national oppression. Nothing could be further from the truth. The U.S. rulers have no interest in the national rights of the Kurds, as the conduct of their military forces clearly showed in 1990–91. For decades they have collaborated with the historic butchers of the Kurds in the region.
During the 1990–91 Arab-Persian Gulf War and in its aftermath the Kurdish people came to the center stage in world politics as never before, not primarily as victims, but as courageous and determined fighters for national self-determination. Prior to the Gulf War, the Kurdish struggle had largely been in retreat, having been dealt repeated defeats over the previous half-century by the Iraqi, Turkish, Iranian, and Syrian ruling classes, with the complicity of Washington, London, Paris, and Moscow. A look at that history helps shed light on imperialism's predatory aims today.
The fight of the Kurds for national rights has been a historic problem for the Turkish rulers--who once sat atop the vast Ottoman empire--and for the main imperialist powers that established domination of the area in the first world war.
An estimated 25 million Kurds live in a territory spanning the intersection of the borders of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Armenia, and Syria. More than half, or up to 15 million, live in southeastern Turkey. Roughly five to seven million live in Iran, about four million in northern Iraq, and one-and-a-half million in Syria.
Struggle against national oppression
The Kurds have a long history of struggle against subjugation, first against Arab conquerors in the 7th century, then Seljuk Turks in the 11th, Mongolian rulers from the 13th to the 15th century, followed by the fight against Ottoman rule.
Under the Ottoman empire the Kurds lived in the Mesopotamian plains and highlands of Turkey and Iran. They faced ferocious oppression at the hands of imperial officials and troops. Between the 16th and 18th centuries vast areas of Kurdistan were devastated.
The Ottoman rulers allied their empire to the German rulers in World War I. London and Paris, the dominant imperialist powers in the Mideast, carved up the region between themselves. The Treaty of Sèvres, named after the French city where the new imperial lords imposed their dictates on Ankara, forced the Ottomans to cede Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and Palestine, including Trans-Jordan, to the British; and Syria, including Lebanon, to the French. From that conference to today the imperialist powers dominating the Mideast and the succeeding bourgeois regimes in the region would use the Kurds and their struggle for independence as pawns in the twists and turns of their class interests.
London, for example, backed a provision in the Sèvres treaty that supported the formation of an autonomous Kurdish state, which would include the oil-rich province of Mosul. In the wake of the overthrow of the Ottoman monarchy, however, the Turkish rulers demanded a new accord that made no reference to Kurdish independence. In 1923, London reached an agreement with the British-imposed monarchy in Baghdad to include Mosul as part of Iraq. The Kurds were given a "promise" that they would hold high government positions and their language would be preserved in Kurdish areas.
The Kurdish Republic of Mahabad
Kurdish rebellions in Turkey and Iran in the 1920s to secure their independence were brutally surpressed. During a revolt in Turkey in 1937–38, Ankara used aerial bombardment, poison gas, and artillery shelling against Kurdish strongholds.
During World War II, Iran was partially occupied by foreign troops. British forces took over the south, while Soviet troops moved into the north. The region around Mahabad was not occupied.
The interimperialist conflict at the center of World War II gave rise to many anticolonial struggles. In 1942, the pro-independence movement Komala Jiani Kurdistan was founded in Iran. Three years later, some of the same forces launched the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Iran, which all Komala members joined. The KDP demanded autonomy, not an independent state, including recognition of the Kurdish language, locally elected government authorities, and legislation that would give some protection to peasants from landlord exploitation. In January 1946, the KDP proclaimed the first Kurdish independent republic in that northern area. The Mahabad republic, as it was known, established diplomatic relations with the workers and peasants government that had come to power in neighboring Azerbaijan. It introduced Kurdish as the official language in schools, and Kurdish-language publications flourished.
The Kurdish republic lasted for nearly a year. When the Iranian monarchy deployed forces to squash the two governments and reoccupy the areas in December 1946, Moscow opposed the resistance efforts by the Azerbaijani and Kurdish peoples. This led to a split in the Azerbaijani leadership, with the majority following Soviet premier Joseph Stalin's dictate and calling off armed resistance. The Stalinist leadership in Azerbaijan capitulated without a struggle. The fall of the Azerbaijani government quickly led to the fall of the Kurdish republic. Kurdish forces, however, organized a fighting retreat.
The retreat was organized by Mustapha Barzani, the military commander of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, who had earlier led Kurds from Iraq to join the republic in northern Iran led by Ghazi Muhammad. Fighting the Shah's army, they crossed into Iraq where they came under heavy assault by troops of the Iraqi monarchy backed by British imperialism. Barzani then led his forces in a fighting retreat through Turkey and Iran into the Soviet Union. They remained there until the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in the July 1958 revolution, when they returned to Iraqi Kurdistan to continue the struggle for self-determination.
Although the first-ever independent Kurdish republic was crushed by the Iranian monarchy, the Kurds continued their struggle during the decades that followed. Washington, which replaced London as the world's top imperialist power during World War II, has alternately doled out aid with an eyedropper to Kurdish nationalist groups, and then abruptly cut off this backing, depending on its shifting relations with regimes in the area, especially Baghdad and Tehran.
Following a wave of protests and strikes that broke out at the beginning of the 1950s, a group of Iraqi military officers influenced by the perspective of pan-Arab unity overthrew the monarchy on July 14, 1958. They received widespread support from the population. Kurds participated fully in the revolt with the expectation that the new government would back their demand for self-determination.
By the autumn of 1961, Kurds in Iraq were in full revolt when it became apparent that the new government had no intention of meeting Kurdish demands. The monarchy in Iran backed the fight of Iraqi Kurds in exchange for the Kurdish groups using their influence to quell Kurdish aspirations for sovereignty in Iran. Baghdad countered this ploy with a March 1970 decree that granted limited autonomy to the Kurds, recognition of the Kurdish language, appointment of a Kurdish vice-president, and representation of Kurds in the government proportionate to their numbers in the population.
A semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq was the last thing the Shah of Iran wanted to appear on his border, setting a "dangerous example" for the millions of Kurds living within Iran. In 1975 Tehran brokered a deal with Baghdad to subordinate their disputes to the need to put an end to Kurdish demands for self-determination on both sides of the border.
Both the monarchies and successive bourgeois regimes in Iraq and Iran, right up to today, have tried to divide the Kurds in this way to advance the interests of the ruling regimes in Baghdad or Tehran.
Aftermath of Arab-Persian Gulf War
In the aftermath of the Arab-Persian Gulf War, the Kurdish people took advantage of the weakening of the Saddam Hussein regime to press their struggle forward. They held many villages and towns, including the major city of Kirkuk, for a week or more in March 1991. Baghdad used helicopter gunships and heavy armor to crush the Kurdish rebellion with ruthless brutality, causing two million or more Kurdish refugees to attempt to cross the Turkish and Iranian borders.
U.S. and European imperialist powers declared a temporary "enclave" for the Kurdish refugees north of the 36th parallel in northern Iraq near the Turkish border in 1991. Washington sent Special Forces units into the area, functioning as little more than a police force for Saddam Hussein at the time. Along with Turkish soldiers, the U.S. troops forced refugees out of Turkey and off nearby mountains into ill-provisioned and barren transit camps. Washington's aim was to push the Kurds back to the towns and villages from which they had fled.
At that time, Ankara had joined Washington in the war against Iraq in hopes of winning trade favors and military aid and hardware. Now, after the Turkish parliament turned down the U.S. rulers' request to allow tens of thousands of ground troops to be deployed on Turkish soil and use Turkey as a base to launch a northern invasion of Iraq, the tune of the White House has changed. This zig-zag in the relationship with Ankara--not concern for the trampling of Kurdish national rights in the area--is the reason behind U.S. president George Bush's recent warnings that the Turkish government, a fellow NATO member, dare not send its army into Iraq.
The next installment will focus on the Kurdish struggle in Turkey and Syria.
Turkish, Syrian regimes suppress Kurdish struggle
(Second of two articles)
This is the second of two articles on the Kurdish struggle for national self-determination. About 25 million Kurds live in Kurdistan, the shaded territory on the map below, which spans the intersection of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Armenia, and Syria. The first article, ¨Kurdish struggle for self-determination has long history,¨ was published in last week´s Militant. It took up the evolution of this struggle through the 20th century, in a Mideast that was carved up by the imperialist powers leading up to and after both world wars. It explained that during the 1990–91 Arab-Persian Gulf War and its aftermath the Kurdish people came to center stage in world politics as never before. Prior to the Gulf War, the Kurdish struggle was largely in retreat, having been dealt repeated defeats over the previous half century by the Iraqi, Turkish, Iranian, and Syrian ruling classes, with the complicity of Washington, London, Paris, and Moscow.
BY SAM MANUEL
Washington shares a similar, though not identical, aim with its Turkish ally of blocking any initiatives by Kurds in their struggle for national self-determination. This can be seen in recent statements by U.S. government officials that they back the "territorial integrity" of a post-Hussein Iraq, while giving lip service to the national aspirations of the Kurdish people. Some commentators in the U.S. big-business press have floated the idea of a confederated Iraq after Washington wins the war, with an autonomous Kurdish republic in the north, as a way to punish Ankara for its refusal to allow U.S. troops to use its soil to invade Iraq from the north.
Ankara fears that the emergence of a Kurdish republic across the border with any degree of sovereignty would inflame aspirations for independence among Kurds in Turkey, who are a sizable minority.
There is a recent precedent. After the Gulf War, the rebellion by the oppressed Kurdish people in southeastern Turkey gained strength, and Istanbul has not been able to get them back under control to the same degree as before. In April 1993, for example, some 40,000 Turkish troops mounted a largely unsuccessful spring offensive into northern Iraq aimed at Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents waging guerrilla war into Turkey from cross-border bases. An equally large Turkish cross-border offensive in March 1995 also brought meager results.
In the last 15 years, more than 30,000 people have died in Turkey's war against the Kurdish people. Though a cease-fire was declared in 1999, the Turkish military has continued to periodically attack Kurds in northern Iraq under the pretext that PKK guerrillas remain based there.
The PKK was formed in the fall of 1978 by a group of young radical intellectuals at the University of Ankara who were attracted to Maoism. The party's central leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was abducted in Kenya in 1999 by Turkish security forces and was flown to Turkey where he remains in jail. Ocalan had previously fled to Russia, where the PKK had earlier enjoyed good relations with Moscow. He was expelled by the Russian government under pressure from Ankara and Washington.
Successive Turkish governments have never recognized the existence of Kurds, classifying them as "mountain Turks." Until last August, Kurds were prohibited from publishing newspapers and magazines, broadcasting in Kurdish, or from receiving education in their language.
The contempt of the Turkish rulers for Kurdish national rights seeps through even in the wording of the new law. It guarantees the right to teach "languages and accents spoken by Turkish citizens," a reference to the Kurdish language that remains a banned term in official documents. The legislation was passed as part of a package of desperate measures by the Turkish rulers for their failed attempt to be considered for admission to the European Union.
Discrimination in Syria
About 160,000 Kurds have been denied Syrian citizenship, meaning they cannot vote, own property, go to state-run schools or get government jobs. They carry special red identity cards that identify them as "foreigners." Another 75,000 Kurds are not recognized at all and have no identity cards. They cannot even be treated in state hospitals or get marriage certificates.
Repression of the Syrian Kurds intensified with a census conducted in 1962 by the ruling Baath party that stripped 120,000 Kurds of citizenship overnight. Their offspring were also classified as foreigners or maktoumeen, swelling the population of dispossessed to 250,000 today. The Syrian regime settled thousands of Arabs on land confiscated from Kurds living near the border with Turkey. The settlers were also given better facilities, such as schools and clinics.
The Arab Baath Socialist Party came to power in Syria in a coup in the early 1960s, about the same time the Baathist party took control in Baghdad. The bourgeois nationalist regime used Pan-Arab demagogy and re-established close relations with the Egyptian government of president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1958, Syria and Egypt united in a short-lived United Arab Republic that came to an end after a military coup in Syria in 1961.
Damascus also developed close relations with Moscow, and shared opposition to the Kurdish struggle for self-determination with the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union.
The Syrian government even changed the names of Kurdish villages and stores into Arabic. Damascus banned the teaching of Kurdish in schools and made it illegal to publish in that language. Some restrictions were eased in 1970, allowing Kurds to speak their language in public, attend school, and watch Kurdish singers on Syrian television.
In an unusual move, Syrian vice-president Abdul-Halim Khaddam met with an Iraqi Kurdish delegation recently. Kurdish groups also recently held a round-table discussion on their plight with the participation of Syrian intellectuals. The government did not interfere with the event.
Last August, Syria's president Bashar Assad made the first visit to Kurdish areas by a Syrian leader since the country's independence in 1946. He spoke of "national unity" and did not even acknowledge the Kurds.
Abdul-Hamid Darwish, head of the Kurdish Progressive and Democratic Party, told Associated Press that Syrian Kurds don´t want separation. "We don´t seek the establishment of a Kurdish area," he said. "We just want to administer our area and to freely practice our cultural, social, and political rights."
The overthrow of the shah in 1979 spurred a resurgence of the Kurdish struggle in Iran. In May and June of that year, revolutionary councils were established in the capitals of several Kurdish regions. The Kurdish-held areas became poles of attraction for other oppressed nationalities, and parties on the left, including the pro-Moscow Tudeh party and the pro-Peking Peykar and Communist Union. Various currents of the Fedayeen also sought to attract followers in the area.
The new government opposed Kurdish demands for any form of autonomy and unleashed a brutal campaign against the mostly peasant Kurds.
During this crackdown, which coincided for a period with Tehran's mobilization against the assault on Iran by the Iraqi regime beginning in 1981, a number of groups in the workers movement accused Kurdish organizations of carrying out military provocations, justifying Tehran's brutality. Only one communist organization, the Workers Unity Party (HVK), that functioned in Iran at the time gave unconditional support to the Kurdish struggle. The HVK argued that Tehran's war against the Kurdish people, far from strengthening resistance to Baghdad's invasion, was actually weakening it. Since the Kurds had long faced national oppression at the hands of the Iraqi regime as well, they were potentially a powerful ally--on both sides of the border--in the fight against the U.S.-backed Iraqi aggression.
Over the last several years the Iranian government has loosened some restrictions, especially concerning Kurdish culture. The schools in Kurdistan are allowed to teach Kurdish. The history and traditions of the oppressed people, which were not allowed to be published before, are now permitted and have flourished. Last May the Kurdish Cultural Center in Tehran organized the country's first scientific conference on teaching the Kurdish language.
Divisions among Iraqi Kurds
Inside Iraq, two Kurdish factions--the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) declared an "autonomous" administration in the region and elected a Kurdish national assembly in 1992. They have hitched the future of the Kurdish struggle to the U.S.-led war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. These bourgeois nationalist parties reject demands for an independent Kurdistan. They have pledged to "maintain the integrity of Iraq" and favor an autonomous Kurdish province in a federal Iraq.
The KDP and PUK have gone to great lengths to assure Washington and Ankara that they have no intentions of declaring a separate Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Ranking officials of the two groups have also made diplomatic visits to give similar assurances to Iran and Syria.
The KDP and PUK fought a bloody war against each other for power in the northern autonomous region from 1994 to 1998. The KDP requested and received military assistance from Baghdad, enabling it to retake a key regional capital from its rival in 1996. Last September the two sides agreed to a cease fire and have maintained a tenuous power-sharing arrangement.
Whatever alliances these groups make with the invading U.S. armies, however, the Kurdish struggle for national self-determination remains a threat to imperialism and to the bourgeois regimes in the region.