Almost a century ago, European powers promised the Kurds a state but soon reneged on the deal, leaving Kurdish nationalists to fume for generations and leading to Iraq’s recent military capture of Kirkuk, reports Lawrence Davidson.
By Lawrence Davidson
It was in 1916, in the midst of World War I, that Britain and France (pitted against the Germans, Austrians and Ottoman Turks) made their infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. In grand imperial style, they used this agreement to divide up the Middle East between them.
It was a daring move, considering that the war was at a stalemate and the two allies did not know if they were going to win the struggle. Nonetheless, they went ahead with the agreement and in doing so made a number of decisions that continue to shape the region to this day.
Besides bringing traditional European imperialism forward into the Twentieth Century, what made Sykes-Picot infamous was the fact that it broke a significant previous promise made to the Arabs. By 1916 the Arabs had taken to the battlefield against the Turks. For their doing so, the British had promised to support the creation of a large Arab state.
But this promise had always clashed with the imperial ambitions of Britain and France, and so, in the end, they secretly conspired to betray their non-Western ally. Among the eventual consequences of this betrayal, the “Arab state” was confined to what is, today, Saudi Arabia; Palestine (which originally was to be part of the Arab state) would become a “national home for the Jews”; Syria went to the French, and much of the rest of the region was given over to the British.
The Sykes-Picot agreement allowed for one further change. It made possible a state for the Kurds – a people who constituted the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East. This state, known as Kurdistan, was to be carved out of territory within the eventually defeated Ottoman Empire. This intent was publicly confirmed in the Treaty of Sevres in 1920.
The Kurdish leaders, who by this time must have been aware of the Western powers’ betrayal of the Arabs, therefore should not have been surprised when, despite the treaty, the British and French betrayed them as well. The 1923 Treaty of Lucerne amended the Treaty of Sevres, and sure enough, the state of Kurdistan was omitted. The lands that would have made up the Kurdish nation instead become parts of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Thus, the Kurds remained stateless. However, they never gave up statehood as a goal.
Now we can fast-forward to March 19, 2003, the date that President George W. Bush took the fateful step of invading Iraq. Bush had an array of flimsy excuses for doing this: Saddam Hussein’s non-existent nuclear weapons and other WMD, Saddam’s alleged plot to assassinate Bush’s father, the dream (really the nightmare) of forceable “regime change” as a way of making the Middle East safe for the U.S. and Israel, or perhaps just the cutting loose of neoconservative bellicosity. Whatever the President’s depth of ignorance led him to anticipate, the invasion set loose forces that Bush and his White House successors have been unable to control. Among these are the consequences that followed the falling apart of Iraq.
Kurdish Issue Resurfaces
Like the destruction of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the destruction of Iraq that resulted from the 2003 U.S. invasion opened up a Pandora’s Box of potential territorial changes. Not the least of these was the possible creation of the state of Kurdistan.
Like the Arabs in World War I, the Kurds became a fighting ally of the West in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent Syrian civil war. The region’s chaos allowed for the emergence of the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (aka ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh). ISIS turned out to be a grim and brutal manifestation of religious fanaticism run amok. Its growth threatened just about every state in the region, as well as the citizens of the European Union and the U.S.
If stability was to eventually prevail, ISIS had to be defeated, and the Kurds played (and continue to play) a notable role in this fight. There is little doubt that one of their goals in doing so is to create favorable conditions for a Kurdish state.
For all those regional powers (Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq) seeking to reestablish the status quo ante, the prospect of an independent Kurdish state is anathema. Each state has Kurdish minorities and is afraid that an independent Kurdistan, even one carved out of another state’s territory, would lead to or exacerbate Kurdish insurgencies in their own countries. The possibility that such a state might instead cause a lessening of minority Kurdish restiveness through voluntary immigration seems not to have occurred to the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Syria.
As Jonathan Cook has recently made clear, the question of Kurdish independence has been complicated by Israeli influence in this matter. The Israelis have long been keen on an independent Kurdistan not because, as some of their politicians disingenuously claim, the Kurds have a “moral right” to a state (so do the Palestinians). Rather, the Israelis have an undeclared but official policy aimed at “Balkanizing” the Arab states. They have been encouraging “sectarian and ethnic discord” in order to destabilize their neighbors. In other words, Israeli support of the Kurds is an effort to weaken primarily Iraq, and secondarily, Syria and Iran (Turkey is just “collateral damage” in this process).
The Best Option
One can hardly blame the Kurds for taking help where they can get it – in this case from Israel – in a fight for independence that has been going on for centuries. Nonetheless, one can also understand that Israeli meddling seriously frightens the other states affected.
Leaving aside the Israeli issue for a moment, the question that should guide policy here is: can Iraq be reestablished as a viable state? Putting the question more informally, in 2003 a rather stupid American president — working under the influence of Zionists, witless neoconservatives, and Iraqi nationalists bearing false witness — knocked the Iraqi Humpty Dumpty off its precarious wall. Can it be put back together again? The answer is, well, maybe – but there seems to be only two ways to do this. One is a near-genocidal war waged by regional powers against the Kurds. Alternatively, Iraq might be resurrected if the Kurds are willing to settle for half a loaf in the form of being an autonomous part of a confederated state.
Right now the future is uncertain. One has the impression that the Turks and Iraqis (whose forces assaulted the Kurdish claimed city of Kirkuk on Oct. 16) are quite willing to try to solve the matter by prolonged war. This would be a big mistake. It would lead to an Iraq that may be technically united but in truth would be even weaker than it is now, and not really independent at all.
Its northern region would probably be under the de facto control of Turkey and Iran, and the rest of the country would continue to be in a decentralized mess experiencing an ongoing sectarian civil war. On the other hand, a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue could lead to the stabilization of the rest of Iraq as a confederated state. Also, as part of a confederated Iraq, Kurdistan’s autonomy can preclude an independent foreign policy, thus minimizing Israeli influence.
Despite the recent Kurdish vote for independence, their leaders must know this can only be made real if they can win a prolonged war against Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Israel is not in a geographical position to effectively help them do this. And so, the Kurds probably cannot endure such a struggle. That leaves them with only one rational choice.
The Kurds are now closer to independent status than at any time since the near-miss days of World War I. Their best strategy is to make the best (if not the most) of that status within a confederated Iraq and end their interaction with Israel. This has to be better than a near-genocidal war in which they would be the victims. However – and this is the usual question in such situations – will the emotions roiling on all sides allow sanity to prevail?
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism. He blogs at www.tothepointanalyses.com.
“One can hardly blame the Kurds for taking help where they can get it…” This is an ignorant statement. That Syria et al should be punished for Britain and Frances evil is moral wrong. And Kurds with principles would agree. Kurds who have been treated fairly by their hosts, as in Syria, while that host is on the receiving end of evil from today’s betrayers, the United States and its allies, but who join forces with the aggressors against their victims, who had been kind to them, are evil – with a capital E.
Your top two links (sykes-picot agreement and Sevres Agreement) link to apple.com
Saudi Arabia did not come into existence until 1932 so it seems unlikely to be on a map in 1916 as shown here. What am I missing?
To make a long story short, I assume you saw Lawrence of Arabia, that was Ibn Saud.
Ibn Saud wasn’t a character in “Lawrence of Arabia”. The prince character was the Hashemite Faisal.
You are right, Ibn Saud, was a much darker, reactionary figure, who was responsible for many atrocities in the region and was later installed by the British.
The Saudis were only distant participants in the Great Arab Revolt. Their participation was limited to skirmishing with their old enemies, the pro-Ottoman Rashidi tribe – which they would have done anyway. The British Arab Bureau in Cairo supported the Arab Revolt – whose members were behind Ottoman lines in Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem and elsewhere in Greater Syria – mainly through the mediation and organization of the family of the Sharif of Mecca and Medina. The Saudi family and the other Arab emirs of the Gulf – as well as Persia – were clients of the India Office of the British Empire. These two bureaux were at odds, and in the end, it was the “divide and rule” advice of the India Office which carried the day at the Paris Peace Conference, as well as the San Demo and Cairo Conferences where the arbitrary and weak neoimperial Arab States were designed.
A brilliant set of facts on the mechanism of colonization but what is your opinion on the matter. what conclusions have you drawn on Ottomans, British Colonization, the Kurds, etc. I see the Ottoman Empire as an integrated civilization with the Arabs. And, WW1 in the Middle East as an oil grab by Churchill for the British Navy; which had nothing to do with the liberation of Arabs. The Arab people (not the Balkans) would have been much better off if the Ottomans had won WW1 and their leaders would not have sold them out to the British Empire.
It was called Arabia in 1916. Iraq only includes part of Kurdistan because the british who drew the map of Iraq did not want a an Iraq border in a difficult to defend flat terrain, and possibly the Kurds oil.
The map also misspells “Palestine” and is pretty sloppy cartography in general.
If you’d like, Broompilot, you can be the second member of my club devoted to getting ConsortiumNews to take more seriously the illustrations they insert in their articles.
The Korea map (with caption) they usually stick in pieces on that region also has several inaccuracies, or at least confusions.
And they routinely insert very upsetting images such as the burning World Trade Center and Emmett Till’s coffin photo in tangentially related posts without giving due consideration to the power and sensitivity of those pictures.
The maps and illustrations aren’t essential to many of these pieces, but if CN is going to use them, they should take editorial responsibility for their quality and appropriateness.
Consider me a member of your club David G, assuming there are no dues or responsibilities, or meetings.
Your membership card is on its way. Be prepared for initiation when you least expect it.
The Kurds were not betrayed. The Turks with the help of Soviet Russia defeated the national Greek army and completed the removal of the Anatolian Greeks. Under the circumstances Western “powers” were in no position to grant anything. As for Arabs promised a state what are we pining for exactly? A new Arab controlled Caliphate in 1920? A bunch of mini Caliphates? The mandate model following the end of Ottoman rule was the best that could be achieved. It is easy to pretend otherwise but not well informed.
The Anatolian Greeks aligned with the British Empire to carve up Turkey and subsequently got their asses handed to them by Ataturk. Soviet Russia was aligning with the Armenians to overthrow Turkey; that did not work out too well for the Armenians either. The UK installed the Saudis and the MB was radicalized to fight the Soviets. Arab countries aligning with the West has been an unmitigated disaster for them.
It is easy to pretend otherwise but not well informed.
The Conferees at the 1919 Versailles Conference appeased the nominal representative of the Arabs, Sharif Faisal, by promising to send a committee of inquiry to the Arab-majority areas recently liberated from Ottoman rule, to assess the will of the inhabitants concerning their political future. The European conferees, following the Franco-British lead, betrayed that promise, and in the end it was left to an American delegation – the King-Crane Commission – which was able to visit only part of Greater Syria. They found that support for the Arab Revolt program was generally high. If the British and French had followed-through on promises made and reiterated to the Revolt during the war to help to establish the Arab state after the war, the project would have had popular approval and could have succeeded. The success may not have extended to to include the entire region defined by the Damascus Protocol, but certainly the entire Fertile Crescent was feasible.
Correction: 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, not Lucerne
How can the support of a Palestinian land thief be considered sincere, and with that how may this deceptive illegal country by it’s own title of calling itself Israel be trusted? Beware Kurdish people your being ‘had’.
I read doublethink and thinkspeak when I see anybody or any entity bemoaning Iraq taking back areas that were occupied by Iraqi Kurdish soldiers who ran away from defending Mosul . I see thinkspeak when I see some authors and many officials including Secretary of Defense Mattis talking about a return to sectarian instability in Iraq. JUST WHAT IS THE BARZANI GOVERNMENT IN IRAQI KURDISTAN DOING WHEN THEY DECLARE INDEPENDENCE? Is that not sectarian. Is the press writing somebody’s quote somewhere that ” Kirkuk is the Kurd’s Jerusalem” fact based or is it spin? Is that not validating sectarian instability and encouraging support of the partition of Iraq? YES IT IS> PERIOD. Is this suppose to be an olive branch? If Israel is involved and they than are you guessed it, it’s about money. Oil is money. WE do not support Catalonia or Crimea or Scotland declaring the right to do as they please do we? What gives here? The largest Kurdish population is in Turkey. What are YOU going to do about it? Nothing. This is some kind of political play and it reflects the Dream of a partition of Iraq. This is not going to happen. SHIITES are the majority in Iraq . Muqtada al Sadr comes from a family 100 times more powerful than Barzani and he does not support partition nor does the Ayatollah Sistani. Just how is this suppose to happen without the IS of Islamic mercenaries fighting on the ground? . Iran could disappear and it still wouldn’t happen. Wake up and smell the coffee . This is another BS non issue. The US Neoconservative plan has failed. That is why the bulls-eye target is back on Iran. Ordinary Kurds have to realize that they are being played and they must be looking out for their own interests in Syria and Turkey and Iran. The USA and Israel complicate conditions in Iraq. There the Kurds have to deal with the Barzanis having to much money and weapons and support from foreign interests. The problem is they don’t have enough bodies and can’t support themselves, Are Americans and Israelis going to die for their freedom when it will not profit either of us? Make me laugh harder.They have been used . Kurdish Independence only matters in the present reality if it serves US interests and it does not. What Israel wants matters in the New York Times, on TV Talk Shows and in the Wall Street Journal , I mean the Fox Street Journal..
LJ is correct on many points. Yet the Kurds should justly have a homeland uniting their enclaves in Iran Turkey and Iraq. The Kurds have been cruelly oppressed in Turkey and Iraq.
I notice that there arent many countries volunteering to be partitioned.
Partitioning European created nations into ethnic, cultural and historical groupings should not be a problem.
I am sure there is some ethnic group clamoring for independence in whatever country you live in, why dont you start organizing a movement there? Perhaps you can even get CIA support for the project, they seem to be all too willing. In the US, I have always felt we should give the plain states back to the Indians.
Bananna Boat in a perfect world I would hit the lottery. I’m on my way to buy a ticket. Hope springs eternal. It’s good that u didn’t mention oppression in Iran and Syria where they have lived for thousands of years. Or that they were oppressed in Iraq after some radicals tried to assassinate Saddam Hussein and launched a revolt.. They have also caused a little grief in Turkey but that was before Erdogan.
The Greek General Xenephon wrote of the Kurds in Anabasis. They had the well earned reputation of a fierce territorial warlike people 2400 years ago.
First, I find it fascinating that we are told to cheer for ethno-nationaism for the Kurds. I thought that’s a big part of why we hate Nazis (be they in Germany in the 1930s or Charlottesville in 2017. “Blood and Soil” is OK as long as it’s lubricated with enough oil?
Second, no one has the right to determine national borders except the people of that nation.
Third, the Kurds are not a monolithic group. They vary politically from the neoliberal Barzani gang of Iraq to the Marxist followers of Abdullah Öcalan in Turkey and part of Syria. Similarly, they practice several different religions, and even some Kurdish languages are different enough that native speakers cannot understand one another.
So, what to do? Half of all the Kurdish people in the world reside in Turkey. Are we good with going to war with the NATO country whose army is second only to the US?
Only about 2% of them live in Syria, and yet that is the Kurdish group the US is funding, arming and providing air support to the greatest extent. Presently, Syrian Kurds (about 6% of Syria’s population) control 40% of Syria’s oil fields, and have stopped fighting ISIL to race the Syrian forces to take control of the remaining territory and oil up to the border with Iraq.
I am all for self-determinization. But I do not believe that is the issue with all the media attention for Kurdish independence. We are being played… once again.
As always, one question should guide all of our considerations. Cui bono?
The multi-generational, banking/corporate dynasty Rothschild family has perfected the ability to remain totally out of the media despite deep involvement in decision-making directly shaping world events. After learning Rothschild and Murdoch were major shareholders in Genie Energy, that Dick Cheney is an advisor for Genie Energy, and that Genie Energy was awarded the 1st exclusive lease for energy extraction in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, it seemed investigative journalists wishing to “go all the way” without factoring in the Rothschilds influence were possibly missing the mark.
Perhaps others who pass this way can be of assistance in clarifying whether or not there’s any truth in reports that Rothschild is the largest owner/controller of oil/gas natural resources in northern Iraq, more commonly known as Kurdistan. What level of power and command do the Rothschilds exercise in the Middle East region and beyond, how influential are they when it comes to situations war and peace, and should those men and women wishing to identify the root causes of wars, in particular wars in the Middle East, focus much more sharply on the name Rothschild?
Thank you for any help in fully answering these questions.
Is it also true that Russia Iran Syria and North Korea are the only nations without Rothchild banks?
That did not take long, 4 months after Trump pulled the plug on CIA clandestine operations in Syria, ISIS is routed and the region is close to achieving stability.
I am beginning to think that Trump is quite skillful at playing the game.
If anything Trump does in the Mideast turns out well, it is a rare accident. Remember, this is the guy arming Saudi Arabia, and selling out to Israel. Smart moves? I don’t think so.
Ignoring his bombastic rhetoric for a moment, how did he sell out to Israel? I dont think that Israel is very happy now that Assad. Iran and Russia effectively won in Syria and the greater Israel project via the Kurds has just been gutted. The Saudis did not appear too confident in their alliance with the US either last week when they visited Putin on bent knee asking for missile systems whose sole purpose is to prevent NATO/US attacks.
H sponsored and closed the largest arms deal in history with Saudi Arabia
That was a continuation of the same arms deal that started under Obama.
Well that is hopeful. I don’t think the Middle East is any closer to achieving stability than it was before. That is a decade(s) away’ Yemen and Libya, Syria the fighting rages. Lebanon wants the Syrian refugees out. It hsn’t been well reported that the Syrian fiasco has dis[placed 5.2 million people. Some are in camps most aren’t how will they be assimilated if they return.The problems are to myriad to list. Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly stable and it seems apparent that Israel and Saudi Arabia want war with Iran and Trump without a doubt, if he can get Congressional approval, would be willing to go along . The reconciliation in Palestine is in the same stae that it always will be as long as Abbas lives,. Turkey is in a bunker mentality. I don’t see anything Trump has done as beneficial to long term or short term peace. If things are winding down it is because the Iranians and Hezbollah with Russian Air power kicked ass and raised costs to everyone to continue a losing battle.. The6y have also proven the worth of their weapons and everybody wants S-400 and S-500 weapon systems. The Kurdish problem in Iraq now can be looked at realistically. Exactly who is benefiting from Barzani being in control without oversight of the oil flowing out of Iraqi Kurdistan?. Why should Turkey facilitate this and what possible benifit accrues to Iraq if they let this go on.
Yes, stability among competing warlords and intolerant factions requires only dominance, not civilization. That can only slowly lead to improvement in the tolerance necessary to any multicultural democracy. Not only the Kurds but also the Sunnis, Turkmen, and others must be accommodated as full citizens with equal rights in Iraq/Syria/Iran/Turkey before stability and civilization can be achieved. That seems unlikely without several generations of broader education, during several generations of continuing extremist insurgency and savagery.
The Kurds appear to be doomed to economic dependence, as their trade is controlled by Iraq/Turkey/Iran, and they should make that an agreeable relationship. Apparently they are riven by demagogic factions, of whom Barzani’s misjudged the response of their necessary allies, described today in an MoA article Why The Kurdish Independence Project Failed (link to follow), which explains their careless assertion/retraction of claims to Kirkuk.
The US and Israel, as the cynical amoral instigators of factional violence the Mideast, Ukraine and elsewhere, have quite deliberately and savagely set back the clock of civilization around the world by a century or more, when we might have set it forward by half a century since WWII, had our own democracy not been taken over and set back centuries by our zionist/WallSt/MIC oligarchy.
Here is the link to the MoA article on rival factions among the Kurds:
Routing of ISIS has nothing to do with what Trump did in Syria. The US support of SDF does not sound like Trump wanting stability in Syria.
If you don’t see Trump in Israel’s pockets than you are not much of an observer.
Syria war: Almost 500,000 refugees return in 2017 – UN
“The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says more than 440,000 internally displaced Syrians and about 31,000 of those who fled abroad have now come back. Most of them have returned to Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus with the aim of checking on their properties and finding out about family members.”
Those statistics are ridiculous. The Sunni regions of Syria have lost more than half of their population . Most do not want to return. Threatened Alawites and Christians moved to Government held territories. They will not be returning to their ancestral homes. Smaller groups like the Yazaris have fled entirely. Do you know how many Iraqi Assyrian Christian refugees , were in Syria before this conflict. They were mostly in Sunni territory,. !.3 million, what happened to them? Do you have any awareness of how many Palestinian Refugees were in permanent exile in Syria? What happened to them? The UN is a total sham and the UNHCR is totally politicized. Most notably Lebanon is hosting over a million Syrian Refugees that the UN and USA want them to assimilate. It will not happen. You suggest numbers that are low in a context that makes it seem like progress rather than tragedy is occurring. Read a few articles on Naharnet-Lebanese news, (an anti_Hezbollah pro-Saudi source) and get a little background of the extent of the refugee influx into Lebanon. Disregard Jordan entirely. . Then I suggest you read some articles written in EU nations , Germany especially, about the number of Syrians in their countries. Almost 1 people million left the Aleppo Province alone. 500,000 people who were not allowed egress into Europe may have returned but they are a drop in the bucket of the over 5 million refugees and a small fraction of the total internally and externally displaced Syrians. This US backed operation was a Crime Against Humanity and it was executed by the Administration of Barack Obama. Along with what Obama pulled in Libya this is the lowest that the USA has ever sunk . It is disgraceful. Shameful.
I appreciate your perspective. I particularly liked this comment…
This US backed operation was a Crime Against Humanity and it was executed by the Administration of Barack Obama. Along with what Obama pulled in Libya this is the lowest that the USA has ever sunk . It is disgraceful. Shameful.
My understanding is that most of the damage was done covertly under the Obama Administration and overtly under Bush. While it is not safe for the refugees to return and the situation is generally horrible, is it not true that ISIS is currently being defeated in Syria by Assad, and Trump is not stopping it? Didn’t calling off the CIA covert operations i.e. backing Al-Nusra, improve the situation? I am unclear about the actual carnage that can be tied specifically to Trump, that was not tied directly to a military action against ISIS. For instance, my understanding of the missile strikes in Syria, which hit nothing, and the dropping of a bomb in the middle of the desert in Afghanistan is largely theater; and see theatrics as integral to his politics. I am perfectly comfortable with the notion that I am mistaken, as I am not above being sucked in by the propoganda.