The determination and growing confidence of the Kurds are among the progressive developments that mark the unraveling of the imperialist world order in the Middle East today. And the Kurdish struggle is intertwined with the fight by toilers against landlord and capitalist exploitation and imperialist domination.
The Kurds were an oppressed people under the six-century reign of the Ottoman Empire as well as the Persian rulers of modern day Iran. Starting in the mid-1800s, Kurds waged a series of wars for unification and independence from Ottoman rule, all of which were suppressed, at times with aid from European powers.
When the victorious powers of London and Paris carved up the region following World War I, the Kurdish people were denied a homeland.
In May 1916 the British and French governments signed a secret pact, known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, to divide up the Ottoman Empire following World War I. The French rulers would take control of Syria and Lebanon and the British Iraq and Palestine.
Four years later the Treaty of Sèvres was drawn up to dissolve the Ottoman Empire. While backing the British and French land grab, the treaty promised the creation of a Kurdish state. But it was never implemented.
Instead, London, Paris and Ankara in July 1923 signed the Treaty of Lausanne that carved up the Ottoman Empire, recognized Turkey as an independent nation and kept the Kurds divided within the imperialist-drawn borders of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.
“The country of the Kurds, known since the XIIth century by the name ‘Kurdistan,’ found itself divided between four states,” wrote Kendal Nezan, president of the Kurdish Institute of Paris. And for the first time, “it was even to be deprived of its cultural autonomy.”
Since the end of World War I, governments in the region imposed laws to brutally suppress Kurdish culture and national identity. Publicly speaking, writing, or conducting classes in the Kurdish language, for example, were banned. Some Kurds were deported or forced to resettle in other areas in an attempt to scatter the Kurdish population. Delegated to second-class status, many were denied citizenship and faced repression and discrimination.
Today, Kurds in much of the region comprise a disproportionate number of workers in the lowest-paid and most arduous jobs, such as agricultural labor and construction.
Following World War I Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was leading a fight for an independent Turkish republic. His forces overthrew the Ottoman Sultanate in 1922 and he became the country’s first president the following year. As these battles were getting underway, Ataturk appealed to and won support from the Kurds. The first forces of Turkey’s war of independence were recruited from the Kurdish provinces.
Upon taking power, however, Ataturk turned against the Kurds, denying autonomy and implementing a series of discriminatory measures that included prohibiting the teaching or speaking of the Kurdish language in public places. The Turkish rulers designated them “Mountain Turks,” officially denying their existence as a distinct people.
Rebellions against the Turkish government’s treatment of Kurds continued over the next couple of decades, including a 1925 uprising of 15,000 led by Sheikh Said and a 1937-38 rebellion in the Kurdish district of Dersim (currently called Tunceli) in eastern Turkey. Both were brutally suppressed.
Kurds revolt in Iraq
In Iraq, where the British in 1921 put in power the pro-imperialist monarchy of King Faisal, Kurds fought battles for their own homeland. In 1923, former Kurdish Gov. Sheikh Mahmud Barzinji led an uprising against British rule, declaring a Kurdish kingdom in Sulaimaniya in northern Iraq. The following year British forces crushed the revolt, retaking Sulaimaniya.
From 1943-45, in the midst of World War II, a Kurdish revolt led by Mustafa Barzani gained control of areas of Erbil and Badinan. The British Royal Air Force assisted the Iraqi Army in defeating the uprising. Kurdish rebels retreated into Iran where they joined Kurds fighting for an independent state.
In 1946 in Iran the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad under the leadership of Qazi Mohammed was established near the Iraqi border. The democratic revolutionary government there sought to implement a program that included a plan for agricultural, industrial and social development, and the right to elect representatives, run their own affairs and study in Kurdish. It proclaimed fraternity with the Azerbaijani people and other oppressed nationalities and called for greater rights for peasants and freedom of political action for all the people of Iran.
At the time Soviet forces were occupying the area. The Mahabad Republic lasted for 10 months until the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin withdrew its troops and refused to provide the Kurds with adequate weapons. Tehran, backed by Washington and London, then overthrew the Kurdish republic and executed its leaders.
In 1958 a mass popular revolution overthrew the British-backed monarchy in Iraq, opening new opportunities for struggle by workers, farmers and oppressed people there. A new Iraqi constitution drawn up that year recognized Kurdish national rights. But the new government continued attacks on the Kurds. Baghdad banned the Kurdish Democratic Party after quelling a Kurdish rebellion in 1961.
In 1970 the Baathist Party government of President Saddam Hussein signed a cease-fire with Kurdish leaders and in 1974 imposed a draft autonomy agreement on the Kurds with the oilfields of Kirkuk left under Iraqi government control. The law was never implemented.
Kurds in the mid-1970s secured a large self-governing area in northern Iraq. For a short period of time it was backed by the Shah of Iran, who nonetheless continued to brutally suppress the Kurdish struggle in Iran, and by the governments of Israel and the U.S. In 1975 the three governments reversed their support. The Iraqi army went back in and more than 100,000 Kurds fled the region. Hussein started bombing Kurdish villages that year, destroying an estimated 5,000 by 1980.
In Iran, the massive mobilizations of working people resulting in the 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi created new openings for Kurds. Kurdish civilians took control of military garrisons, weapons stockpiles and gendarmerie outposts. The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) held public news conferences for the first time in 30 years, promoting formation of a federal republic of Kurdistan within Iran. But as Ayotollah Khomeini consolidated control over a new capitalist government, repressive measures were again imposed on the Kurds.
Beginning in 1980 the Iraqi regime of Hussein with Washington’s backing launched an eight-year war aimed at rolling back the Iranian revolutionary victory of workers and farmers. Some 1 million Iranians were hit by chemical weapons launched by the Iraqi regime, killing an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people and sickening 100,000.
In 1988 Washington began supplying Baghdad with detailed targeting information used to bombard Iranian troops with sarin gas, according to an August 2013 Foreign Policy magazine article.
That year, Iraqi forces launched Operation Anfal, which targeted Kurdish villages, including Halabja in northern Iraq, with sarin, VX and mustard gas. Tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians and fighters were killed and hundreds of thousands forced into exile. In Halabja alone there were some 5,000 deaths and 10,000 injured.
In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) opened armed struggle in 1984 that lasted nearly three decades. Ankara unleashed brutal repression against the Kurdish population, killing tens of thousands. PKK has been branded a terrorist organization by Washington from 1997 to this day.
In 1990-91 U.S.-led forces carried out a bloody assault on Iraq and expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Following Baghdad’s defeat, both Shiites in the south and Kurds in the northeast rebelled. In two weeks Kurdish militias gained control of Iraqi Kurdistan, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Then Washington and its imperialist allies watched as Iraqi troops brutally crushed the uprisings. Turkey closed its border to some 2 million fleeing Kurds, who took refuge in the mountains.
At the same time, a no-fly zone imposed over Kurdish territory by Washington, London and Paris gave some breathing room for the Kurds in Iraq — the most significant unintended consequence of the imperialist war. Over the ensuing years, Kurds consolidated control over their lands and carved out an autonomous Kurdish region with an elected government.
Washington’s second invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Hussein in 2003 marked a turning point in advancing the Kurds’ struggle for a homeland. The autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq under the Kurdish Regional Government increasingly carries out its own foreign policy and trade independent of Baghdad.
The Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq has become the best-trained and organized military force in the country. And Peshmerga units — like the PKK and other Kurdish militias in the region — are distinguished by a substantial component of combat troops who are women.
The establishment of an autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq has also laid the basis for economic development, the expansion of a Kurdish capitalist class and an opening of space for workers, farmers and women to organize and advance their interests. This includes a renewed union movement to challenge the bosses and repressive labor laws inherited from the Hussein government, as well as reach out to fellow unionists who are Arab across Iraq.
In 2013 Ankara agreed to a cease-fire with the PKK and began easing repressive anti-Kurdish laws and policies, a concession dubbed the “Kurdish initiative” by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey has also become the main trading partner of Iraqi Kurdistan. Some 1,200 Turkish companies are operating there.
A demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey, in June 2013 by thousands of Kurds and other working people protesting the killing of 18-year-old Kurd Medeni Yildirim by police shows the growing confidence of the Kurdish masses and sympathy for their national struggle among workers, farmers and middle class layers in Turkey.
In Syria, where more than 2 million Kurds have been fighting decades of mistreatment under Baathist party regimes of Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad, Kurdish forces have taken control of their lands in northeastern Syria, referred to by Kurds as Rojava (Western Kurdistan), and stood their ground against repeated assaults by Islamic State and other reactionary formations.
As this fight unfolds, the growing struggles of millions of Kurdish working people will inspire and open new doors for toilers across the Middle East and beyond.
Back Kurds in battle of Kobani and war against Islamic State!
Los Angeles protest calls for solidarity with Kobani
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