What do Omanis think of the Kurds

Jochen Hippler

Kurdistan - An unsolved problem in the Middle East

The problems of the Kurds and the Kurdish settlement areas are among the most conflictual and difficult in the Middle East, in a region that is already extremely rich in conflict. It is not simply a political or ethnic conflict, but a whole bundle of conflicts: questions of human rights, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and economic discrimination, military conflicts through to the use of poison gas, internal Kurdish disputes, competition and open war between states of the region in Kurdish areas, all of these are just some of the overlapping lines of conflict. In addition, there are disputes that have flared up again and again for decades and that have not infrequently been instrumentalized by external powers for their own purposes.

The Kurdish settlement area extends over parts of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, and to a lesser extent as far as Syria and the Soviet Union. Overall, the total number of Kurds today is likely to be over 15 million people. In the public debate, the existence of Kurds has in part been denied at all - in Turkey - in part, the decades-long conflicts were simply interpreted as a classic case of a national liberation struggle, which is much closer to reality than outright denial of the problem, but but doesn't quite hit the point. To understand the conflicts around and in Kurdistan, it is necessary to recall their genesis at least since the end of the First World War.

After the collapse of the Omani Empire in World War I, Great Britain and the Sultan signed the Treaty of Sevres in August 1920. This included the possibility of founding an independent Kurdish state. According to Article 64 of the treaty, the Kurdish residents of Turkey could vote for independence within one year and apply for this to the Council of the League of Nations. If this agreed, Turkey had undertaken to grant independence. (1) This right should also apply to the province of Mosul. Due to two interrelated developments, these provisions were not implemented: once, with the rise of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) within Turkey, the requirements were no longer applicable. Kemal was not ready to grant independence; instead, he concentrated by all means on the preservation of the still existing Turkish territory and the Turkishization of the minorities. At the same time, Great Britain lost interest in an independent Kurdish state: while it had previously been interested in stimulating Kurdish independence striving against the Ottoman Empire, it was now a matter of supporting the new Iraqi state, which was under British control. And there was considerable oil in the province of Mosul, which the British government intended to bring under Iraqi rule - and thus under its own. A Kurdish state would only be a hindrance. In view of the power interests of both sides, the decision against an independent Kurdistan had been made, even if the League of Nations appointed a three-person commission at the end of September 1924 to hold a referendum in the Turkish province of Mosul. A year later, the commission decided to incorporate Mosul into Iraq, and the League Council decided to do so at the end of the year, which Turkey reluctantly accepted in mid-1926. (2)

The next chance for Kurdish statehood came about as a result of World War II. Soviet troops had occupied parts of northern Iran during the war and thereby achieved a position of power in Iran. The USSR promoted the independence efforts of the Iranian minorities, especially the Azeris and the Kurds - in the not exactly selfless attempt to get the Iranian government to grant an oil concession. In the course of this situation, a new small state emerged in Iranian Azerbaijan and an even smaller, Kurdish state in the city of Mahabad. This Kurdish republic was the first and only Kurdish state in history; its influence hardly reached beyond the city limits. Even the Kurdish tribes in the area could only be brought to loyalty with great difficulty. At the same time, the Iraqi Kurdish tribal leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani had to flee with his warriors from Iraq, where he had been in conflict with rival tribes and the Iraqi army. He offered the Kurdish republic his military support. When the Soviet troops withdrew from Iran at the end of 1946, the two new states lost their livelihood, they were occupied by Iranian troops in December and the leaders were executed. (3)

Now it is not the case that Kurdistan would otherwise have been calm and free of conflict until the end of World War II. Resistance, clashes, and fighting had been abundant in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. However, an interpretation that wanted to interpret this from the outset or primarily as a national liberation struggle would be misleading. At first we can only speak of this in a very indirect way. Kurdistan was traditionally shaped by its tribal associations; in the nineteenth century there were clear tendencies towards feudalization that weakened the tribal societies, but did not completely dissolve them. The Ottomans, but above all the British influence, then additionally led to the development of bourgeois capitalist sectors of society. Against this background it is understandable that for a very long time the Kurds had no "national" consciousness, no "nationalism" that would have called for a nation state. Although many Kurds were aware of their ethnic identity and their differences from Arabs or Persians, this did not lead to the development of "national" identity until very late. For a long time, the loyalty and identification of most Kurds was based on their tribe, perhaps their landlord and their respective region. (4) Linguistic and cultural differences did not make the development of national identity easier in contrast to tribal ties. (5) Conflicts and armed conflicts in Kurdistan were frequent, almost the rule, but they took place for a long time for reasons that had little to do with those of a national liberation movement ": struggles between the tribes for influence or booty, battles against the British, against the Turkish, Iraqi or Iranian governments, when these interfered with the autonomy of the individual tribes were not uncommon. Self-determination was definitely a traditional goal, but it was self-determination of the tribe, the region, the landlord, not self-determination of a people. This fact was the starting point for the Kurds practically never combated external interference or dominance together but that there were always enough competing tribes or groups who fought on the side of the Turkish, Iraqi or Iranian troops against other Kurds. Under - often inapplicable - "national" criteria, almost all wars of the Kurds against the governments of the region were always civil wars.

The de-tribalization of Kurdistan since the second half of the 19th century went hand in hand with the emergence of a class of urban intellectuals whose main focus was the city of Sulaymaniyah. Although the Kurdish intellectuals usually did not break all contact with their tribal comrades, they developed ideologies that were inspired by the European model or that of their Turkish, Arab or Persian neighbors and introduced something like "national consciousness" in Kurdistan. This newly emerging Kurdish nationalism was initially an urban and medium-sized phenomenon, but then made progress in the countryside as well. There, however, especially in the inaccessible mountain regions, tribal ties remained dominant for a very long time.
These two currents can be clearly seen in the history of the Kurds in Iraq. On the one hand stood the Kurdish autonomy movement under the tribal leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani, who had been in the forefront since the 1920s. On the other hand, there were the more intellectual-national political parties, up to the mid-1970s mainly the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP), later mainly the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This contrast was somewhat obscured by the fact that Barzani was also party leader of the KDP; his intellectual, progressive-nationalist opponents around Jalal Talabani were purged from the party in 1964. Van Bruinessen states: "Barzani finally managed to dominate both the other tribes and the KDP; he and his sons on the one hand, and his main rival Talabani on the other have represented the opposite poles of the Kurdish movement for the past twenty years." ) The conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan did not simply take place between the Kurds and the Iraqi (Arab) government, but at the same time between the wing of Kurdish tribal autonomy and the intellectual parties (or party wings), as well as between the different tribes and between different parties. This constellation was the prerequisite for the Iraqi government never finally losing control of the Kurdish part of the country despite all the difficulties.

After the fall of the Kurdish republic in Mahabad and the associated defeat of Barzani there was little prospect of a fundamental improvement in the situation of the Kurds in any of the three most important states. This did not change until 1958 when a progressive revolution in Iraq overthrew the Hashemite monarchy and broke British influence. Mustafa Barzani was allowed to return from exile and was welcomed as a hero in Iraq. For a short time Kurdish-Iraqi relations were good, and the new constitution even spoke of a partnership between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq. In the course of 1960 and 1961, the climate worsened again, especially because the Kassem government also supported Kurdish tribes that were hostile to Barzani's tribal alliance. In September 1961 the war broke out, although at first it was essentially fought between the tribes. When the fighting began, Barzani hadn't even bothered to inform the KDP, which he officially headed. When, after internal disagreements, the KDP also decided to participate in the fighting in December, Barzani did not let them into the combat zone. In fact, he behaved like a traditional tribal chief: it was only about exploiting the weakness of the government to expand his own power and weakening competing tribes. (7) The fighting intensified after the first coup of the Ba'ath party in 1963, after that In early 1964, however, an armistice was signed. In 1966 the government announced a 12-point program, which included extensive equality and autonomy for the Kurds, but was not implemented in Baghdad due to internal resistance.

After the second coup of the Ba'ath party, it began a new military campaign against Iraqi Kurdistan in early 1969, the intensity of which was significantly higher than that of its predecessors. Nevertheless, the Kurdish resistance failed to be crushed, and in the following year the government tried to find a political solution to the conflict, which was linked to the 12 points. The offer basically boiled down to offering the Kurds autonomy.
The Iraqi Kurds - which at the time was practically called: Barzani - refused, possibly wasting an opportunity. The reason for this rejection was, on the one hand, a series of suspicious maneuvers by the government, which suggested that it was not really serious, and, on the other hand, the fact that Barzani believed at the time that he did not need a compromise at all, but could assert himself militarily . Because of its hostility to Iraq, the Shah of Iran supplied weapons on a large scale. The US had also promised to support it, and the CIA had begun to support the Kurds ($ 16 million). Israel also contributed a part, which overall strengthened Barzani's military strength, but led to an exaggerated confidence in victory. After some back-and-forth there was a new armed conflict in March 1974, which went beyond the fighting of 1969. Then in March 1975 a dramatic turn took place: Iran and Iraq agreed at an OPEC conference in Algiers to end their conflicts and signed a corresponding treaty. As part of this agreement, the Shah suddenly stopped supporting the Iraqi Kurds and closed the border. As a result, Barzani's fighters not only lost their supplies, but also their opportunities to retreat. Barzani had to surrender within a very short time. He later stated: "Without the American promises we would have behaved differently. If these American promises had not been made, we would never have fallen into the trap like this." (8) The US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, commented dryly: " Intelligence operations are not missionary work ". The Kurdish uprising in the mid-1970s collapsed completely. The reason for this was the obvious mistake of becoming completely dependent on Iran and the USA, which was a political burden: Iran itself had taken action against the Kurds in its own area, and Barzani had even forcibly helped the Shah to pacify the Iranian Kurds . And when the Shah finally came to an understanding with Iraq, the material possibility of continuing the fight was lost.

Despite this drastic defeat, the Kurdish resistance revived surprisingly quickly. The starting point was the revolution in Iran (9) and the Gulf War. In 1978 the Iranian KDP was re-established (the KDPI), and the Iranian Kurds had actively participated in the overthrow of the Shah, albeit less from a nationalist point of view than from a social and democratic point of view. After the revolution, in March 1979 they brought the city of Mahabad and its barracks under Kurdish control, and soon also Sarandaj, where the barracks were besieged. A ceasefire was agreed in May 1980. (10) In September 1980, the Gulf War began with the invasion of southern Iran by the Iraqi army. After the advance there soon came to a standstill, Iraq opened a new front in December in the north, in the Iranian part of Kurdistan. Iraq supported the Iranian Kurds against their government, and close military cooperation soon developed. Conversely, under the sons of Barzani (Mullah Mustafa had since died in the USA), the Iraqi KDP worked with the Iranian military against Baghdad and advanced deep into Iraqi territory - partly alongside the Iranian Pasdaran. (11) 1983 "began Tehran a reasonably successful major offensive against the KDPI with substantial help from the KDP, SPKI and ICP "[Socialist Party of Kurdistan in Iraq and Communist Party of Iraq]. (12) The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani, founded in the mid-1970s, saw itself For precisely this reason, she was unable to cooperate with Iran as well, she began talks with the government in Baghdad and offered to defend Iraq militarily against Iraq and the forces of the KDP. (13) In total, 150,000 or more Kurds on the side of their government fought against the Iranian armed forces and the Iraqi-Kurdish KDP. (14) This marked the end of the Gulf War in Kurdish largely a proxy war in which both governments made use of different Kurdish aid groups.

The Kurdish movements in both countries paid a heavy price for this after the end of the war. If the central governments in the respective Kurdish parts of the country had not ruled with a light hand in the past and sometimes waged war for years against the Kurds' independence or autonomy strivings, the respective Kurdish organizations had now in their eyes the step from an internal opposition to a military one Aid troops of the war opponent done. Iraq's KDP was now viewed as at least as bad as Iran and should be treated accordingly. A willingness to make concessions or the granting of real autonomy had thus decreased even further.
After the end of the fighting between Iran and Iraq, extensive troops were released in both countries, which could and were used to pacify the respective Kurdish parts of the country. This opportunity was swiftly and severely taken advantage of in Iraq in particular. At the beginning of 1988 Kurdish units in Iraq controlled almost 10,000 kmĀ² of the country, a mountainous area about the size of Lebanon, according to Anthony Hyman. (15) In 1988 operations against Iranian and Kurdish units by the Iraqi army, everything went very quickly. In July there were around 15,000 Iraqi soldiers in Kurdistan, and in mid-July there were already 60,000. (16) In a few months, both were essentially destroyed. Practically every conceivable weapon system was used, including chemical warfare agents.Here, too, the Kurds came between all fronts because of their alliances of convenience: the city of Halabja, for example, was fired with chemical ammunition in the course of heavy fighting in March 1988 not only by Iraq - as is well known - but also (and apparently first) by Iran. Around 5,000 civilians died as a result. The Kurdish uprising was - once again - temporarily put down at the end of the 1980s. Almost 130,000 Kurdish refugees sought refuge in Turkey and 30,000 in Iran.

Strategically, a new uprising in Iraqi Kurdistan is likely to become increasingly difficult: the forced resettlement of large tracts of land in the Kurdish settlement area not only encompasses the border area with Iran and Turkey, but also areas deep inside, which the author was able to see for himself in March 1990. Countless scattered villages have not only been depopulated, but razed to the ground so thoroughly that one can often hardly see anything. Today, in completely unpopulated areas, one encounters small or medium-sized cemeteries that once belonged to villages. It is not only about creating deserted areas in which guerrillas could hardly survive, but also about the concentration of the population from many small, scattered and confusing settlements into large, clearly laid out villages or cities under government control. The living conditions in these New Villages are often extremely poor, and the water and energy supplies are often inadequate or barely available. At the same time, Iraqi Kurdistan is militarized to an unimaginable degree: it is hardly possible to drive even a few hundred meters without seeing a smaller or larger military post - and being seen. These range from small vantage points for one or two people on top of a hill to huge, castle-like fortresses with large crews located at strategically important points on the plains. Under these conditions, military resistance on a large scale is out of the question at the moment. However, that does not solve the problem.

At the same time, the situation in the Turkish part of Kurdistan has worsened. While in the opinion of some observers the situation there appeared to have eased slightly in 1986/87 - there were indications of a beginning somewhat greater tolerance in the use of the Kurdish language - the situation has been escalating since the end of the 1980s from a previously rarely experienced escalation marked. The Turkish army appears more and more openly as a mere occupying power and the Kurdish population is responding to the repression, which has already been compared to the Palestinian Intifadah. Two or three years ago, the militant and partly terrorist PKK was viewed in a distanced or even critical manner by the population and was mostly rejected, but this has increasingly changed: the brutal repression by the Turkish military has strengthened the willingness of the Kurds to act now to fight back with radical and violent means. Today the PKK is on the way to being accepted as a liberation movement in Turkish Kurdistan, which is due to the intrangsing and brutal actions of the Turkish army.
Overall, a solution to the "Kurdish question" is not in sight today, in any of the countries involved, and neither politically nor militarily. A solution from within the region itself is highly unlikely, probably impossible. The problems of the Kurds are too much integrated into the regional field of conflict, too much the existential economic interests of the actors are affected, and too much, in addition, great powers repeatedly play off the governments and Kurdish movements in the region against each other. A solution to the Kurdish question is necessary and urgent despite the obvious difficulties. An international initiative - for example within the framework of the UN - would be conceivable and desirable. In this context, at least the scope for partial solutions could be explored.



(1) Stephen C. Pelletiere, The Kurds: An Unstable Element in the Gulf, Boulder / Co., 1984, p. 57 f

(2) ibid, p. 59 f, and: Nader Entessar, The Kurds in Post-revolutionary Iran and Iraq, in: Third World Quarterly, Vol. 6, October 1984, p. 916

(3) Peter Sluglett, The Kurds, in: CARDRI (Ed.), Saddam's Iraq - Revolution or Reaction ?, London 1989, p. 185

(4) Anthony Hyman, Elusive Kurdistan - The Struggle for Recognition, Center for Security and Conflict Studies, London 1988, p. 3

(5) Martin van Bruinessen, The Kurds between Iran and Iraq, in: MERIP Middle East Report, July / August 1986, p. 16

(6) Martin van Bruinessen, The Kurds between Iran and Iraq, in: MERIP Middle East Report, July / August 1986, p. 16

(7) Stephen C. Pelletiere, The Kurds: An Unstable Element in the Gulf, Boulder / Co., 1984, p. 126 ff

(8) quoted from: Nader Entessar, The Kurds in Post-revolutionary Iran and Iraq, in: Third World Quarterly, Vol. 6, October 1984, p. 920

(9) Mohammed H. Malek, Kurdistan in the Middle East Conflict, in: New Left Review, May / June 1989, p. 81 ff

(10) on the Iranian Kurds at the time of the revolution see: Richard Sim, Kurdistan: The Search for Recognition, (Conflict Sudies, No. 124, November 1980), pp. 4-9

(11) Concise on the inner-Kurdish conflicts during the Gulf War: Martin van Bruinessen, The Kurds between Iran and Iraq, in: MERIP Middle East Report, July / August 1986, p. 14

(12) Mohammed H. Malek, Kurdistan in the Middle East Conflict, in: New Left Review, May / June 1989, p. 87

(13) Nader Entessar, The Kurds in Post-revolutionary Iran and Iraq, in: Third World Quarterly, Vol. 6, October 1984, p. 923

(14) Martin van Bruinessen, op. Cit., P. 19

(15) Anthony Hyman, Elusive Kurdistan - The Struggle for Recognition, Center for Security and Conflict Studies, London 1988, p. 14

(16) Mohammed H. Malek, Kurdistan in the Middle East Conflict, in: New Left Review, May / June 1989, p. 92


Jochen Hippler,
Kurdistan - An unsolved problem in the Middle East,
in: United Nations (Bonn), December 1990, pp. 202-205


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