At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, British Prime Minister Lloyd George was supposed to include Kurdistan on a list of proposed mandates. When someone pointed out to him that he had forgotten to include it, he quickly added it to the list and blithely noted that geography had not been his strongest suit. Mandate status for Kurdistan might have led eventually to statehood as it did for Iraq and Syria, for example. But neither the French nor the Americans supported a mandate for Kurdistan. One American delegate who had little knowledge of the region characterized Kurds by using a racist comparison to the native peoples of his own country. “In some respects the Kurds remind one of the North American Indians….. Their temper is passionate, resentful, revengeful, intriguing and treacherous. The make good soldiers , but poor leaders. They are avaricious, utterly selfish, shameless beggars, and a great propensity to steal.” (Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. 1st U.S. ed. New York: Random House, 2002, 444)
Ultimately, the British favored including a part of the region where Kurds lived to be in the new mandate of Iraq. The status of Kurdistan was left up in the air. When Kemal Ataturk came to power in Turkey and began pushing back against efforts to shrink Turkish territory, the allied powers lost all interest creating a Kurdish state.
Fast forward to today.
Since the Paris Peace Conference, many Kurds have demanded greater rights and autonomy, and in some places, independence. But the experiences of Kurds vary from country to country. For example, in Turkey, Kurdish efforts to form an independent state met a harsh crackdown from the Turkish government, sparking a civil war that has claimed over forty thousand lives since the 1980s. Today, many Kurds in Turkey no longer seek independence, but want greater rights and political control within the borders of Turkey.
Kurds in Iraq, after suffering a genocide, ethnic cleansing, and repression at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s government, gained a greater role in the new Iraqi government that formed after the 2003 U.S. invasion. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) controls a region of northern Iraq commonly known as Iraqi Kurdistan. It has its own military and largely governs itself separate from the federal government in Baghdad. In recent years, Iraqi Kurds have expanded oil production and built a pipeline to Turkey to export oil without the approval of the federal Iraqi government. This has increased tension between Kurdish officials and the Iraqi government.
Kurds have also gained international attention for their involvement in the fight against ISIS. The United States has supported Iraqi Kurdish military forces, called the peshmerga, in the conflict. As ISIS swept through regions of Iraq, federal Iraqi officials left their posts in some places. This presented Kurds with an opportunity to expand their control over new territory.
On Monday, September 25, 2017, 92 percent of the Kurds in Iraq voted for independence in a vote that has been condemned by Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Each of these countries, with their significant populations of Kurds, is reluctant to allow Kurds to establish an independent state. All are exerting economic and diplomatic pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government. The idea of self-determination, touted by Woodrow Wilson one hundred years ago, faces a test in 2017. Like then, the idea of a Kurdish state faces scrutiny and skepticism.
The video features Steven Kinzer answering the question, “How did Kurds respond to Atatürk’s vision for Turkish identity?” and is associated with our curriculum Empire, Republic, Democracy: Turkey’s Past and Future.