StMU Research Scholars

Three Years Later, You Don’t Exist: The Kurdish Nation-State

To understand the importance of the Kurdish fight for independence in the Middle Eastern conflict today, one might trace thee roots in the earlier civilizations, however, the fight for independence was revived by the promise of autonomy in the early 1920s.

Kurdish people have a shared history and culture that spans millennia. They have been conquered and pulled into numerous empires over their three thousand year history. Ancient Persians conquered them first, followed by Alexander the Great, then Muslim Arabs in the seventh century, the Turks in the 1000s, the Mongols in the 1200s, and the Persians again during the Middle Ages. The last empire to conquer the Kurds was the Ottoman Empire who held control over the Kurds until World War One when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled 1

Kurdistan in the 1920s | Courtesy of EdMaps

Following the end of World War One in 1918, Britain was deeply embroiled in the disputes among Mesopotamian nations making decisions on how to govern the new nations, specifically the Kurds. Between the years 1918 and 1920, Kurdish nationalist movements were rising and gaining momentum, their main goal: an independent state. Britain attempted to create a Kurdistan state using pieces of land from modern day Iraqi Kurdistan, but all attempts failed 2 The Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 dismantled the Ottoman Empire and started establishing boarders for all the nations that were previously under Ottoman control 3 Despite efforts made, there was no final decision for the Kurds in this Treaty, only arrangements made for the possibility of a future Kurdistan nation-state.

Members of Cairo Conference | Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Cairo Conference in 1921, again, reiterated the point that the Kurdish nation had a right to self-determination or to have a state. These territories include “east of the Euphrates, south of the southern boundary of Armenia… north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia” as set forth in the Treaty of Sèvres 4  The Conference had multiple committees, including one led by Churchill, who, following Wilson’s fourteen points that stated that Kurdish and other non-Turkish nations were previously a part of the Ottoman Empire, recommended giving land and the opportunity to become autonomous states 5 Autonomous did not mean that the states would necessarily become individual independent states, but rather that they would be allowed to govern themselves within larger political units. This committee discussed the future of the Mesopotamian plains and Britain’s future relationship with those groups. The Conference eventually decided not to force Kurdistan to join the Iraqi state. More importantly, the Cairo Conference decided to that Kursistan would remain as it was until the Kurds and their representatives could determine their own future 6

The Treaty of Sèvres was never ratified due to an overthrow of the Turkish government, so neither it nor the many recommendations from the Cairo Conference ever went into effect 7 Eventually, in 1923, the Treaty of Sèvres was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne 8 The Treaty of Lausanne did not include any space for making Kurdistan an official and sovereign nation-state. Instead, Kurdistan was grouped in with Iraq and Kurdish nationalist movements were suppressed 9

So, despite promises made by Western allies, Kurdistan remained one of the largest nations without a state. A nation that spread across multiple countries, including Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia. Today, there are between 25 million and 35 million Kurds across the five countries and another 2 million Kurds spread across Europe. They are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East 10 Kurds continue to be target of much repression, oppression, and even persecution in Turkey, Iraq, & Syria. In the span of three years, they went from deserving autonomy in Sèvres to full omission from the final agreement made in Lausanne.

  1. Salem Press Encyclopedia 2017, s.v.  “Kurdistan (geo-cultural region) by Jack Lasky.”
  2. Saad Eskander, “Southern Kurdistan under Britain’s Mesopotamian Mandate: From Separation to Incorporation, 1920-23.” Middle Eastern Studies no. 2 (2001): 153.
  3. “Sèvres, Treaty of,” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, (March 2017): 1.
  4. “Treaty of Sèvres,” Section I, Articles 1 – 260 – World War I Document Archive, May 2009.
  5. “Avalon Project – President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points” Lillian Goldman Law Library, 2008.
  6. Azad Aslan, “KurdishGlobe- The Cairo Conference: Critical Years in the History of Southern Kurdistan 1921-22”, June 20, 2013. Accessed February 21, 2018.
  7. A. E. Montgomery, “The Making of the Treaty of Sevres of 10 August 1920.” The Historical Journal no. 4 (1972): 775.
  8. “Treaty of Lausanne,” The World War One Document Archive, May 2009.
  9. Saad Eskander, “Southern Kurdistan under Britain’s Mesopotamian Mandate: From Separation to Incorporation, 1920-23.” Middle Eastern Studies no. 2 (2001): 153.
  10. “Who Are the Kurds?” BBC, October 31, 2017

23 Responses

  1. Kurdistan is unique in its ability to completely vanish from the public eye. The nation may not now exist, but the people who used to live in it are still very much alive. Kurdistan’s story is mirrored with ours in its speedy independence. I still recall the tremendous amount of oppression they went through before their subsequent annexation, and the treaty of Lausanne was a good reminder just how quickly things can change. One day you’re a sovereign nation, and the next, you are nothing more than a forgotten idea. Of course, you can always just do what the Confederates did and never officially surrender.

  2. This was a very interesting article. Before reading it, I had no idea of who the Kurds are and I am not the only one. It is sad to read that even after all this time, they had to face so much hardship. The way that the article was presented made it extremely interesting to read and kept me hooked on the article.

  3. It’s a shame that political boundaries are what separate cultures and ethnic groups, but I suppose that’s one of the evils that come with civilization. Before this article, I knew very little of the Kurds, enough to be a part of a conversation, but not nearly enough to join one. I only hope that Kurds find stability in the modern world.

  4. I like the fact that this article sheds some light on a subject that most people, including myself, do not know about. Everyone is always focused on what the big, developed countries are doing and how those things impact the rest of the world, but I think this kind of oppression needs to be talked about, and this article does that. Also, I find it interesting that powerful countries in the West were fighting for the development of a Kurdish state because it shows that the powerful countries do care about their smaller, less powerful allies.

  5. The fact that Kurdistan was one of the largest nations without a state is hard to imagine, given how many people it’s made up of. The oppression that the Kurds received is very unfortunate and I believe that Hussein certainly had a lot to do with that. I found this article informative, because I had no idea of the difficult history the Kurds have gone through.

  6. I have heard of the issues Kurds faced, but this article so eloquently breaks it down in a way that’s much easier to understand. It is unfortunate that they continued to face oppression for so long, but uplifting that something was done to better the conditions. Their independence was long overdue, and I am glad that they were finally able to be at peace.

  7. Indeed. The Treaty of Lausanne makes no mention of the Kurdish people even though it was the Treaty that created the Republic of Turkey. It’s strange that the Kurdish people still do not have a state even though they are a US back group currently fighting ISIS and helped fight back against Saddam Hussein. It would only make sense that the US would help, but there has been no clear movement on that. Though, getting a Kurdish territory in Northern Iraq is a step forward.

  8. Great article. I have heard of the problems the Kurds are having, but did not really understand the causes until reading your article. It seems to me that the Kurds were given a land in the first treaty then had the land taken away by the second treaty after World War I. But it also seems that the Kurds have a long history of losing their lands to conquering nations even before this time. It also seems that the treaty was not really fair to the Kurds and several other nations by only giving the right to govern themselves without giving them any right to their own lands. It is good to know that they were able to gina their own independence after the fall of Hussein in the 2000s.

  9. I knew that the Kurdish have continued to be targets of oppression and prosecution, however I never really gave much thought about them having their own State or even why they didn’t have one to begin with. It’s interesting that they went from having the opportunity to become autonomous and have their own state in the Treaty of Sèvres to having nothing and being completely omitted in the Treaty of Lausanne.

  10. Great article, I have lost track of time and have not been able to keep up with what has been happening to the Kurds. But your article was very informative and did provides the history that very few know about the Kurds. Up until reading your article, the most I knew about them was from the early 1990’s thru the mid 2000’s when they were under constant oppression from Saddam Hussein. But it was interesting to see how they had gained their independence in such a short span of time

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