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. I agree with Roman’s comment about Kurdistan not having a state because they are within multiple countries and it is highly unlikely that they will give up land to the Kurds. Due to the geography, Kurds live in oppressions and are subject to violence across multiple borders like what happened in Syria and after the U.S. military left the Turkish border.

  2. Despite my philosophy that not every single people group in the entire world deserves to have their own state, in my opinion, the Kurds are different. As you stated in this article, they have fallen under empire after empire, faced oppressive regimes, and been tossed around between mandates and treaties like they are nothing. You presented their situation in an impassionate manner, and it has opened my eyes to the plight of the Kurds.

  3. Though the Kurdish people have struggled to establish a set state in any one place, the impact of the Kurds as a people is seen throughout the middle east. Though not the most oppressed people in the middle east they have definitely had a lot against them including in the not so distant past, the reign of Saddam Hussein and the oppression that he brought against many groups of people. Some disagreement I have is that we cannot blame the Western allies as the reason for Kurdistan remaining one of the largest nations without a state. The Kurd people are spread across multiple countries, including Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and more spread across Europe. I believe one reason they have remained a people without a state is the oppression of being right in the area of the Muslim power nations of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The Jewish people have dealt with the same for many centuries but with the help of the western allies have established what is rightfully theirs with continued resistance.

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