It has been often postulated that Kurdish nationalism and, consequently, a desire for an independent Kurdish state dates back centuries. Sufficient evidence exists, however, that, despite the fact that history is full of examples of Kurdish uprisings against the empires under whose rule they resided, the desire for an independent or autonomous Kurdish state among Kurds, in the modern sense, emerged only after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.1
In this short essay, we would like to offer a primer on several attempts in the 20th century for an independent Kurdish state. We hope that this will help the reader to grasp better the current attempt to create an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. We also hope it will be noticeable that there are two main themes—or, rather, recurring hindrances—that prevent the realisation of such a dream: internal rivalry among Kurdish groups and dependence on international support. These are, without doubt, closely related.
World War I and the Aspiration for Independence
World War I mortally wounded the Ottoman Empire, and its victors—mainly the United Kingdom and France—forced the dying empire to sign a treaty dividing up its territories. The Treaty of Sèvres, signed in 1920, can be considered the first instance of international recognition for a Kurdish state, as the language of the treaty mentioned the Kurds and an independent state in the same sentence.
If within one year from the coming into force of the present Treaty, the Kurdish peoples … shall address themselves to the Council of the League of Nations in such a manner as to show that a majority of the population of these areas desires independence from Turkey, and if the Council then considers that these peoples are capable of such independence and recommends that it should be granted to them, Turkey hereby agrees to execute such a recommendation, and to renounce all rights and title over these areas. (emphasis added)2
As seen above, the recognition of Kurdish independence was based on so many vague conditions that it appears as empty rhetoric, and whether or not the Treaty of Sèvres can be regarded as a promise of Kurdish independence can surely be debated. Hence it was, and still is, easy for many Kurds to regard it as a betrayed promise of independence by the international community. In addition, the treaty was stillborn. In 1923 it was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne, which did not contain any reference to a Kurdish independent state. Nevertheless, the Treaty of Sèvres was significant enough to whet the appetite of Kurdish nationalists for an independent Kurdistan.
World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire represented a major turning point in the minds of Kurdish notables-turned-nationalists. As the political map of the Middle East changed drastically and several Arab states were formed in the region, the Kurdish desire for an independent Kurdistan gained momentum. A number of Kurdish rebellions that emerged, especially in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, are clear examples of the manifestation of such desire. One of the earliest examples of the struggle for a Kurdish state—or in this case, the “Kingdom of Kurdistan”—comes from the British Iraq of 1922. This rebellion is representative of nationalist aspirations for a Kurdish state that were cut short by an international (read “British”) intervention.
Sheikh Mahmut Barzanji Rebellion for the “Kingdom of Kurdistan”
The Sheikh Mahmut Barzanji Rebellion, one of the earliest attempts for a Kurdish state, took place in the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah and the surrounding countryside in 1922 under the leadership of Sheikh Mahmud Hafid Barzanji. Taking advantage of the political vacuum created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Sheikh Mahmud, a highly respected Qadiri Sheikh in the area, began cooperating with the British and assumed the title of administrator of Kurdistan. However, his political ambitions went far beyond what the title entailed and what the British administration in Iraq envisioned. It was common practice for the UK to enlist local notables to govern the territories they administered. Soon enough, however, the British administration in Iraq would find itself unable to contain the aspirations of Sheikh Mahmut as he declared the “Kingdom of Kurdistan”. This unrecognised political/administrative entity lasted two years—until Iraqi forces moved into the area with the support of the British air force and infantry. As a result, “the Kurdish Kingdom” was crushed and Barzanji’s control came to an abrupt end. However, the Sheikh managed to launch a counterstrike against the Iraqi troops, driving them out of the city and regaining control. As a result, the Iraqi army, backed again by the British, regained control of Sulaimaniyah and forced Barzanji to leave the area. As a result, Sheikh Mahmut retreated to the mountains—his new headquarters—from where he launched a guerrilla war that lasted until 1926, when he signed an agreement with the British agreeing to leave Iraq with his family. Subsequently, he was exiled to India. By the time he returned to Iraq, his influence had been completely extinguished.
There were multiple reasons behind the failure of this particular attempt at Kurdish independence. Historians largely agree that the failure was chiefly related to Barzanji’s lack of understanding of the nature of British colonial interests, which did not favour an independent Kurdistan. One might argue that newly discovered oilfields in the area also contributed to the lack of support for the creation of an independent Kurdistan. In comparison to the newly created Iraqi state, a Kurdish state must have seemed to the British as unreliable or unpredictable. It can therefore be said that one of the determining factors behind the failure of a Kurdish state was that the international world order did not favour the creation of such a state. The same obstacle seems to be in play in Iraq even today. To emphasise this point, we will examine another bid for an independent Kurdish state, from 1946. The Republic of Mahabad was created with the help of the Soviet Union, but only survived 11 months once the Soviets withdrew their support.
The Kurdish Republic of Mahabad
In 1946 the Soviet Union had north-western Iran under its control. It promoted Kurdish nationalism in Iran and supported the creation of a Kurdish state with the hope of expanding its influence towards the south. The absence of a strong central government in Iran, coupled with the Soviet intervention, resulted in the declaration of the Republic of Mahabad within the limits of the Iranian state. The town of Mahabad was historically Kurdish, where a committee of middle-class leaders, initially supported by tribal chiefs, took over the local administration. The Society for the Revival of Kurdistan (Komeley Jiyanewey Kurdistan, or JK), a political party, was formed under the leadership of Qazi Muhammad, a local notable with a religious jurist family background.
Qazi Muhammad announced the formation of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad on 22 January 1946. It was clear that Soviet support would be crucial for its survival. This support materialised not only in the form of military protection against Tehran and other opponents, but also as economic benefits to the new state and its citizens. Significantly, Qazi Muhammad invited Mustafa Barzani of Iraq, a Kurdish tribal leader himself, to form the military (or, more correctly, police) force of this weak Kurdish regime. Barzani and his peshmergas happily complied with the invitation, which later dismayed many local rival Kurdish tribes in the Mahabad area, who withdrew their initial support for Qazi Muhammad’s leadership. They viewed Muhammad as a puppet of the Soviet Union and were suspicious of the Barzani Kurds who, as outsiders, strained their resources and livelihood.
On 26 March 1946 the Soviets withdrew from north-western Iran, including Iranian Azerbaijan and the Mahabad region. This was not only a stipulation of the Yalta Agreement of 1945 but also a result of pressure from the US, the UK and other Western states. The Soviet withdrawal allowed Iran to reassert its control over Iranian Azerbaijan by the summer of 1946, which led to the eventual destruction of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad.
Iranian forces entered Mahabad and banned the teaching of the Kurdish language, burning all Kurdish books they could find. Qazi Muhammad was hanged in Mahabad on several counts of treason on 31 March 1947. Repeating the pattern of failure seen in the 1922 attempt, the 1946 experience of a Kurdish independent state also ended in utter failure and the destruction of Kurds due to lack of international support (this time by the Soviets) and internal divisions.
The 1946 Mahabad experience would have an extremely significant consequence: the rise of Mustafa Barzani3 as a nationalist leader. In the aftermath of the Republic of Mahabad, Mustafa Barzani, along with his 500 peshmergas from Iraqi Kurdistan, managed to escape to the Soviet Union through Soviet Azerbaijan in a legendary five-week journey. Barzani stayed in Soviet-controlled territories4 as a “guest”, and only after the 1958 revolution in Iraq that installed its leader, the pro-Moscow Abdul Karim Qasim, as the new Prime Minister of Iraq did he return to northern Iraq. This return marked the beginning of a series of struggles for an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.5
After his return to Iraq in 1958, Mustafa Barzani followed a nationalist agenda that sought the creation of an autonomous, if not an independent, Kurdish state. His bid and failure to establish a Kurdish state brings us to yet another example of a failed attempt to realise the long-standing dream of an independent Kurdistan.
The Molla Mustafa Barzani Movement of Iraq and Infighting among Iraqi Kurds
One of the internationally best-known Kurdish nationalists of the 20th century is without doubt Molla Mustafa Barzani, who hails from a line of respected Naqshbandi sheikhs in the region. When Barzani and his followers returned to Iraq from the Soviet Union in 1958, Barzani quickly established warm ties with General Abdul Karim Qasim, who was planning to benefit from Barzani as a potential ally in Iraqi Kurdistan. In time, Qasim grew suspicious of Barzani and attempted to capitalise on tribal divisions in the Kurdish region. Qasim was aware of the long-standing tribal rivalry between the Barzani, Zebari and Harki families. The lack of Kurdish unity has historically been a weak spot for the Kurds. This was often exploited by external forces and Baghdad at the expense of Kurdish nationalism. Qasim tried to exploit not only tribal divisions but also the political schism between the KDP’s Barzani and Talabani6 factions.
While political control in Baghdad changed hands over time, Iraqi governments would continue to exploit the tribal and political divisions in the Kurdish region of Iraq, including during the rule of the late Saddam Hussein.
In response to this policy of non-recognition and exploitation, Mustafa Barzani led multiple revolts against the Iraqi government. The most enduring of these started in 1961 and only ended in 1970, when an autonomy agreement was signed between Baghdad and Barzani.7 This period saw a regime change in Baghdad and intensified Kurdish infighting.
The Qasim government was aware of Barzani’s contacts with foreign intelligence agencies such as the CIA and Mossad, which fuelled its suspicions about Barzani, especially after he requested autonomy from the new regime for the territories that included much of Iraq’s oilfields around Kirkuk and Mosul. This was not acceptable to the government, which moved against the KDP in northern Iraq. The campaign faced difficulties, and contributed to the coup against General Qasim in 1963 that eventually brought Abdul Salam Arif to power and ousted the Ba'athists from the national government.
The new Arif regime in Baghdad made a truce with Barzani. This allowed Barzani to turn his attention immediately towards his KDP rivals, Talabani and Ahmad. Establishing a pattern in the dynamics that define Iraqi Kurdish nationalist movement’s internal factionalism, Barzani received funds from Arif to silence his critics within the KDP. In the future, Iraqi Kurdish groups would continue to seek Baghdad’s support against their antagonists. For example, the Talabani/Ahmad faction would use Saddam Hussein’s support against Barzani. What was significant about the revolts in this period was that many international actors, such as the United States, Israel, the Soviet Union, Iran and Turkey, were—directly or indirectly, sometimes openly and at other times clandestinely—involved in them.
After the last Baˈathist coup in Iraq, which brought Saddam Hussein to power in 1968, Barzani first rebelled against the new regime over Saddam’s close ties with the Talabani/Ahmad faction of the KDP and began shelling Kirkuk, which was controlled by this faction. In this campaign Barzani enjoyed funding and support from Iran and was successful in entering a new deal with Baghdad. Under this new agreement, Baghdad recognised the authority of Barzani over the KDP and signed an autonomy deal with him, marginalising the Talabani/Ahmad faction. Importantly, however, Baghdad did not include Kirkuk in the autonomy deal with Barzani. Knowing that the survival of a Kurdish state would be impossible without the revenues from oil-rich Kirkuk, Mustafa Barzani revolted once again in 1974. While he had sought to play regional rivals off against one another, to Barzani’s dismay in 1975 Baghdad and Tehran signed the Algiers Agreement settling a border dispute, whose provisions effectively stopped Iranian support for Barzani. It was during this time that the CIA8 and Mossad stopped military and economic aid to the Barzani revolt, ending the dream of an independent Kurdish state.
The failure of the last Kurdish rebellion in Iraq caused a split within the KDP and forced the Talabani/Ahmad faction to form a new Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to rival the KDP in subsequent years. Kurdish nationalist aspirations would remain on the back burner until the US-led invasion of Iraq resulted in the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.
The 2017 Kurdish Independence Referendum and Its Significance
The foregoing primer on Iraqi Kurdish aspirations points to the historical significance of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan on 25 September 2017. It should be noted that this referendum was not the first to take place in post-Saddam Iraqi Kurdistan. After the US invasion in 2003, a new autonomous region in northern Iraq was created and a new Kurdish government, under the name Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), came into existence. On 30 January 2005, the KRG organised a referendum on the question of an independent Kurdistan. The unofficial results recorded that 98.88% of Iraqi Kurds supported independence.
The referendum of 25 September 2017, like previous attempts at independence, was a step taken by the KRG, headed by Mustafa Barzani’s son, Mesud, to press the Baghdad government for political and economic gains. Similar to the 2005 referendum, the latest one sparked controversy as it included the disputed territories of northern Iraq—including the Kirkuk oilfields—as part of the Kurdistan Region. There is no doubt that this referendum carried only symbolic meaning for the Kurds, rather than any real potential for the declaration of an independent Kurdish state. The ballot asked a single question: “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?” The results recorded that 93% of participants voted in favour of independence—lower than in 2005. Nevertheless, Mesud Barzani stopped short of declaring independence, in the fashion of the 2005 referendum. Why, then, did the referendum go ahead despite the fact that almost all international actors—with the exception of Israel—were against it?
There should be little doubt that the latest bid for an independent Kurdish state in the form of a referendum was a gimmick for use in negotiations with the Baghdad government. The 2005 Iraqi constitution includes many ambiguous provisions, such as the fate of the disputed territories, the right to exploit oil within the Kurdistan Region, and the status of the integrated security forces in the region. It seems obvious that Barzani is aiming to strengthen his hand to get a better deal in future negotiations with the central government. However, observers agree that this referendum poses a great risk to the well-being of the Kurds in Iraq. Latest developments—the central government’s takeover of Kirkuk and the oilfields, with the help of certain peshmerga units—have once more demonstrated that Kurdish nationalism still suffers greatly from internal power struggles. History has repeated itself. Predictably, rivalry between Kurdish factions within the KRG will intensify. If so, what conclusions we can derive from the last hundred years of Iraqi Kurds’ aspirations for an independent state?
Let us start by highlighting several key insights to be drawn from an examination of the near century-long history of attempts at Kurdish independence in Iraq. The first key take-away is to avoid the grave error of seeing the Kurds as one unified unit. Historically, there always existed multiple factions with competing interests within the Kurdish communities of the Middle East. This reality is one of the most exploited weaknesses of the Kurdish nationalist movements of the last century and, despite the strong leadership of the Barzani family in the KDP, there are deep divisions in the Kurdish political structure in Iraq. This lack of unity in the Kurdish nationalist movement has always been very visible, hindering the creation of an independent Kurdistan.
Undeniably, geography plays a significant role in the fragmentation of Kurdish political movements, which is then used by regional powers who find it advantageous to interact with a fragmented Kurdish political and military movement. Iraqi Kurds have been located at the intersection of many strong empires throughout history. This geostrategic position allows different Kurdish groups in the Middle East to continuously negotiate with the surrounding powers, which results in the creation of a pattern of interdependence. Given this background, the international political environment is highly likely to remain hesitant to support the creation of a Kurdish state.
It is also true that the claims of Kurdish nationalists have become louder during international crises and power struggles, such as World Wars I and II, the aftermath of the Gulf War of 2003 and, most recently, the game-changing war against ISIL. However, we do not predict that the current political earthquake in the Middle East will be strong enough to necessarily result in an independent Kurdish state—barring, of course, unexpected international political developments.
Mesud Barzani is sufficiently shrewd to appreciate the difficulty of sustaining an independent Kurdish state in such turbulent times, even if it were to be established. He is aware that the state would face an existential threat from surrounding countries such as Turkey and Iran, not to mention the Iraqi central government. In other words, not enough has changed in the region to realise the hundred-year-long dream of a Kurdish independent state. While we cannot predict the future, we suggest that the reader should avoid presentism, and follow current developments paying careful attention to the complex picture that characterises the region’s history.
1 See, Hakan Özoğlu, Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State: Evolving Identities, Competing Loyalties, and Shifting Boundaries (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2004).
3 The Barzani and Barzanji families should not be confused. They were not related.
4 After his escape to Soviet Azerbaijan, Barzani was forced to stay in Uzbekistan and later in Moscow.
5 At the time, the Kurdish nationalist movement in Iraq was organised under the umbrella of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The KDP, originally formed in Iranian Kurdistan in 1946, established itself formally in Iraqi Kurdistan the same year. The Iraqi KDP elected Mustafa Barzani as its president-in-exile in 1953.
6 The KDP at the time had two main divisions. The Barzani faction, tribal in nature, was the more formidable. The Talabani faction had a more urban profile, and its leaders were Ibrahim Ahmad and Jalal Talabani, also known as Mam [uncle] Jalal, who was the first non-Arab president of Iraq (2006–14). He passed away on 3 October 2017.
7 Under the Iraqi monarchy, Mustafa Barzani and his brothers were exiled from Iraq from 1932 to 1945 due to their political activities. Mustafa’s elder brother, Ahmad, led these earlier revolts. It is debatable, however, whether these activities can be considered “nationalist” or whether financial considerations were in play.
8 For US involvement, see the “The Pike Committee Investigations and the CIA”.