There are approximately 25 million Kurds worldwide; they are one of the largest nationalities in the world to not have a state of their own. The redrawing of the map of the Middle East following WWI scattered the majority of Kurds into what has today become a cluster of modern “little Kurdistans” within Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq.
Since the end of WWI there have been a handful of opportunities for Kurdish territorial autonomy and self-rule. However, until the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Kurdish national struggle had been perennially derailed by ineffectual leadership, disunity and violent conflict among Kurdish factions, and a cycle of manipulation and betrayal by outside powers. Two brief triumphs of Kurdish nationalism occurred with the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, and the 1970 Autonomy Agreement between the Kurds and Iraq’s ruling Baath government.
The ill-fated Treaty of Sèvres of 1920 outlined the carving up the Ottoman Empire among the various Allied powers. The treaty provided the Kurds with a pathway for a full independent state carved out of southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. However, by 1923 the treaty was abandoned, with Turkey, behind Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, claiming all Ottoman land inhabited by a “Turkish-Muslim majority” as the homeland of the new Turkish nation. It’s no coincidence that Turkey began referring to the Kurds as “mountain Turks” in order to claim their land comprised a “Turkish-Muslim majority”. This would be the beginning of decades of Turkish denial and repression of Kurdish political and cultural rights.
As for the Kurds of northern Iraq, the League of Nations awarded the territory to Iraq proper, subject to granting the Kurds expansive political and cultural rights. However, when Iraq acquired independence from Britain in 1931, there were no such provisions for Kurdish rights.
By the end of WWI, the dream of an independent greater Kurdistan was gone, and with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the Kurds found themselves separated and absorbed into various neighboring states, abandoned as distrusted minorities and beholden to the mercy of hostile governments. It would be fifty years before they had another viable shot at self-rule, this time under the Baath regime in Iraq…
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