"If we go back in history, the Republic of Mahabad in northern Iran was extremely rushed, causing a huge setback for Kurdish hope for decades."
These words were spoken recently by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, in the context of his speech about the right of the Kurds to establish their independent state. Throughout, Abadi warned the Kurds of Iraq against undertaking an impending referendum on secession.
Yet, Mahabad was not the only Kurdish attempt at independence. Throughout the 20th century, the Kurds made five different attempts at their long-held dreams of an independent state, but each attempt failed.
Ibrahim Mustafa Kaban, a researcher at the Kurdish Center for Studies & Legal Consultancy in Germany, tells Raseef22 that the world population of Kurds exceeds 40 million, most of whom are spread over areas of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, with in a small number in Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, and the former Soviet states.
He notes that, during the 1920s, the Kurds made three separate attempts to establish their independent state. It began with the Kingdom of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, which was followed by the Republic of Red Kurdistan in Azerbaijan, and the Republic of Ararat in Turkey.
The Republic of Mahabad in northern Iran was established after the Second World War and lasted 11 months. Much later, the Lachin Republic was established in Azerbaijan in the 1990s.
Kaban notes that these attempts were temporary, collapsing swiftly. "If these were real attempts, they would have lasted until now," he said.
In addition to these states, the Kurds achieved autonomy and self-governance in Iraq in 1975, but this too was aborted just a year later, due to an Iraqi-Iranian agreement sponsored by Algeria.
The Kurds have also led an armed movement in Iraq since 1920, until they achieved autonomy and US protection in 1992. Eventually, this led to the official establishment of the federal entity of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq in 2003.
In Turkey, too, the Kurds have been engaged in armed conflict since 1924, though it has repeatedly suppressed by the Turkish rule. The conflict was resumed in 1980 by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Yassin Raouf, a representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Cairo, attributes the failure of the previous Kurdish attempts to establish their independent state to the international and regional plots they were exposed to. He further points to the mistakes made due to their lack of understanding of the major forces controlling the region.
Raouf notes that, in the 20th century, the Kurds established two states: the Kingdom of Kurdistan and the Republic of Mahabad, but they quickly collapsed.
Kingdom of Kurdistan
Established in the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraq and its countryside in 1922 under the leadership of Sheikh Mahmud Hafid Barzanji, the Kingdom of Kurdistan lasted for two years—until the Iraqi forces moved with the support of the colonial British air force and infantry, taking control of Sulaymaniyah and putting an end to Barzanji’s control.
However, he managed once again to launch a counterstrike against the troops, driving them out of the city an regaining control. But the Iraqi army, backed by the British, regained control of Sulaymaniyah and forced Barzanji to leave the area. He took the mountains as his headquarters, launching a guerrilla war that lasted until 1926, when he signed an agreement with the British agreeing to leave Iraq with his family, Kaban said.
Raouf says that Barzanji, the founder of the Kingdom of Kurdistan, was arrested and exiled to India. By the time he returned, his influence had been extinguished.
The Kurdish attempt at independence did not succeed for various reasons, largely related to its lack of understanding of the nature of British colonialist interests, which required intelligence and strategy in order to achieve their legitimate demands, according to Kaban. He added that the British had discovered the oil fields in Kirkuk and the region, and sought to ensure security and stability, in order to take advantage of that wealth discovered. He noted that Barzanji’s uprising did not have the requisite level of awareness to confront colonialist interests and influence.
Raouf concurs with this view, stating that Barzanji’s main mistake was becoming hostile to the British occupation of Iraq. He moreover points out that his religious stance had a negative impact on his relations with the Entente powers because of his affiliation to the Ottoman state.
The Kurdish presence in the Armenian-Russian-Azerbaijani triangle did not constitute a reliable force for the establishment of a special Kurdish entity based on self-governance and internal support. Nonetheless, these three countries used the Kurdish situation as a trump card to achieve their interests. The Azeri pushed the Kurds to declare the Red Republic of Kurdistan, which lasted from 1923 to 1929 in Nagorno-Karabakh, a strategic region between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Ahead of the upcoming Kurdish referendum on secession from Iraq, we revisit some of the most prominent attempts to establish an independent Kurdistan.
After nearly 100 years of attempts at independence, have the Kurds come any closer to their goal?
The purpose of the Azerbaijani support for the Kurds was to create an alliance to exert pressure on Armenia, in light of the conflict between the Armenians and Azerbaijan, Kaban explained.
The Kurdish population at the time was 40,000, which made up 70% of the population of the region where they established the Republic of Red Kurdistan, with Lachin as its capital.
Kaban pointed out that regional and international alliances succeeded in ending this fledgling state, but, come 1935, the Kurds were displaced from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Chechnya, Abkhazia, and Dagestan, towards the ends of Russia and Siberia.
Yet, the Kurdish attempts to establish a state in the region between Azerbaijan and Armenia did not stop. The year 1992 marked a new declaration of the birth of the Lachin Kurdish Republic, headed by Wekil Mustafayev. Yet, once again, the state did not succeed and collapsed quickly. Subsequently, Mustafayev absconded to Italy.
In Kaban's opinion, Azeri practices, which received direct support from the Turks, combined with Russian silence and Armenian attempts to control the region, were the main reasons behind thwarting the Kurdish attempt.
However, an entirely different contention is proposed by Raouf, who considers Red Kurdistan and the Lachin Republic not as Kurdish states, but rather two Azeri republics.
Republic of Ararat
Raouf moreover asserts that the Kurdish Republic of Ararat in Turkey was not a state in the conventional sense, but rather a revolution in the guise of a republic.
Kaban explains that the Kurds in Turkey led a series of clashes with the authorities, starting with an uprising in the mountains of Ararat in 1930, dubbed the Ağrı revolt. The revolt was led by Ihsan Nuri Pasha (1896-1976), who founded a Kurdish political party and declared a revolution in confrontation with the Turkish state. He announced the region of the Mountains of Ararat as an independent Kurdish state, launching a war with the Turkish state in the Kurdish region of Turkey.
The Turkish forces were initially hit by heavy losses, which prompted the Turks to declare a general clarion call, demanding that thousands of soldiers and volunteers besiege the region and "commit crimes against civilians", until Nuri Pasha and his family and a group of rebels fled to Iran, according to Kaban.
Republic of Mahabad
After the end of World War II, the Kingdom of Iran was very weak, and the Kurdish opposition took advantage of the situation with the help of the Soviet Union, declaring the Republic of Mahabad.
Mahabad nonetheless quickly collapsed, due to internal reasons related to the lack of tribal support and anti-feudalism, as well as external reasons, such as the Shah's agreement with British and US intelligence forces, and the signing of oil agreements with the Soviet leader Stalin. Collectively, they led Russia to withdraw support from the young republic, leaving it susceptible to the Iranian army’s attacks. Qazi Muhammad, the president of Mahabad, was arrested and executed, along with his aids.
Kaban says that the Kurdish Barzani revolution in Iraq merged with the Kurdish movements in Iran in 1946 and resulted in the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Mahabad. "The Kurdish movement has then evolved from tribal torrents to a national struggle," he adds.
Past Lessons and Future Prospects
In Raouf's opinion, the Kurds have learned lessons from the past and aligned their interests with those of the major powers that are active in the region.
He says the secession referendum set to be held in Kurdistan next fall is the upshot of popular demands.
It is however unlikely that this referendum will be followed by the declaration of the Independent State of Kurdistan, he adds, noting that this may take a longer period of up to 10 to 15 years. He nonetheless contends that the referendum will be a trump card in the hands of the Kurds in negotiations with the United Nations and major powers, marking the first step towards independence.
"The dream state will go through several stages, including negotiations with the Iraqi state, then the approval of the major powers and the United Nations, which takes some time," he said.
The Detritus of Failed States
Raouf highlights that the Kurdish state will be built on the ruins of the failed states, which have split up their land and divided it among themselves. He adds that the next Kurdish state awaits the fall of the two failed states, Iraq and Syria, in order to declare itself. Perhaps then, he notes, Iran and Turkey will declare the establishment of Greater Kurdistan.
In his view, Syrian Kurds do not want independence, and have instead focused on demands for a democratic Syria. However, if Syria is dismantled, they are prepared to declare their state.