"The idea of a Great Kurdistan works in a symbolic way"


The war against the Islamic State group may bring the Kurds together only momentarily, according to the historian Jordi Tejel. By Benjamin Keller

​(From "Horizons" no. 107, December 2015) 

Some label them "terrorists", others war heroes against the Islamic State. At any rate, the stateless Kurds are fighting a century-old battle for recognition. This summer, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) took up arms in Turkey against the regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which had started bombing them alongside the Islamic State fighters. Jordi Tejel is a professor of international history at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, where he specialises in the history of the Kurds and other minorities in the Middle East. In his view, it was at the outset that the PKK aimed to unite the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Today, however, the idea of a Great Kurdistan is principally a justification of the claims made by the Kurds in each country.

Referring to the title of your latest book, how long has the “Kurdish issue” existed?

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the signing of international treaties after the First World War. In 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres set out the creation of a Kurdish state in the south-east of what is today Turkey, encompassing only a small part of the Kurdish territories. The plan was that the Kurds in the north of Iraq, who were under British trusteeship, would later be able to join an independent Kurdistan if they so wished. But the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne superseded the Treaty of Sèvres and put an end to the idea of Kurdistan.

What happened?

On the one hand, there were divisions among the European powers. The United Kingdom had notably fallen into competition with France over the Middle East. At the same time, Turkey had led a war of independence against the occupying forces, and on the back of recent victories, Mustafa Kemal (a rebel leader and soon-to-be President ‘Atatürk’) demanded that negotiations be reopened. On the other hand, divisions had also been growing among the Kurds, and not only tribesmen but also their elders began to align with Kemal against the Europeans.

Why did they do that?

Kemal had promised them autonomy and recognition in the future Turkish state. They were also all united around the practice of Islam and the view of Western powers as infidels. Yet another reason related to the widespread Kurdish participation in the massacre of Armenians during the First World War. Because the elders had encouraged exactions and land grabbing, they had started to fear being judged – and therefore being obliged to surrender territory – under the Treaty of Sèvres, which had provided for an Armenian state.

So what was the European motivation for a Kurdish state?

Between 1918 and 1922 the British were seeking to weaken the Turks and did so by supporting the Kurds, on the basis that they would be easily dominated thereafter. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution had also raised the spectre of a Russian threat, hence the need to create buffer zones.So finally, neither the Kurds, the Europeans nor the Turks achieved anything.No. Once Kemal had negotiated the Treaty of Lausanne, he turned his back on the Kurds. All of his promises of Turco-Kurdish fraternity were forgotten. A new programme appeared in its place, based on a united and centralised Turkey. This assimilation plan kicked in as of 1923, becoming the core element for founding the Republic. It was clearly unsuccessful, and things turned out differently.

What do you mean?

The Turkey of 1923 was weak. It needed to be built from the ground up. When Ankara, having recently replaced Istanbul as the capital, decided to impose Turkish as the only official language, the policy couldn’t be applied in the majority of the Kurdish regions. In fact, in many Kurdish zones, the Turkish state was almost or entirely absent. Up until the Second World War, this acculturation policy only really had any effect in the cities.

Then what happened?

Starting in the 1940s and 50s, the policy was applied much more globally, particularly on the basis of the growing number of schools, including in rural regions. Military service was also used as a means of integration. It was also at this time, however, that Kurdish nationalism started to re-emerge. Up until then it had all but disappeared following the very forceful repression of the revolutions of the 1920s and 30s, which had pushed Kurdish intellectuals to leave the country.

What was the basis for this renewed nationalism?

The young Kurds who had studied in Istanbul and Ankara became aware of their culture, particularly their gradually fading language. These intellectuals hailed from rural south-eastern regions and so were also struck by Western Turkey being much more well-developed. Although Marxism was permeating through the Middle East at this time, the Kurdish discourse didn't​ become politicised immediately; instead it mixed cultural claims with Marxist-like statements on development. In fact, many Kurds would first join Turkey’s communist and socialist parties.

So when did the breakaway happen?

It was at the end of the 1960s and 70s. The new generation, who felt marginalised, wanted to create their own Kurdish and left-wing parties. This movement was the genesis of the PKK. At the end of the 1970s, they separated entirely from the Turkish left with the idea of creating a united Kurd-istan to include all Kurdish regions and adopting a Marxist-Leninist agenda.

So is independence still on the cards?

Officially, the PKK isn’t currently pushing for a Kurdish state. They’re framing their claims on the basis of today’s borders. For some years, the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who is still imprisoned in Turkey, talked of what he called democratic confederalism: a blend of anarchic and democratic principles, based on the decentralisation of power and self-rule, with some feminist and green ideas mixed in.

What are the links between the PKK and the Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian Kurds?

The PKK underwent reorganisation when it was listed a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union among others. Rather than unite in action on all fronts, the PKK decided to take different names according to the country. In Syria it became the Democratic Union Party (PYD). In November 2013, after troops from Damascus partially withdrew from the Kurdish region of Rojava in the north of Syria, the PYD unilaterally declared the zone to be autonomous and started applying democratic confederalism. The PYD therefore has a privileged position relative to its less-well known counterparts in Iraq, the PÇKD, and Iran, the PJAK.

Does the PKK want to unify the four regions?

I don’t think so. The idea of a Great Kurdistan only has symbolic meaning. That goes for all Kurds, and not just the PKK. In each country, they use it to legitimise their individual claims. Proof of this can be seen in Iraq; the Kurds autonomously control a region in the north of the country where talk of ‘Kurdistan’ refers to that region alone. The PKK states that it does not want to question current borders. It does, however, seek the position of regional actor, i.e., exerting influence on all Kurdish regions so as to gain resources for use in Turkey.

How are the relations between the PKK and the government of the Kurdish region of Iraq?

They are in competition. And one sign of the PKK’s edge is the presence of its military bases in the north of Iraq, which are out of bounds to the Iraqi Peshmerga fighters.

Could the Kurds join in the fight against the Islamic State group?

It may reunite them, but only momentarily. In fact, we already saw this happen when the Peshmergas helped the Syrian Kurds defend the city of Kobane, and when the PKK fought the Islamic State to protect Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. After each event, the foreign party withdrew to its own trenches.

Can the Kurds expect recognition from the West?

They don't really have any choice: they have to fight the Islamic State group because it considers them an enemy. They are trying to sell their fight, but they know all too well that the West will turn its back on them as soon as the situation starts to change. For now, there’s a lot of sympathy for the Kurds, but few European countries look forward to the emergence of a Kurdish state. Nor do we know to what extent the United States is ready to upset Turkey, given its strategic value.​

Benjamin Keller is a graduate of international relations and a freelance journalist based in Geneva and Tunis, Tunisia.​


The world’s largest stateless population

Some 40 million people call themselves ‘Kurds’ and therefore comprise the world’s largest stateless population. ‘Kurdistan’ straddles parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, covering more than 500,000 km², (i.e., an area 12 times larger than Switzerland). This territory is not unified, and the degree of autonomy given to Kurds varies according to the country. There is also a huge diaspora outside of the region: between 1.5 and 1.7 million Kurds can be found in Europe, including around three-quarters of a million in Germany, according to figures from the Kurdish Institute in Paris, France. Kurds speak their own dialects and are  80% Sunni Muslims.


From Spain to the Middle East

Jordi Tejel is 44 years old and an SNSF-sponsored professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. He works in the international history department where his research covers the history of the Middle East, its minorities and its borders, with a particular focus on the Kurdish issue. He was born in Barcelona and in 1996 moved to Switzerland, where he still lives with his wife and two children. He has published a number of books including Irak, chronique d’un chaos annoncé (2006) and La question kurde: passé et présent (2014).​