[Marxism] Kurdish nationalism: anti or pro-imperialist?

Suresh dasyurid at lycos.com
Sun Feb 8 15:34:32 MST 2004

In his latest piece in Swans on the Kurds, Louis Proyect implicitely makes an important and controversial point; namely whether support for the national struggles of oppressed minorities means turning a blind eye to the weaknesses of their movements or for that matter, placing irredentism above all other political imperatives. In the end he concludes that the Kurds have often blocked their own progress by allowing tribal loyalties and narrow, sometimes merely pecuniary interests, and a naive faith in foreign sponsors, take precedence over pan-Kurdish ideals.

However, in addition to the duplicity of the U.S., Israel, Iran, and other states in the Middle East, we might have to add the Soviet Union in a list of nations who have effectively betrayed the Kurds or assisted in the cultivation of divisions within the Kurdish diaspora. During World War II, when the allies occupied the Shah's Iran, the Soviets took the northern part of the country - that populated by Azerbaijanis and that part dominated by Kurds, which for a brief period constituted two nominally independent republics. In a way this was simply another recapitulation of the old Russian Empire, which had annexed northern Iran in the period before the Bolshevik Revolution. Just as the infant workers state had exposed the Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, it had withdrawn from Persia, as well as from Finland. Stalins invasion of those two countries and his support for the creation of the Zionist state appeared to be a reversal of thos
e revolutionary advances. 

But, as it happened, Soviet support for the Kurdish polity was ephemeral, and the Republic of Mahabad lasted for barely a year, from January to December, 1946. The independence of the city of Mahabad and loosely-defined territories and towns surrounding it was proclaimed by an Islamic cleric and scholar Qazi Mohammed, a member of a prominant Kurdish family who had twice traveled to Baku in an effort to gain Russian support, political recognition, arms, and aid. In addition, the Iraqi Kurdish tribal and political leader, Mullah Mustafa Barzani (the late father of Massoud Barzani, the current head of the Iraqi KDP), while seeking sanctuary from the aggressions of the government in Baghdad, came to Mahabad with several thousand peshmerga fighters, and was recruited on its behalf. From Mahabad, Barzani and his followers mounted offensive actions southwards, temporarily repulsing Iranian forces sent against the seperatists. 

Ultimately these efforts failed, because the Soviets felt pressured to follow their obligations under the Tripartite Treaty with Great Britain and Iran, in terms of respecting the sovereignty of the latter nation and pulling back their forces. This was par for the course in terms of pragmatic realpolitik, since a confrontation with the former allies over Iran (or, for example, over Greece) needed to be avoided while the Soviet Union recovered from the destruction of the Great Patriotic War. In their history of the Kurds, John Bulloch and Harvey Morris write:

"The situation in northern Iran was to become the first confrontation of the Cold War, and this time the Soviets put commercial advantage [an oil-agreement with Tehran] ahead of ideological interest. The clash began when, under the terms of the Tripartite Treaty, Iran complained to the United Nations that the Soviets were showing no signs of withdrawing in the stipulated period... The British, then the Americans, and then the UN Security Council all expressed their concern; notes were delivered to Moscow, until suddenly on 26 March 1946, the Soviets backed down..."

With the strings cut linking Mahabad to its patron, the Kurdish tribes which had given qualified support to the republic turned their back on it and pledged their allegiance to the Shah's government, and President Qazi Mohammed was forced to surrender to Tehran, only to be executed along with other members of his administration. Meanwhile, the authorities outlawed political activity in the region and held book burnings in an attempt to expunge the recorded existence of independent Mahabad. Mullah Barzani attempted, but failed to reach a truce with the Iranian government, and was forced to seek asylum in the Soviet Union, making a daring trek which has been mythologized among the Kurdish people. For eleven years he remained an exile there, only to return to Iraq when the Hashemite monarchy had been overthrown, during the reign of Abdel Karim Qasem. Qasem seemed ready to compromise with Mullah Barzani, but the negotiations were in bad faith - a pattern to be repeated once the Baa
thists came to power - and in fact he played different Kurdish tribes and factions against one another. Barzani traveled again to the Soviet Union in 1960. Kurdish expert Edgar O' Ballance writes:

"Early in November 1960 Barzani left Iraq to visit the USSR, ostensibly to attend the annual Revolution ceremonies, but actually to try to persuade the Soviets to put pressure on the Iraqi government to make concessions to the Kurds, being encouraged by anti-Kassem propaganda that was being beamed from Moscow. In January 1961, Barzani retruned to Iraq a bitter and dissillusioned man, as he had been unable to elicit any favourable response from the Soviets, nor to obtain anything from the Baghdad government. He reflected that once again, 'The Kurds have no friends,' a saying from their old brigandage days."

So, Mullah Barzanis subsequent turn to the United States, Iran, and Israel can be put into some context, by taking into account his previous affiliations. And in the final analysis, it seems possible to understand the choices of the current KDP and PUK given that the autonomy they have for the moment secured in Iraq is on the face of it superior to the situation of the PKK, a group which had originally leaned towards Marxism. In a similar way, we can understand how Fretilin's relationship to Australian and American imperialism developed and how the Tamil Tigers are on the verge of following the post-militancy route of the IRA. But understanding is not the same as agreement.

Just as the Chinese revolution had a long prehistory going back to the Taiping and Boxer rebellions, a new anti-imperialist movement in Kurdistan might harken back to the historical  roots of their resistence, back to the Masdakite and Khurramiyya movements in the early Middle Ages which combined messianism with notions of social and gender equality and communal forms of property. These were the Surkhalaman, "the people of red banners", who included women as well as men in their fighting ranks and at times forced the hands of ruling monarchs to make concessionary social reforms. 



Bulloch, John and Morris, Harvey "No Friends but the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds" Oxford University Press 1992

O' Ballance, Edgar "The Kurdish Struggle" St. Martin's Press, Inc. 1996

Izady, Mehrdad R. "The Kurds: A Concise Handbook" Taylor and Francis, Inc. 1992

Find what you are looking for with the Lycos Yellow Pages

More information about the Marxism mailing list