In 1918 the British were marching north against the Ottomans in Mesopotamia as World War I was coming to a conclusion. An armistice was signed on October 30, 1918, but the British were not satisfied and continued fighting until they took the Mosul vilyaet in the middle of November. This last conquest would raise an important question, what to do with the Kurds of the area? Much has been written since then that not giving the Kurds their own nation was a huge mistake and ignored their right to self-determination. Historian Peter Sluglett and Professor Michael Gunter however have argued that there was no strong Kurdish nationalist movement at that time as the community was divided by tribalism, and was more concerned with autonomy of each clan rather than their own state.
The British were hoping to co-opt the Kurds to help them rule their new conquests in Mosul, but that proved very difficult. The city of Mosul was taken on November 3, 1918, giving the British control of most of the province. The British then sought out local leaders to help them administer the territory. The civil commissioner in Baghdad ordered a council of chiefs to be created, and two colonial officers were dispatched to begin talks. What the English quickly realized was that the Kurds were divided amongst an array of tribes that were only loosely connected to each other. For example, the British appointed Sheikh Mahmoud Barzani to be the head of Sulaymainiya, but other clans in Halabja, Dohuk, Irbil, Zakho, and other areas did not accept him. In fact, by May 1919 London had to remove Barzani because so many were angry with him inside Sulaymaniya itself. According to historian Peter Slugglet the British were only welcomed because that meant the Ottomans would leave, and the Kurdish tribes could be left alone to their own devices. While a few were talking of Kurdish nationalism, it was a new concept foreign to most in the area. While there are some that claim nationalism is a natural desire that for the Kurds dates back to ancient history such as Medes who overthrew the Assyrian Empire in 612 B.C. or the poem Mem u Zin written by Ahmad Khan in 1692 the idea did not exist in the world back then. Historians date the emergence of nationalism to 18th Century France, and it didn’t spread to the Middle East until after World War I.
Those calling for a Kurdish state were actually mostly Europeans, but that quickly changed. One of the British colonial officers in Mosul E.W.C. Noel recommended a Kurdish nation from Eastern Anatolia in Turkey to Mosul in Iraq. Then the British decided to include the Mosul vilyat in the Iraq Mandate in March 1920. Later, the August 1920 Treaty of Sevres that divided up the Ottoman Empire called for a Kurdistan, but that was cancelled by Turkey. The newly anointed King Faisal was also afraid of a Kurdistan fearing that it would lead to instability in the region. The Kurds themselves continued to be divided as Sulaymaniya rejected being part of the new Iraq, but Dohuk, Amadiya, and Zakho were not opposed to the idea.
Today many talk about this period as a lost chance for the Kurds. Things were not as simple as hindsight might make it out to be however. There were no nationalist leaders back then to rally the tribes together. Instead those groups appeared more interested in their own autonomy than coming together into a nation.
Gunter, Michael, “The Contemporary Roots of Kurdish Nationalism In Iraq,” Kufa Review, Winter 2013
Sluglett, Peter, Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007
- “The Kurdish Problem and the Mosul Boundary: 1918-1925,” Global Policy Forum, 1976