Thursday, February 17, 2022

Review People Without A Country, The Kurds and Kurdistan

Chaliand, Gerard, Editor, People Without A Country, The Kurds and Kurdistan, London: Zed Books, 1980


People Without A Country, The Kurds and Kurdistan is an anthology trying to cover the Kurdish populations in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Soviet Union. All but one of the writers was a Marxist or leftist. While they all believed in the Kurdish desire for independence it noted that these efforts failed for a number of reasons. That included tribalism, depending upon unreliable foreign powers, and the lack of a revolutionary ideology that would link the parties with the people. The chapters on the Ottomans, Turkey, Iran and Iraq were quite good providing a historical overview of the Kurdish question up to the 1970s, while there is very little on Syria and the U.S.S.R. due to a lack of resources.


Iraq is a perfect example of the problems the Kurds have faced across the region. After World War I the victorious Allies talked about giving the Kurds their own state but that was abandoned when the British decided that they wanted Mosul province where Kurds predominated to be part of the new country of Iraq. As soon as Iraq gained independence in 1932 Kurdish chiefs started revolts with Mullah Mustafa Barzani becoming the main leader. After the 1958 coup every government from General Qasim to the Arif brothers to the Baath would offer talks which Barzani was always willing to join but Baghdad was never serious about and fighting would break afterwards. By the 1970s the Shah of Iran and the United States backed Barzani not because they believed in a Kurdish state or even autonomy but only because they wanted to weaken Iraq. When the Shah signed a border agreement with Iraq he immediately ended assistance to the Kurds and their struggle collapsed. In the end the book saw Barzani as a tribal chief who never developed a national or pan-Kurdish agenda. His main goal was autonomy within Iraq and not an independent Kurdish state. He would constantly negotiate with Baghdad and be betrayed and then start talks with the next regime hoping that things would change when they never did. His alliance with Iran led him to help suppress the Kurdish movement there. He didn’t trust the Shah but entered into an alliance with him anyway which cost Barzani dearly. His judgement of the U.S. was no better. The author missed that Barzani also dismantled the intellectual Kurdish movement in Iraq who was opposed to his autocratic and traditional tribal ways. Short sightedness, bad alliances, etc. happened to Kurds in other countries as well.


People Without A Country is a good history of the Kurds in the Middle East. The leftist authors emphasize the class differences and impact of capitalism upon the community but also have good accounts of the various leaders and struggles they went through with their host governments from ancient times up to the 1970s. The chapters on Syria and the Soviet Union are very short because the writers couldn’t find much information on them. The rest of the entries make up for that. Some of the shortcomings and problems the book highlights with the Kurdish movement still apply to this day.


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