During the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s, the embattled Bosnian Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, visited Washington. He was looking for assistance. At that time, a UN-mandated arms embargo on all belligerents in the former Yugoslavia assured Serbian military dominance against outgunned Bosnians.
Izetbegovic heard words of sympathy from official Washington, yet was offered no concrete help against Serb aggression. Dispirited, he met with a number of scholars and journalists at a Washington think tank. After describing the plight of his people and emphasizing that the Bosnian Muslims had met all European Union requirements for recognition of their independence, he first sighed and then burst out with a cri de coeur that was a searing commentary on many elegant theories of international relations.
“Imagine,” Izetbegovic said, “that everything in Bosnia would be the same, except that we would not be Muslims but Nordic Protestants. Public opinion in Scandinavian countries would surely put pressure on their governments to send us arms or even help us with volunteers; perhaps U.S. senators from Minnesota and Wisconsin would lobby for U.S. involvement. Our problem is that we, Bosnian Slav Muslims, do not have any kin in the world, so it is not in anyone’s interests to help us, either from strategic or solidarity considerations.”
Noting that many of those present were Jewish (after all, Jews were prominent in calls for aid to Bosnian Muslims and later Kosovo Albanians), he added wistfully, “And if there would have been five million Bosnian Muslims in the U.S., American policy would certainly be different.”
Izetbegovic put his finger on an aspect of modern history that many prefer to overlook: for a national movement to be successful, it needs geopolitical allies. National movements that lack them—for reasons of history, geography, or consanguinity—usually fail. Those allies are usually imperial powers, and so every war for national liberation is intertwined with realpolitik, a reality that usually makes the spokespeople of national movements uneasy, and makes the proponents of the right to national self-determination squirm. Yet it is undeniable.
One has only to look at the history of European nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When Europeans recall the Greek national struggle of the 1820s, they think of the romantic, valiant (and unnecessary) death of Byron at Missolonghi. But there was more involved. Without British and Russian diplomatic support for Greek independence from the Ottomans (in the geopolitical context of “The Eastern Question”), Greek highlanders and Albanian-speaking seafarers from the island of Hydra would have been crushed. The same applies to the emergence of independent Serbia in later decades; public support in Britain as well as in Russia was later important in both cases. These were Christians fighting against Muslim Turks, which suggests that religious prejudices played as much of a role in the success of Greek and Serbian national liberation as did noble Enlightenment ideas.
The same dynamic worked when Romania and Bulgaria gained their independence in the 1870s and 1880s. An unusual coalition took shape at the 1878 Congress of Berlin; Disraeli and Bismarck both backed these two (Christian) nations in their quest for independence from Turkish rule. Gladstone later garnered quite a lot of political capital by whipping up anti-Muslim prejudices with his campaign about “Bulgarian massacres.”
World War I brought the dismemberment of three multinational empires: the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman, and the czarist Russian. In each case, a sometimes serendipitous coalition of great power politics decided at Versailles, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Trianon, Sèvres, and Lausanne, where borders would be and which national movement would be satisfied and which left empty-handed. The tortuous history of the emergence of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, and the enlarged borders of Romania depended not on President Woodrow Wilson’s lofty principles but on brutal diplomatic give and take. Sometimes independence was accompanied by mini-wars aimed to convince the diplomats of what was feasible and what was not. None of this is particularly new to historians of international relations, yet self-righteous spokesmen for various national movements today, as well as intellectual voices committed to the idea of self-determination, usually feel queasy when mention is made of the bricks and clay of “real” history.
This applies to the Middle East, as well. Arab nationalism was weak before 1914. It was limited mainly to intellectual circles among Christian Arabs, who saw in it a ticket out of their marginal position as non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire. It received an enormous boost when the Cairo-based British Arab Office decided to use Arab nationalism to motivate anti-Turkish sentiments. It was not easy to mobilize public opinion among Muslim Arabs against the Turks, especially because the Sultan was also the caliph and Commander of the Faithful. Consequently, the British-inspired movement known as the Arab Revolt was presented as a “jihad” against the corrupt ruler in Constantinople. T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) personified this combination of imperial cynicism and romantic infatuation with the noble desert Bedouin. Arabs in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine soon felt betrayed by the British, but that does not alter the basic fact that Arab nationalism appeared for the first time on the world historical scene as a handmaid of British imperialism. There is not one national movement that is not tainted with some sin at its birth.
This is also the case with Zionism. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 used ambiguous language to promise British support for the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish “national home” (never specifying what this would entail). It thus fits well into the pattern in which national movements pushed their way onto the world scene by an alliance with a major power. By the 1930s and 1940s Zionists felt let down if not betrayed by the British, and this is another example of the built-in contradictions of unholy alliances. Because the British had sought to use both Arab and Jewish nationalism during World War I, people began to quip about “the twice Promised Land.”
This brings us to the big losers. Primary among them—next to the Armenians—were, until recently, the Kurds. This people straddles the mountainous region where the borders of present-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria meet. They speak an Indo-European language close to Persian and bristle when outsiders view them as “Turks” or “Arabs.” Their society has rested on a premodern tribal structure, and they have never had a state of their own, although Kurdish chieftains enjoyed relative autonomy under both the Ottoman and Persian empires. The most famous Kurdish historical figure was Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem from the crusaders in 1187. He became an icon of Islamic identity and later of Arab nationalism (try to tell a pan-Arab intellectual that Saladin was “really” an ethnic Kurd—and then run for cover). Absent a state, they lacked schools promoting their language, national narrative, and common identity. It took decades before Kemalist Turkey stopped calling them “Mountain Turks.”
The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I appeared to give Kurds a window of opportunity. Though many Kurds participated in the Turkish massacre of the Armenians during the war, the Allies, especially the British, thought the establishment of a Kurdish state would be useful to their imperial plans.
Kurds lacked a coherent political organization and were represented at the Paris peace talks by a totally inadequate delegation. Nonetheless, the Treaty of Sèvres, signed between the defeated Ottomans and the Allies in 1920, envisaged a Kurdish state.
Section III, entitled “Kurdistan,” spells out the details. Article 62 stipulates that in “the predominantly Kurdish areas” in southeast Turkey, “local autonomy would be set up for the population,” under a commission made up of British, French, and Italian representatives. Institutions for the autonomous Kurdish area were to be established within six months. Moreover, the treaty goes beyond autonomy as stipulated in Article 64, which says, “If within one year a majority of the population in the [autonomous] area desires independence from Turkey . . . and if the Council of the League of Nations recommends that such independence be granted, then Turkey hereby agrees to execute such a recommendation, and to renounce all rights and titles to these areas.” In this event, the treaty specifies that “no objection will be raised to the voluntary adhesion to such an independent Kurdish State of the Kurds inhabiting that part of Kurdistan which has hitherto been included in the Mosul vilayet.”
Although the operative language is conditional, the commitment to independent Kurdistan is unequivocal, dependent only on the wishes of the Kurdish population itself. Independent Kurdistan was to include not only Kurdish areas in Turkey proper but also Kurdish areas in northern Iraq in the province of Mosul. Article 88 of the Sèvres Treaty also reads, “Turkey hereby recognizes Armenia as a free and independent state.”
None of this was to be. Sèvres represented the nadir of Turkish power. Like all post–World War I treaties, it was a victors’ treaty imposed on the losers—Germany, Austria, Hungary, Turkey. A new war eventually annulled Sèvres. Before there was time to implement it, Italy and Greece tried to grab more territory from a crumbling Turkey. Initially they succeeded. Smyrna was occupied by Greek forces, which then began a march into the Anatolian highlands. But the humiliated Turkish military rallied and mounted counterattacks, which eventually brought Mustapha Kemal (later known as Atatürk) to power. He won a series of battles against the Greeks and Italians, abolished the caliphate, and proclaimed Turkey a national republic. The result was modern Turkey. The Treaty of Sèvres no longer represented the realities of power. A new treaty had to be negotiated between the Allies (including chastened Greece and Italy) and a robust, self-assured new Turkish state.
Just as Sèvres represented Turkey’s weakness, the Treaty of Lausanne, which superseded it in July 1923, reflected Turkish victories and the relative weakness of the Allies. Lord Curzon, the British secretary of state, remarked, “Hitherto we have dictated our peace treaties. Now we are negotiating one with the enemy who has an army in being while we have none, an unheard of position.” Gone was independent Armenia (its rump was incorporated into the Soviet Union, to emerge as an independent nation only in 1991). Similarly, gone was the mechanism that promised to establish independent Kurdistan. Turkey retains part of the Kurdish areas through today, and Mosul became part of Iraq. Neither Armenia nor Kurdistan exists in the Treaty of Lausanne.
The Kurds disappeared from the international political scene as a possible state-forming nation. They did not disappear from regional politics. In the 1930s, a number of Kurdish insurrections occurred in Iraq, and after the Second World War, a Soviet-supported autonomous Kurdish republic emerged in part of Iran. In the 1970s, the Kurds of north Iraq rose against the Baath regime, with the support of the shah’s Iran (and indirectly Israel), blessed by the United States. But a shift in U.S. policy—and an Iraqi-Iranian deal—cut off Iranian support for the Kurds. Their insurrection collapsed. After Iraq attacked Khomeini’s Iran in 1980, the U.S. government tacitly supported Baghdad, because Tehran was then viewed as a major threat. Washington barely responded to the infamous Iraqi poison gas attack, in March 1988, against the Kurdish town of Halabja, where at least five thousand civilians, mostly women and children, were killed.
U.S. policy was not much different when the Turkish government launched its war against Kurdish insurrection within its own borders. The PKK—the Kurdish-Leninist guerrillas—used assassinations and bombs in public places both in Turkey and in Europe to further its cause. Its terrorism was comparable to that of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Yet the United States never confronted Turkey’s harshly repressive response to these tactics for obvious reasons. The PKK started as a Soviet-backed organization, and the American attitude toward Turkey was—until recently—encapsulated in a simple dictum: “Don’t upset the Turks.” European public opinion was equally silent. Israel’s one brutal incursion into Jenin elicited more outcries in Europe than years of systematic Turkish counterterrorism measures against the Kurds, which emptied hundreds of villages of their occupants and caused tens of thousands of casualties. Never have the Kurds—a dispossessed people, deprived of statehood—elicited in Europe a fraction of the support enjoyed by the Palestinians.
Why so much support for the Palestinians and so little support for the Kurds? Certainly the reason is not that Iran, Iraq, and Turkey have many friends and supporters, especially on the left. Arguing that the Kurds represent an “internal issue” (to Turkey, Iraq, Iran) only begs the question. It obviously does not provide an adequate answer when confronted with Halabja and poison gas. Neither did the UN—or any of its agencies—ever discuss those issues. The UN Human Rights Commission, which goes through a ritual of condemning Israel at annual meetings in Geneva, never even discussed the plight of the Kurds.
The first time the UN passed a resolution referring—albeit obliquely—to the Kurds was Security Council Resolution 688 in April 1991. It legitimized the “No Fly Zone” established over northern Iraq by the United States and its allies in the wake of Saddam’s repression of the Kurds, after they rose up against him following his eviction from Kuwait. Saddam’s reprisals forced hundreds of thousands of Kurds to flee toward the Turkish border. Television images of those refugees in the mountains in the middle of the winter pushed the United States to initiate Operation “Provide Comfort,” which created the No Fly Zone. This made it possible for the refugees to return to their homes without fear of another Iraqi reprisal. It was originally British prime minister John Major’s idea to create a Kurdish enclave. This move was motivated as much by the worldwide outcry at the pictures of stranded refugees in the snow as by Ankara’s fear that refugees would inundate Turkey, which was still battling its own Kurdish rebels.
Eventually the protected Kurdish zone in Iraq gained some international legitimacy. Security Council Resolution 688 sharply criticized Iraq’s repressive policies. Still, this resolution did not mention the Kurds by name and spoke only of repression of “Iraqi citizens” by Saddam’s regime. After that, the Kurds lost the world’s attention until Saddam’s fall in 2003. In the meantime they managed, under Allied protection, to create a more or less functioning statelet in north Iraq. Their efforts received little notice at a time when the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation was a major theme of international discourse and for human rights groups.
Why this discrepancy? Perhaps Alija Izetbegovic’s reflections in Washington provide part of the answer to this question. But it may be helpful to go back to history for a fuller answer—to the winter of 1938–1939. At that time the British government, under Neville Chamberlain (he of Munich and of “Herr Hitler’s promise”) realized that appeasement, after all, had failed, and that Britain had to prepare for war. Mass production of aircraft and tanks was initiated at breakneck speed, and radar was developed. Britain also changed its policy in the Middle East. Rather than fight an Arab revolt in Palestine, which had begun in 1936 and was aimed at British rule and continued Jewish immigration into the country, London decided to appease the Arab side in order to prepare for war against Germany. Cabinet papers document the cruel realism that informed London’s decision: the Arabs sit astride the imperial route to India; India’s Muslims—the group most loyal to the raj—should not be alienated; there are more Arabs than Jews; and—last and not least—the Arabs have an option of siding with the Nazis, as exemplified by the pro-German mufti of Jerusalem or pro-Nazi nationalists in Iraq led by Rashid Ali al-Khailani. The Jews did not have a pro-German option.
And so the British government issued its 1939 White Paper on Palestine. It stipulated that future Jewish immigration into Palestine would be limited to a total of seventy-five thousand over five years and then be stopped altogether. Jews were prohibited by law from buying land in Palestine, except along the coastal plain. In short, British policy endorsed perpetual minority status for Jews there. This was the basis for the British decision to refuse Jewish refugees admittance into Palestine during the Second World War, when refugee ships were turned back to Nazi-occupied Europe.
That there were in 1939—and are today—more Arabs than Jews tells us a great deal about world attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. That there are so many more Arabs (and Turks) than Kurds has determined attitudes toward the Kurdish people. The issue is, obviously, not only numbers. It is also a matter of the power of Arab—and Muslim—states. It entails concern for oil and Turkey’s strategic location. And finally, it concerns the fact that the Kurds are not only a small people, they also do not have powerful friends. They are a nation without many cousins abroad or fraternal allies.
One can understand why governments and chancellors respond to these dilemmas with realpolitik, but it is a scandal that liberal, left-wing opinion, supposedly motivated by humanistic and universal values has traditionally ignored the case of the Kurds. How often have left-wing intellectuals and protesters who condemn Israeli policies—sometimes rightly, sometimes less so—mobilized on behalf of the Kurds and against their oppressors—Saddam’s Iraq, but also Turkey?
This is a stain on the record of the European and American left. The only consolation may be that the present geopolitical situation, brought about by the toppling of Saddam, may perhaps give the Kurds in Iraq, for the first time in history, a place in the sun, either in a federal, democratic Iraq or, ultimately, in a state of their own.
Should this happen, Kurdish self-determination would not be due to the support of the left, but to the questionable politics of the Bush administration. Perhaps some people on the left ought to examine their consciences. Those of us who share a belief in Hegel’s “cunning of reason”—that is, the idea that great historical consequences don’t always come from the intentions of historical actors—may, once again, and against our moral preference, be vindicated.
Shlomo Avineri teaches political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has recently edited for Cambridge University Press an English translation of Moses Hess’s The Holy History of Mankind, the first socialist tract to be published in Germany, in 1837. For the best account of the post–World War I peace treaties, the author recommends Margaret MacMillan’s Peacemakers: Six Months That Changed the World (London, 2001; published in the United States by Random House in 2003 as Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World).