100 Years after Lausanne: Challenges for the Kurds across Kurdistan

By Professor Thomas Schmidinger

The following is a transcription of a speech presented by Thomas Schmidinger during a two day international conference on the centenary of the Lausanne Treaty held in Hasaka, Rojava (Northeastern Syria). The international conference was organized by The Rojava Center for Strategic Studies and held on the 7th-8th of July.

*The following transcription entails editing conducted by the Kurdish Center for Studies for legibility. All legibility mistakes are attributed solely to the Center and is not the fault of the author.

The division of Kurdistan by the Treaty of Lausanne reinforced the political division of the region. Despite all-Kurdish claims by Kurdish nationalist parties and movements, the Kurdish political parties that have emerged since the mid-20th century have developed differently in the four parts of Kurdistan. This is also a result – but not only – a result of the political division following the Lausanne treaty and the differences in the self-conception of each of the states.

We know that the division of Kurdistan into an Iranian and Ottoman zone of influence is older. But since the Treaty of Lausanne, we have had to deal with three more different states in addition to Iran, namely Turkey, Syria and Iraq, which now no longer saw themselves as a multi-ethnic empire but as nation states, but which, despite commonalities, also had strong differences in their political culture and their self- conception as a nation.

Turkey probably had the most precarious national identity among these four states. As the remnant of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal initially attempted to mobilize the Kurds for Turkey by means of reminiscences of the common Ottoman Caliphate and thus to secure not only today’s Turkey but also the former Vilayet of Mosul for Turkey. However, after its victory in the War of Independence and the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, the Turkish government saw any cultural diversity as a threat to the new nation-state that was to be created. After all, it was only a minority of the new citizens who actually spoke Turkish and saw themselves as Turkish. Turkish was still regarded in the late Ottoman Empire as synonymous with poor rural populations and, in particular, the nomadic Yörüks. No urban Ottoman citizen would have understood himself as Turkish, and the remaining population spoke languages from all over the Ottoman Empire. Many were descendants of Muslims who came from the North Caucasus before the Russian invasion or from the Slavic and Albanian-speaking areas of the Balkans in the wake of the loss of Southeastern Europe. Others were descendants of Crimean Tatars or spoke Greek or Armenian but had converted to Islam. In the population exchange with Greece, religion and not language was ultimately the decisive criterion for who had to go to Greece and who was allowed to stay in Turkey. Small remnants of Pontus Greek population who converted to Islam can still be found on the Black Sea and even though the Hemshin were never considered Armenians by Turkish nationalists – which probably saved their lives – they still partly speak an Armenian dialect. The largest linguistic minorities, however, were probably the Zaza- and Kurmanci-speaking Kurdish population in southeastern Turkey. To make a Turkish nation-state out of this diverse population required, from the Turkish government’s point of view, an authoritarian enforcement of linguistic and cultural unification. From the experiences of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, it was finally concluded that any cultural diversity would carry the core of separatism and thus be suppressed.

Turkey was actually oriented to the French civic nation model and not to the German ethnic descent model. But this model also required assimilation. One could become a Turk as an Albanian, Slav, Circassian, or even as a Kurd by adopting the Turkish language and a commitment to the Turkish state. We also know that Ziya Goelkap, one of the most aggressive Turkish nationalists, was a Kurd. However, those who refused to assimilate were considered and treated as traitors.

Turkey thus became the only one of the four states in which even the existence of a Kurdish identity and language was denied and the language was ultimately banned-a ban that was not lifted until 1992.

Syria and Iraq, unlike Turkey, have never denied the existence of the Kurds or the Kurdish language. Nevertheless, after the end of British and French protectorate rule, the policies of both states were long dominated by Arab nationalism and, since the 1960s, by the Arab nationalist Ba’ath Party. Ba’athism’s concept of nation was more closely aligned with its fascist models in Germany and Italy, and did not follow the French nation model, but rather the ethnic German model. It is true that Ba’athism, with its emphasis on the nation-building role of Islam – as a cultural rather than a religious concept – also had the possibility of joining the Arab nation. Fundamentally, however, this was seen more as a community of descent and less as a nation of citizens. Smaller communities, such as some Christian minorities, were integrated into the Arab nation, despite the fact that many of them had Arabic as their mother tongue. In this model, however, the Kurds are viewed definitely as a different people, perhaps inferior, dangerous and to be suppressed, but whose existence is not denied.

While the Kurds of Iraq still had a chance at autonomy under the British system of indirect rule, which they partly squandered through their own tribal and regional differences, the Syrian Kurds, with their settlement area geographically fragmented into three parts, were always in a weaker position. In both states, Arab nationalists saw themselves threatened by Kurdish autonomy movements, even if these took on a very different character in each case. In the largely closed Kurdish settlement areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, armed uprisings occurred again and again even under British rule, but they always remained regional and tribal, turning at least as much against the implementation of a central state as for the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.

In Syria, only civil movements and underground parties existed, and Syria often became a country of exile for insurgents from the Turkish and Iraqi parts of Kurdistan. This did not change the fact that Syria also suppressed its own Kurds-not by denying their existence, as in Turkey, but by claiming that the Syrian Kurds were all refugees from Turkey and not an original population of Syria at all. The special census in the Jezire of November 1962, in which some 120,000 Syrian Kurds lost their citizenship and whose descendants were not able to regain it until 2011, was a result of this narrative. The Arab Belt of 1965, although only partially implemented in reality, finally attempted to separate the Syrian Kurds from those across the border.

As we all know, the history of the Kurds in Iraq was much bloodier than in Syria with the various – sometimes rival – insurgencies and the height of state repression in the 1980s when the Iraqi regime’s Anfal campaigns and the poison gas attacks on Halabja and other Kurdish towns left over 100,000 civilians dead.

However, despite this genocidal insurgency in the context of the Iraq-Iran war, in which the Kurdish Peshmerga were branded as traitors, Iraq, unlike Turkey, never denied the existence of the Kurds. On the contrary, even Saddam Hussein saw the Kurds as part of the Iraqi population, had himself photographed in traditional Kurdish clothing, and deliberately tried to exploit tribal conflicts within the Kurdish population, for example, to draw traditional rivals of the Barzanis to his own side. Finally, we should not forget that many more Kurds fought in the regime-loyal Fursan Salah al-Din (Saladin Knights or Light Brigades) alongside the Iraqi Ba’ath regime, than in the mountains against it. It was only when these collaborators, known as Jaş by opposition Kurds, switched sides that the autonomous region of Kurdistan was established in 1991 and the insurgency against the regime succeeded. But let us leave these well-known historical details aside. What is decisive here are two things: Even in times of the harshest repression, the Kurdish language and identity were not denied in Iraq, unlike in Turkey. The 1970 autonomy agreement between Mustafa Barzani and Saddam Hussein explicitly recognized Kurdish as Iraq’s second official and educational language, and despite the failure of the agreement, Kurdish actually became the official language of Iraqi Kurdistan through the regime’s unilateral actions involving splinter groups of the PDK – that included also some prominent figures like Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s oldest son and right-hand man Ubaidullah Barzani.

Unlike Turkey, Iraq did not attempt to assimilate the Kurds, but rather to integrate them into its own system of rule and, in doing so, to use existing intra-Kurdish lines of conflict to maintain its own power. On the one hand, Iraq was the part of Kurdistan in which the Kurds were subjected to the worst persecution, but on the other hand, they had more linguistic and cultural rights than in any other part of Kurdistan. Oppression in Iraq was mainly a political oppression, and less a cultural and linguistic assimilation.

Even in the Iranian part of Kurdistan, or in Rojhilat, Eastern Kurdistan, as Kurds call it, the existence of the Kurdish people and the Kurdish language was never denied. Iran never saw itself as a nation-state, and although Persian nationalists played an important political role throughout the 20th century, both the monarchy of the Pahlavi dynasty and the Islamic Republic after 1979 did not see themselves as nation-states, but rather as empires. The Pahlavi dynasty saw itself in a consciously historicizing form as the successor to the Achaemenid Empire, while the Islamic Republic saw itself as the political center of the Shi’ite world.

The territory of the former Kurdish emirate of Ardalan is still called Kurdistan province in Iran. Iran does not have a fundamental problem with the Kurdish language, which is considered one of Iran’s many minority languages. Kurdish books and newspapers can be published. However, Kurdish publications, like all publications in Iran, are subject to censorship. The publication of a book often requires months of lead time, during which the censorship authority decides whether to grant permission for publication. Kurdish, however, has no official status as an official language or language of instruction in Iran. Kurdish can only be taught in privately organized language courses, and since these are often seen as a cover for political activities, such language courses are repeatedly subject to harassment by the authorities. The most prominent case for this was for sure the arrest of Zara Mohammadi in 2022. However, other than in Turkey it was never illegal to use and teach the Kurdish language in Iran.

So we see that the very different state and nation concepts of the post-Lausanne order also have different consequences for the different peoples of Kurdistan. And it had also consequences for the political movements of these peoples. The political space for legal, illegal and armed political movements was very different and led to different forms of political organizing. This added up to the already existing tribal and religious fragmentations in the region. And finally we should also not forget that the Kurdish society itself was also a class society with Aghas and their subjects, with tribal and non-tribal villagers. Conflicts about land – especially in the context of land – reforms also played a role for the political fragmentation of the Kurdish political landscape.

However, Lausanne and the consequent creation of new nation-states created new political frameworks for the Kurdish political actors. The counterpart for Kurdish political actors was now not Istanbul anymore but Baghdad, Damascus and Ankara, and these counterparts also shaped Kurdish politics.

While the system of indirect rule of the British empire continued the tribal policies and the cooperative system of tribal law with the state that already existed in the Ottoman empire, the French administration of Syria and the republican-Kemalist Turkey fundamentally changed the ottoman cooperation with tribal structures. Through the British administration of Iraq also the Iraqi state after its independence in 1932, inherited many of the ottoman political structures, including the cooperation of state and tribes in the judicial system and the feudal economic structures in rural Iraq. This changes only after the coup of Abdel Karim Qasim in 1958, and the land reform of the Iraqi republic also played a role in the uprising of parts of the Kurdish Aghas and tribal leaders against the Iraqi state. And the class question also split the Kurds: What is more important, the social or the national question?

It would go far beyond the focus of this speech to go into detail about these political conflicts, but a result of these developments was that the Kurdish society in Iraq stayed much more tribal than in Turkey and Syria and tribes and Sufi Tariqats played a much stronger role in the political organizing than in Syria and Turkey. In Iran, finally religion started to play some role, especially since 1979 as Iran turned into a Shi’ite religious state and thus the predominantly Sunni Kurds into both an ethnic and religious minority. Although the most important political parties of the Iranian Kurds stayed secular, also Sunni religious figures and movements became more important thanks to the marginalization of Sunni Muslims.

A result of the different political arenas in these four nation states was that different political parties with different structures and ideologies dominated the four parts of Kurdistan. While some of these parties, like PKK and PDK have relevant sister-parties in other parts of Kurdistan it is very clear that the political landscape in all four parts of Kurdistan is very different today and that also the Kurdish parties are to a certain degree shaped by the political systems of the states they are organized in. In the more tribally organized Iraqi part of Kurdistan tribal structures also play a more important role within the Kurdish political parties, especially the two leading parties PUK and PDK. In Turkey and Syria with its more republican structures, Kurdish parties like PKK and PYD, based on ideology and a more centralized party structure could gain more influence. However, where the groups close to PKK could gain influence in Iraq, namely in the Yezidi dominated Shingal (Sinjar) Region, they had to start to act in the more tribal structure as well. To a certain degree there is a process of a tribalization of the Sinjar Resistance Units (Yekîneyên Berxwedana Şengalê, YBŞ) going on. In the last years the YBŞ and the political structures set up by them became involved in tribal Sulh (reconciliation) processes like they exist in other parts of Iraq as well. Thus, it is also the political and societal situation that shapes the Kurdish political actors and not only the Kurdish political actors who shape their societies.

The division of Kurdistan also enabled the newly formed states to use Kurdish political movements in their neighboring states for their own regional interests. If there is one constant in the changing field of Kurdish politics, it’s the fact that Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey supported Kurdish parties and guerilla movements in their neighboring countries and oppressed their own Kurdish political movements. Iran used Iraqi Kurdish movements against Iraq. Iraq used Iranian Kurdish movements against Iran. Syria supported the PKK against Turkey. And until today one of the reasons for the internal conflict between the major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan is that PUK cooperates with Iran, while PDK cooperates with Turkey.

All Kurdish actors were too weak to fight without outside support, which repeatedly made them dependent on their supporters. This, in turn, increased political tensions between Kurdish political actors and enabled the ruling forces to continue to rule based on the principal of Divide et Impera.

In the last hundred years since the treaty of Lausanne the different parts of Kurdistan did interact with each other, but they also became parts of different political arenas and systems. And even the parties that were fundamentally opposing these political systems were – to a certain degree – shaped by this political systems.

Not only are the different dialects of Kurdish shaped by loanwords from Arabic, Turkish and Persian, use different alphabets based on the Arabic and the Latin script, but also political structures and options were shaped by the nation states that existed the last century. This added up to the already existing fragmentations within Kurdish societies.

Since 1991 Kurdish para-states or de-facto-autonomous regions started to appear again. First in Iraq, since 2012 also in Syria. It took nearly 90 years after the Lausanne treaty until there was a border post controlled by Kurds on both sides. However, keeping in mind the divisions existing between Kurdish political actors and the use of these divisions by regional and international powers, it is no surprise, that this border is one of the most difficult one to cross. Kurdish control of Semalka and Faysh Khabur border crossings does not mean any kind of Kurdish unity. The control of the border crossing itself added to the existing rivalries.

Based on these observation, in my humble opinion, it would be more likely to solve the Kurdish question within a federal rearrangement of the whole region than within a new Kurdish nation state. The borders of Lausanne did not only divide Kurdistan, but they also divided the whole Middle East into authoritarian nation states who did not work as states of all of its citizens. The order established after this treaty did harm not only the Kurds, but different minorities and even majorities in the Middle East by establishing wanna-be-nation-states who could only work as such with all the oppression that was needed to create nation states in Europe during the 18th and 19th century. However, it will be a task for the people in the Middle East to find a better solution than to copy the European nation state and definitely not once more the role of European intellectuals like me.


  • Thomas Schmidinger

    Professor Thomas Schmidinger is a Political Scientist and Cultural Anthropologist based at the University of Vienna. He is the Secretary General of the Austrian Association for Kurdish studies. His research topics range from the Kurdish region to Jihadism and Migration. His research in Kurdistan began when he was still a student in 1999, when he visited Rojava the first time. He is the author of Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria’s Kurds (Pluto, 2018), which received the Mezlum Bagok award as well as The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds (PM Press, 2019).

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