From the late medieval period until the mid-19th century, Kurdish lands were ruled by Kurdish hereditary chiefs. From the mid-19th century until WWI, the centralization process in the Ottoman empire and Qajar Iran brought Kurdistan under the direct rule of the central governments. The Treaty of Lausanne, which was signed on July 24, 1923, resulted in the division of Kurdistan among Turkey, Iraq and Syria. This division fragmented the Kurdish people across four states, preventing the establishment of a unified Kurdish state.
The newly founded nation-states of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran adopted a policy of promoting a single dominant ethnic identity and language within their respective territories using punitive methods to create a homogeneous nation-states: Turkishness in Turkey, Arabness in Iraq and Syria, and Persianness in Iran. This led to the marginalization and suppression of Kurds and other minoritized ethnonations and the denial of their identity and basic ethnic and human rights.
This article offers a summary of the devastation endured by the Kurds and Kurdistan over the past 100 years, both in terms of physical and cultural aspects. This devastation has been a consequence of the statelessness imposed on the Kurds as a result of the Treaty of Lausanne.
Northern Kurdistan (Bakur) – Turkey
Kurdistan was the only colony that didn’t gain independence after WWI. For 100 years the Turkish regime had brutally kept this colony under its control. Even before the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, during WWI the Ottoman Turkish government implemented violent Turkification and deportation policies. More than 700,000 Kurds, but probably closer to 1 million, were forced on death marches to inner Anatolia between 1916 and 1918, with more than half of them perishing along the way. Some Kurdish sources report that around 700,000 Kurds perished.
In 1921, after a failed rebellion by the Koçgiri Kurds in the western Dersim region, the Turkish army committed a massacre against local Kurds. 132 villages were burned to the ground, hundreds of people were killed and hundreds more were deported to western Anatolia, their goods and livestock plundered, and many villagers, terrified of the repression, took refuge in the mountains where they perished from starvation and suffering.
In mid-1925, the government started a pogrom in Diyarbakir executing 15,200 Kurdish civilians and burning 206 villages to the ground. In 1930, following the Ararat rebellion in Wan, the Turkish army massacred 45,000 Kurds in the Zilan valley, where it was reported that the river was filled with dead bodies of Kurds. Osman Illeri, a survivor of the massacre, recalled “with my own eyes, I saw them [Turkish soldiers] tear apart a pregnant woman’s stomach open, taking the baby out and placing it on her chest. The soldiers were betting among themselves on the sex of the baby.” Between 1937 and 1938 during the suppression of the Dersim uprising, as many as 45,000 Kurds were massacred by the Turkish government and thousands more were deported to western Turkey.
Overall, between WWI and WWII, it is estimated that more than 1.5 million Kurds were deported or massacred and northern Kurdistan remained under martial law until 1950.
The Turkish regime also employed a systemic poverty and economic deprivation policy coupled with violent repression of Kurds to force them to leave northern Kurdistan. Between 1950 and 1980, more than one million Kurds moved to western Turkey to escape the dire poverty, joblessness and forced relocation and deportation.
From 1984 until the arrest in 1999 of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed and more than 3 million Kurds were removed from their homes and deported to Turkish areas by the Turkish army. Around 25,000 Kurds were killed, and thousands more fled to western countries, particularly Germany.
In July 2015, the Turkish regime resumed the militarization of Northern Kurdistan. The attacks on Kurds 2015 and 2019 took a tremendous toll, killing at least 4,397 people, destroying large parts of Kurdish cities, and displacing some 350,000 Kurds. The political repercussions have been equally disastrous, fueling extreme polarization, political repression, and violations of human rights. Selahattin Demirtaş, Leyla Güven and numerous other duly elected Kurdish political leaders, as well as Kurdish intellectuals and journalists, have been among the thousands of Kurds who have been imprisoned on dubious terrorism-related charges. “The draconian state response has left little room for Kurdish political expression.”
Southern Kurdistan (Başur) – Iraq
Southern Kurdistan was annexed to Iraq by the British in the 1920s and the Kurds were deprived of the right to self-determination. The Kurdish people responded with a series of revolts against the British and Iraqi rule and were violently suppressed. After 1963 under the Ba’athist regime, Kurds faced systematic persecution and Arabization. Between 1968 and 2003 an estimated 300,000–500,000 Feyli Kurds had been denationalized and deported to Iran on the grounds that these Kurds were ‘Iranians’ and traitors to Arab nationalism and fifth columnists for Iran, and even because they were ‘contamination of Iraqi blood.’ At least 15,000 Feyli Kurds were forcibly disappeared, their remains have not yet been found.  In September 1971 alone, the Iraqi government expelled 40,000 to 50,000 Feylis from Baghdad and deported them to Iran.
Before WWII, Kakai Kurds, whose religion was not officially recognized by the Iraqi government, were forced to change their official nationality to ‘Arab’ and they were deported and displaced from their original homeland. After 1963, under the Ba’athist regime, the Kakais were subject to attacks and deportations by the Iraqi army, followed by further deportation campaigns in 1970-1971 and from 1975 to 1987. Kakai villages in Kirkuk were destroyed and their people arrested, and some were executed because they were Kurds. Like the Feylis, many Kakai were deported from Baghdad and the occupied Kurdish regions bordering Iran. When the 1980-88 war broke out between Iraq and Iran, their assets, houses, and belongings were confiscated, and they were persecuted in the same way as the Feyli Kurds. The program of Arabization continued in Kirkuk until the Ba’ath regime was toppled in 2003. Throughout the 1990s, Kurds and other non-Arab residents continued to face harassment and pressure to change their ethnic identity and join the Ba’ath party. During the 1990s, a further 120,000 Kurds and other non-Arabs were driven out of Kirkuk and other territories under the control of Iraqi government.
Similarly, the Yezidi areas of Shinagl (Sinjar) and Bashiqa were exposed to Arabization through violence, intimidation and assimilation in the years 1965, 1973-75 and 1986-89. Yezidi villages were destroyed or depopulated by the Arabs, and the Yezidi population were routinely expelled and resettled in the collective villages far from their historic homelands. Like the Kakayis, the Yezidis were also declared to be Arab in origin to distance them from the larger Kurdish community.
Overall, during the Kurdish revolution against the Iraqi regime between 1960 and 1970 and the ethnic cleansing campaigns against Kurds, around 100,000 civilians were killed. Throughout the 1960s the Iraqi airforce bombed Kurdish villages indiscriminately as much as the British had done a few decades ago. Around 6000 Syrian Arab troops participated in suppressing the Kurdish uprising and ethnic cleansing campaigns in present-day Duhok and Mosul provinces in 1963. Two days before the Six-Day War in 1967, Iraqi Brigadier General Mahmoud Arim addressed a speech to the Syrian public in which he spoke of the impending war as an opportunity to repay Damascus for its participation in the joint Iraqi-Syrian military campaign against the Iraqi Kurds:
“You [Syrian Arabs] came to us to finish off the Second Israel [Iraqi Kurds], and now we have come to discharge the debt and finish off the first Israel.”
In the 1980s during the Anfal campaign, the Iraqi regime perpetrated genocide against the Kurdish people with 180,000 Kurds systematically executed, thousands more were gassed in Halabja and Balisan, and thousands of Kurdish women were sold to other Arab countries as sex slaves. A further half million Kurds were deported and 12 towns and 4,000 villages were razed to the ground, and hundreds of thousands of Arabs were settled in Kurdish regions particularly in Kirkuk and Mosul provinces. Even after the Kurdish leadership called on the international community to help stop the Kurdish genocide, as David McDowall remarks:
“the West was generally inclined to dismiss the Kurdish claims of genocide, either because they were politically inconvenient, or because it was suggested such reports were probably wild exaggeration. It was only in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War that evidence collated by Middle East Watch showed that previous Kurdish claims were not only incontrovertible, but also in many cases an understatement.”
In 1991 following the Kurdish uprising in March, the Iarqi army launched a military campaign to re-invade Kurdistan, which led to a mass exodus of the Kurds known as Korew in Kurdish. By the beginning of April some 1.5 million Kurdish refugees were stranded on the Iranian and Turkish borders without shelter on cold mountain slopes. According to reports, in April more than 1000 Kurdish refugees died each day from hunger, disease and exposure.
Since the reoccupation of Kurdish areas in 2017, the Iraqi government and Iranian-backed militia continue to terrorize Kurds, expel them from their ancestral lands, and confiscate their properties and farmlands as part of a systematic policy which some observers have called ‘a silent genocide of the Kurds.’
Eastern Kurdistan (Rojhilat) – Iran
Following the foundation of modern Iranian nation state in 1925, Reza Shah launched aggressive ‘Persianization’ campaigns targeting non-Persians. Although the official line of Iranian nationalism hailed the Kurds as ‘the descendants of the Medians’ and thus ‘the most original Iranians’, in reality the central government harshly persecuted the Kurds, deporting Kurdish tribes to Persian regions of southern Iran such as Fars and Kirman. Their lands were confiscated and Kurdistan was militarized. As Koohi-Kamali points out “the rule of Reza Shah left the Kurds with bitter memories of killing and looting by the regime.”
The short-lived Republic of Kurdistan with its capital in Mahabad was founded in 1946; when the Iranian and British armies toppled the republic in 1947, they left a trail of death and destruction across Kurdish areas. Qazi Mohammed, the president of the republic, was executed, and more than a thousand Kurds were killed as punishment.
Hoping for greater autonomy, in 1979 the Kurds participated in the Iranian revolution against the Pahlavi monarchy. However, they refused to endorse the theocratic system as their demands for autonomy were rejected. In August 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a firman (Fatwa) for jihad ‘holy war’ against the Kurdish people. More than 25,000 Kurds were murdered between 1979 and 1983 by the Iranian regime, untold numbers of Kurdish towns and villages were razed to the ground. Kurdish women were especially targeted by Islamic soldiers who had been told to consider them as war booty.
Kurds under the Islamic Republic of Iran have become a doubly oppressed minority, both as Kurds and as Sunni Muslims. Despite being rich in natural resources, Kurdistan remains one of Iran’s poorest regions. Many Kurds have become Kolbers (cross-border porters) traversing vast distances in rugged mountainous terrain through extreme weather conditions, endangering their own lives in pursuit of livelihood, while Iranian and Turkish border guards do not hesitate to fire live ammunition if they spot the porters. According to Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, “in 2022, at least 290 Kolbars fell victim to harsh weather conditions and mistreatment at the hands of Iranian border guards, with 46 dead and 244 injured. These figures show a 35 percent increase in casualties compared to 2021.”
Over the past decade, tensions between the Iranian central government and its Kurdish minority have been rising, as economic inequality and cultural and ethnic oppression grew. Although Kurds comprise less than 15% of Iran’s population, a report by Iran Human Rights shows that between 2010 and 2021 more than half of those who were executed for political affiliation in Iran were Kurds. The recent uprising in Iran following the brutal murder of the Kurdish woman Jina Amini highlighted the discriminatory socio-economic and political conditions facing the Kurds and other minorities such as the Baluch people in Iran.
Western Kurdistan (Rojava) – Syria
In 1962 the Syrian government stripped about 200,000 Kurds of their Syrian citizenship in order to eliminate ‘the Kurdish danger’ through denationalization. A Syrian Arab official, al-Hilal, described the Kurds as “a people with neither history nor civilization, neither language nor ethnic origin” and added that:
“the Kurdish question… is simply a malignant tumor which has developed and been developed in a part of the body of the Arab nation. The only remedy which we can properly apply thereto is excision.”
In 1963, the Ba’ath Party took power in Iraq and soon after in Syria too. A massive media campaign started against the Kurds with slogans like ‘Save Arabism in al-Jazirah’ and ‘Fight the Kurdish threat.’
Between 1967 and 1973, the Syrian regime designed and implemented violent Arabization and ethnic cleansing policies targeting the Kurds. For this purpose, in 1973 an ‘Arab belt’ that was 300 kilometers long and 10 to 15 kilometers wide was created along Syrian-Turkish border to Arabize the region and to separate the Kurds from their brethren across the border. Many of these regions were also imbedded with mines that continue to date to explode and cause regular human casualties. Around 140,000 Kurds were deported from their ancestral lands to towns in Syria’s southern desert and Arabs were settled on Kurdish lands. Forty one Arab settlements were built on lands confiscated from Kurds with 233,000 hectares given to Arab families.
For fifty years, the Ba’ath Party’s Arab nationalism ideology discriminated against Syria’s Kurdish population. The regime’s Arabization policies reduced the Kurds to second-class citizens, Kurdish language and culture was prohibited until the early 2010s when during the Syrian civil war Kurds managed to bring their homeland under their control and establish a semi-autonomous region.
However, the Turkish regime didn’t tolerate the existence of a Kurdish political entity and revived the ‘Arab belt’ project, but calling it a ‘safe zone,’ in order to commit ethnic cleansing of Kurds. In an interview with the state-run TRT channel Erdogan justified the rationale behind his genocidal plans to uproot Kurds from their homes and repopulate their regions with 3 million Arabs, saying:
“What is important is to prepare a controlled life in this enormous area, and the most suitable people for it are Arabs. These areas are not suitable for the lifestyle of Kurds, because these areas are virtually desert.”
As Shukriya Bradost remarked “it is clear that Erdogan’s claim is illogical. Added to that, there is no desert in northern Syria and the lifestyle of Arabs has changed as well — they do not live in the desert.” Adding:
“Erdogan is planning to apply the same initiative [Arab belt]. He is trying to change the Kurdish region in the Middle East by eliminating Kurdish social and political structures in this part of Syria. For some observers, it is believed that the Turkish president is not going to stop there and will extend this plan to Kurdish areas of Iraq and Iran as well.”
The Turkish regime carried out two genocide campaigns against Kurds in Afrin and Seri Kaniye (Ras Al-ain) between 2018 and 2019, killing thousands of Kurds and uprooting over 500,000 more while settling hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Turkmens on colonized Kurdish lands.
The Turkish regime has continued to attack Rojava’s infrastructure, assassinate the Kurdish officials, cut off water to millions of Kurds and non-Kurds, assist ISIS and other terrorist organizations, and threaten to wipe out Rojava.
Destruction of Kurdish ethnic identity
Apart from the physical devastation, the Kurds endured additional policies that sought to eradicate their Kurdish identity. The occupying authorities either labeled them as ‘aliens’ or denied their existence altogether, employing linguicide and culturicide tactics to rationalize ruthless campaigns of ethnic cleansing or to strip the Kurds of their ethnic identity.
The Turkish government categorized Kurds as “Mountain Turks,”. Accordingly, the use of Kurdish language, dress, folklore, and names were banned for decades until the 1990s. Furthermore, the Turkish regime denies the crimes it has committed against Kurds, with the exception of Dersim massacre. The official institutions have made concerted efforts to erase these events from the collective memory, prohibiting the establishment of any memorials commemorating these events.
In 1967, all references to Kurds in Syria were removed from textbooks, and Kurdish parents started to come under intense pressure from officials to prevent them from registering Kurdish names for their children in the state birth registry.  As Kajjo shows, after 1962 the Syria’s Kurds were divided into three categories: Kurds who enjoyed Syrian citizenship; Kurds who were stripped of their citizenship and registered in civic records as aliens – commonly known as Ajaneb (Arabic for aliens); and Kurds who were stripped of their citizenship and not registered in civic records at all- called Maktoumeen, or hidden. These Kurds had no papers to prove their existence. Technically, they didn’t exist.
Similarly, Iraqi Arab nationalists often considered Kurds as ‘aliens’ or dehumanized them to the extent that they were often called ‘the children of the Jinns (supernatural beings)’ with tails. While some other Arab nationalists claimed that Kurds were originally Arabs from Arabia who have forgotten their language and that Kurd means ‘expelled Arabs’ in complete contradiction of the centuries of Kurdish presence and influence in Mesopotamia and basic history. The ethnic slurs and racial tropes propagated by the Ba’athists continue to inform the collective perception of Kurds among the Arabs and Christians in Syria and Iraq to this day.
In Iran, significant efforts have been made in recent decades to divide the Kurdish population into various new ethnic groups based on linguistic or tribal affiliations. Kurds are referred to as ‘Iranian nomads,’ suggesting that the term ‘Kurd’ historically did not signify an ethnic identity but rather denoted a shepherd or nomad. Consequently, the Kurds not only suffer from a policy that seeks to render their Kurdish identity invisible but also from a policy that strives to eradicate their existence altogether.
Despite their disagreements on various matters, ethnic groups in the Middle East find common ground in their opposition to the establishment of a Kurdish state. Kurdish aspirations for Kurdistan are frequently denounced as the “second Israel” by Arab, Turkish, and Iranian regimes, with the intention of demonizing both Kurds and Israelis, and mobilizing Muslims against them.
Alongside cultural and physical eradication, the Kurds have endured degrading stereotypes that dehumanize them, such as being compared to animals with claims like ‘Kurds have tails’ or being labeled as ‘dirty.’ Within Arab societies, terms like ‘istikrad’ meaning ‘being a Kurd and ‘Kurdi’ are frequently employed to denote ‘stupidity.’
Kurdophobia has led to numerous massacres and hate crimes against Kurds. One notorious historical incident was the Amouda Cinema massacre, which took place in November 1960 in the town of Amuda in the Hasakah Governorate of Rojava (northeast Syria). During this tragic event, over 283 Kurdish children were burned to death when a fire engulfed the movie theater. The massacre was driven by racial hatred towards the Kurds.  In more recent times, Kurds continue to be subjected to brutal assaults and murder by Turkish nationalists, marking them as specific targets of violence in Turkish areas.
In conclusion, the absence of a Kurdish state primarily due to the Treaty of Lausanne has resulted in a fragmented Kurdish population scattered across various nations, subjected to varying degrees of recognition or oppression. This complex circumstance has posed significant difficulties for the Kurds in safeguarding their people and asserting their cultural and political rights, ultimately leading to their marginalization and increased vulnerability in the face of threats. Since the 1920s, the Kurdish people and Kurdistan have endured immense loss and devastation, including the forced displacement or deaths of millions of Kurds by the four states occupying Kurdistan.
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