The betrayal of the Kurds

October 27, 2014

The question of Kurdistan is in the international spotlight after forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) carried out an assault on Kobanê, a main city in the northern region of Syria where much of that country's Kurdish population lives. The Kurdish fighters who appear to have repelled the reactionary Sunni forces are part of a struggle for national self-determination for the Kurds, the world's largest ethnic group without a national state.

Despite the rhetoric of Barack Obama and other politicians, the new U.S. war in the Middle East has nothing to do with the plight of the Kurdish people, who have suffered a long history of betrayals at the hands of imperialist government. The following article introducing this historical background by Phil Gasper was first published in the March-April 2003 International Socialist Review, as the U.S. and Britain set the stage for the invasion of Iraq, using Kurdish demands for freedom from the regime of Saddam Hussein as one justification.

A RECENT story in the San Francisco Chronicle reported that over 100 Kurdish exiles from northern Iraq now living in California have volunteered for a Pentagon training program to prepare them to accompany U.S. forces if and when they launch an attack on Saddam Hussein's regime. "I speak English and Arabic and Kurdish. I want to help," said one. Another urged the U.S. to drop leaflets on Iraqi cities "making clear that the Americans are coming as liberators."[1]

There is no question that the current Iraqi regime has a brutal record of repression against many of its own citizens, and in particular against the country's Kurdish minority. Yet of all the reasons the Bush administration is offering to justify its planned war on Iraq, perhaps the most cynical and hypocritical is that it wants to end Saddam Hussein's human rights violations. In fact, at the very moment that Kurds in California were volunteering to help the U.S., Washington was negotiating a deal with the Turkish government that betrays the fundamental interests of Iraqi Kurds. The Washington Post reported that in exchange for the use of Turkish bases, the U.S. government "promised to prevent Kurds from imposing a federation-style government in postwar Iraq that would ensure their continued autonomy" and agreed to allow Turkish troops to occupy several hundred square miles of northern Iraq "to prevent a flow of refugees into Turkey and maintain stability and security in the region."[2]

A Kurdish fighter in Kobanê
A Kurdish fighter defending Kobanê from ISIS forces in 2014

"Basically, the Kurds have been handed over to the Turkish government," states Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network. "The gains of autonomy that the Kurds have made in northern Iraq [since 1991] could well be lost. The Turkish military has depopulated thousands of Kurdish villages and killed tens of thousands of Kurds over the last 15 years. Northern Iraq could end up much like northern Cyprus, which Turkey has illegally occupied for decades."[3] The deal may be scuttled by the Turkish government. Under tremendous public pressure at home, it has refused to allow U.S. troops to stage an invasion from Turkey into northern Iraq, though as ISR goes to press they may be "encouraged" to reconsider. The point is that the U.S. is perfectly happy to manipulate Kurdish support when they need it, and then abandon the Kurds when it suits them.

In reaction, Kurds in northern Iraq have vowed to resist any attempt by Turkey to invade. If the U.S. allows Turkey to go to war against the Kurds in Iraq, "clashes would be unavoidable," said Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader.

The Bush administration's callous abandonment of the Kurds will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the long history of broken promises by both the United States and Britain, Washington's principal ally in the current war drive. Up until now it has been useful to talk about Kurdish freedom for propaganda purposes, but the U.S. government has never been serious about defending the rights of the Kurdish people.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country. Their total population is over 25 million, with about half living in Turkey and most of the rest in Iran, Iraq and Syria. At the end of the First World War when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Treaty of Sèvres recognized the Kurds' right to their own state and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson pledged to support its creation within two years. This promise, however, was soon forgotten, as Western powers competed to control the region's oil supplies. British planes gassed and bombed Kurdish villages in Iraq in order to enforce the borders they wanted. "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas," wrote Britain's war secretary at the time, Winston Churchill. "I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.... [W]e cannot in any circumstances acquiesce in the non-utilization of any weapons which are available to procure a speedy termination of the disorder which prevails on the frontier."[4] Meanwhile the Turkish government brutally repressed its own Kurdish population, denying them freedom of language and culture. Although this violated the peace treaty, the Western powers supported the Turks who were seen as a vital ally in preventing the spread of the Russian Revolution.

At the end of the Second World War, Kurds in northern Iran briefly set up their own state, the Mahabad Republic, which offered them a brief taste of freedom. But the government in Tehran soon crushed this experiment, with the backing of the U.S. and Britain. Qadhi Muhammad, the republic's elected president, was publicly hanged along with several other Kurdish leaders.

BUT THE most cynical acts of betrayal are more recent. In the early 1970s, as tensions between Iran and its neighbor Iraq increased, the U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger agreed to support a plan devised by the Shah of Iran to encourage an uprising by Kurds in Iraq. By 1975, Kissinger had secretly channeled $16 million of military aid to the Kurds, who believed that Washington was finally supporting their right to self-determination. The following year, however, the Pike report, issued by the House Select Committee on Intelligence, revealed that the U.S. had never had any intention of supporting a Kurdish state:

Documents in the Committee's possession clearly show that the president, Dr. Kissinger and the foreign head of state [the Shah of Iran] hoped that our clients [the Kurds] would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally's neighboring country [Iraq]. This policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue fighting.[5]

At the 1975 Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) summit, Iran and Iraq temporarily resolved their border dispute. The Iraqi government was then informed that U.S. support for the Kurds would be withdrawn, while the Kurds themselves were kept uninformed about what was happening. Iraqi forces immediately launched an aggressive campaign against the Kurdish rebels. "The insurgents were clearly taken by surprise. Their adversaries, knowing of the impending aid cut-off, launched an all out search-and-destroy campaign the day after the agreement [with Iran] was signed. The autonomy movement was over and our former clients scattered before the [Iraqi] central government's superior forces."[6]

As Iraq wiped out the remaining rebels, the Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani sent a message to Kissinger: "Our movement and people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way, with silence from everyone. We feel, your excellency, that the United States has a moral and political responsibility towards our people, who have committed themselves to your country's policy."[7] Kissinger, however, didn't even bother to send a reply.

According to the Pike report, "Over 200,000 refugees managed to escape into Iran. Once there however, neither the United States nor Iran extended adequate humanitarian assistance. In fact, Iran was later to forcibly return over 40,000 of the refugees and the United States government refused to admit even one refugee into the United States by way of political asylum even though they qualified for such admittance."[8] As Kissinger later explained to a Congressional staffer, "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work."[9] U.S. strategic interests, in other words, were more important than mere moral principles. "Even in the context of covert actions," concluded the Pike report, "ours was a cynical enterprise."[10]

The cynicism continued in the 1980s. In 1979 the Iranian revolution had overthrown the Shah, whose brutal regime had been a key regional U.S. bulwark for more than a quarter of a century. The following year, Iraq invaded Iran, beginning a bloody war that was to last until 1988. During the course of the war, both Iran and Iraq carried out brutal massacres of their own Kurdish populations. The U.S. and other Western countries gave covert support to Saddam Hussein's regime, supplying Baghdad with the materials to create chemical weapons and providing intelligence reports that allowed them to be used against Iranian forces.

In 1988, as the war was winding down, the Iraqi army carried out its murderous and now infamous gas attacks on rebellious Kurdish villages, which it accused of aiding Iran. In response, the U.S. Senate passed by a large margin a bill calling for an end to U.S. military aid to Iraq and for other mild sanctions. But these measures were vigorously opposed by both the Reagan and Bush administrations, which called them "premature" and "misguided," and the Senate bill was eventually killed.[11]

IT WAS only after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that Washington's concern for Kurdish rights suddenly reappeared in the build up to the last Gulf War. George Bush Sr. proclaimed Saddam Hussein the new Hitler and said the U.S. was fighting to free the Iraqi population. At the end of the war when Shiite Muslims in the south and the Kurds in the north rebelled against Hussein's regime, the U.S. abandoned them, permitting the Iraqi military to use helicopter gunships to crush the insurrections. Washington preferred a unified Iraq under Saddam to successful rebellions that would have broken the country up and thus strengthened Iran. As Bush and his National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, later explained: "While we hoped that popular revolt or a coup would topple Saddam, neither the U.S. nor the countries of the region wished to see the breakup of the Iraqi state. We were concerned about the long-term balance of power at the head of the Gulf."[12] Once again, U.S. strategic interests had trumped Kurdish rights.

After the war, the U.S. and Britain unilaterally established no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq, claiming that these were intended to protect the Kurds and the Shiites. But the real reasons were different. As Kurdish journalist Husayn Al Kurdi writes, "It was clear from the beginning that the 'safe haven' was an operation to provide cover as distinct from 'providing comfort,' as its early official designation implied. It provided cover for CIA operations against Iraq and for Turkish moves against the Kurds."[13]

In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration authorized the CIA to pursue a dual strategy that entailed fomenting a popular uprising led by the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and Kurdish paramilitaries on the one hand, and seeking a coup from above, to be engineered by ex-Iraqi officers organized in the Iraqi National Accord, on the other. With CIA backing, the INC launched an uprising in 1994, and in March 1995, seized control of Mosul and Kirkuk in northern Iraq. The Clinton administration withdrew support for the operation at the last minute, and it (along with the attempted coup) was crushed by Iraqi troops at the same time that Turkish troops invaded from the north. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein was able to play off the fratricidal rivalry between the two main Kurdish organizations--the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talibani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Massoud Barzani. With Iranian backing, Talibani's forces attacked the KDP forces. Failing to get U.S. support, Barzani requested assistance from Saddam Hussein, who promptly invaded northern Iraq, taking over areas controlled by the PUK (and then quickly withdrawing). Surviving remnants of the Iraqi National Congress were forced to flee in a panic along with their CIA backers. Not only did attempts by the CIA to use the "safe haven" as a staging ground for "regime change" fail miserably, they increased the vulnerability of Kurds to both Iraqi and Turkish attacks and exacerbated inter-Kurdish factional rivalry.

THE U.S. has permitted the Turkish military to cross the border and kill Kurdish guerrillas when it pleases. For example, in 1995 Turkey sent "35,000 ground troops backed by F-16 jet fighters, paratroopers, tanks and helicopters...deep into Iraqi Kurdistan, seizing a strip almost 30 miles long and 140 miles broad, and occupying [the town of] Zakho. Although the invasion was a flagrant intervention of an internationally protected area under Iraqi Kurdish control, the attack had the prior consent of the Allies, foremost among them the United States." This assault, the largest military operation that Turkey had undertaken for 70 years, "immediately resulted in civilian arrests, abductions and casualties among both Iraqi and Turkish Kurds."[14] Another major incursion took place in 1999 following the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which at that time was engaged in a guerrilla insurgency against Turkey's repression of its Kurdish population. These repeated U.S.-backed invasions make a mockery of Washington's claim that it is concerned about Iraq because it is a threat to its neighbors.

While Washington condemns Iraq for its treatment of the Kurds, it supports Turkey's even more brutal repression of its own Kurds. "The lot of the Kurds in Turkey," writes Tariq Ali, "where not even the Kurdish language is permitted in schools and the army has displaced two million people from their homelands in its war against the Kurdish population, has always been worse than in Iraq, where--whatever Saddam's other crimes--there has never been any attempt at this kind of cultural annihilation. Yet as a valued member of NATO and candidate for the [European Union], Ankara suffers not the slightest measure against it, indeed can rely on Western help for its repression."[15] Until recently, Turkey was the third biggest recipient of U.S. military aid, which it has used to kill over 30,000 Kurds during the past two decades.[16]

Turkey's military operations in northern Iraq have been intended not only to track down PKK guerrillas, but also to destabilize Iraqi Kurdistan and prevent the emergence of a full-fledged Kurdish state. Meanwhile, for the past decade, Washington has tolerated limited Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, while refusing to recognize the Kurds' right of self-determination, because that would strengthen the struggle of Kurds in Turkey for the same right and thereby weaken a key U.S. ally. Now, Washington's new agreement with Turkey means that even limited autonomy for the Kurds of Iraq will not survive. According to the British newspaper the Independent, ordinary Kurds are terrified by the prospect of a Turkish attack. "Only a week ago the main topic in the streets among Kurds was Saddam and the fear of chemical attack," says Karim Sinjari, the Kurdish interior minister. "Now the only thing people talk about is Turkey and the Turkish advance."[17]

Weak leadership and antagonisms between competing factions, often deliberately exacerbated by outside intervention, have greatly weakened the Kurds' fight for freedom over the past several decades. The Kurdish people will need to rely on their own struggle, not Washington's false promises, in order to win their liberation.


1. Laura Hubber, "California Kurds training to accompany GIs to Iraq," San Francisco Chronicle, February 20, 2003.
2. Philip P. Pan and Daniel Williams, "U.S. would limit action by Kurds in postwar Iraq," Washington Post, February 27, 2003.
3. Institute for Public Accuracy News Release, February 25, 2003, available online at
4. Quoted in Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy (London: Vintage, 1992), p. 182.
5. Quoted in Jonathan C. Randal, After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), p. 166.
6. Quoted from the Pike Commission report, available online at
7. Quoted in William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1995), p. 244.
8. Quoted in Blum, p. 244.
9. Quoted in Blum, p. 244.
10. Quoted in Randal, p. 166.
11. Seth Ackerman, "The Washington Post's gas attack," Extra! September/October 2002, p. 23.
12. George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 489.
13. Husayn Al Kurdi, "The CIA in Kurdistan," Z Magazine, December, 1996, available online at
14. Sheri Laizer, Martyrs, Traitors and Patriots: Kurdistan after the Gulf War (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Zed Books, 1996), p. 150.
15. Tariq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (New York: Verso, 2002), p. 149.
16. See Laizer, Chapter 6.
17. Patrick Cockburn, "Armed U.S. guards lay down law for Iraqi exiles," Independent (UK), February 27, 2003.

First published in the International Socialist Review.

Further Reading

From the archives