It has been often postulated that Kurdish nationalism and, accordingly, a desire for an independent Kurdish state dates back to centuries before the present. Sufficient evidence exists, however, that despite the fact that history is full of examples of Kurdish uprisings against the empires under whose territory they resided, the desire for an independent or autonomous Kurdish state among Kurds, in the modern sense, emerged only after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.
In this short essay, we would like to introduce a primer on several previous attempts for an independent Kurdish state in the twentieth century. We hope that this will help the reader better grasp the current attempt toward creating an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. We also hope that it will be noticeable to the reader that there are two main themes or rather recurring hindrances that prevent the realization of such a dream. One is internal rivalry among Kurdish groups and the other is the dependency on international support. They are, no doubt, closely related.
“…the desire for an independent or autonomous Kurdish state among Kurds, in the modern sense, emerged only after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.”
World War I and Aspiration for Independence
World War I mortally wounded the Ottoman Empire and its victors, mainly Great Britain and France, forced the dying empire to sign a treaty to divide its territories. The Treaty of Sevres, signed in 1920, can be considered the first instance of international recognition for a Kurdish state, as the language of the treaty mentioned the Kurds and an independent state in the same sentence.
“If within one year from the coming into force of the present Treaty, the Kurdish peoples (…) shall address themselves to the Council of the League of Nations in such a manner as to show that a majority of the population of these areas desires independence from Turkey, and if the Council then considers that these peoples are capable of such independence and recommends that it should be granted to them. Turkey hereby agrees to execute such a recommendation, and to renounce all rights and title over these areas.”
As seen above, the recognition of Kurdish independence was based on so many vague conditions that it appears as empty rhetoric and whether or not the Treaty of Sevres can be regarded as a promise for Kurdish independence can surely be debated. Therefore it was, and still is, easy for many Kurds to regard it as a betrayed promise for independence by the international community. In addition to that, the treaty was stillborn. The Treaty of Sevres was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which did not have any reference to a Kurdish independent state. Nevertheless, the Treaty of Sevres was significant enough to wet the appetite of Kurdish nationalists for an independent Kurdistan.
World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was a major turning point in the minds of Kurdish notables, turned nationalists. As the political map of the Middle East changed drastically and several Arab states were formed in the region , Kurdish desire for an independent Kurdistan gained momentum. A number of Kurdish rebellions that emerged especially in Iraq, Iran and Turkey are clear examples of the manifestation of such desire. One of the earliest examples for the struggle for a Kurdish state, or in this case, the “Kingdom of Kurdistan,” comes from the British Iraq of 1922. This rebellion is representative of nationalist aspirations for a Kurdish state that was cut short by an international (read British) intervention.
“As the political map of the Middle East changed drastically and several Arab states were formed in the region , Kurdish desire for an independent Kurdistan gained momentum.”
Sheikh Mahmut Berzenji Rebellion for the “Kingdom of Kurdistan”
The Sheikh Mahmud Berzinji Rebellion, one of the earliest attempt for a Kurdish state, took place in the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah and its countryside in 1922 under the leadership of Sheikh Mahmud Hafid Berzenji. Taking advantage of the political vacuum that was created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Sheikh Mahmud, a highly respected Qadiri Sheikh in the area, began cooperating with the British and assumed the title of the administrator of Kurdistan. However, his political ambitions were far beyond what this title entailed and what the British administrators in Iraq envisioned. It was a common practice by Great Britain to enlist local notables to govern the territories they administered. Soon enough, however, the British administration in Iraq would find itself unable
to contain the aspirations of Sheikh Mahmud as he declared the “Kingdom of Kurdistan.”
“The Sheikh Mahmud Berzinji Rebellion, one of the earliest attempt for a Kurdish state, took place in the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah and its countryside in 1922 under the leadership of Sheikh Mahmud Hafid Berzenji.”
This unrecognized political/administrative entity lasted two years – until the Iraqi forces moved in the area with the support of the British air force and the infantry. As a result, “the Kurdish Kingdom” was crushed and Berzenji’s control came to an abrupt end. And yet, the Sheikh managed once again to launch a counterstrike against the Iraqi troops, driving them out of the city and regaining control in 1919. As a result, the Iraqi army, backed again by the British, regained control of Sulaymaniyah and forced Berzenji to leave the area by 1920. Sheikh Mahmud retreated to the mountains – his new headquarters – from where he launched a guerrilla war that lasted until 1926, when he signed an agreement with the British agreeing to leave Iraq with his family. Consequently, he was exiled to India. By the time he returned to another exile in Bagdad 1941 until his death in 1956, his influence had been extinguished entirely.
“Historians largely agree that the failure was chiefly related to Berzenji’s lack of understanding of the nature of British colonial interests, which did not favor an independent Kurdistan.”
There were multiple reasons behind the failure of this particular Kurdish attempt at independence. Historians largely agree that the failure was chiefly related to Berzenji’s lack of understanding of the nature of British colonial interests, which did not favor an independent Kurdistan. One might argue that newly discovered oil fields in the area also contributed to the lack of support for the creation of an independent Kurdistan. In comparison to the newly created Iraqi state, a Kurdish state must have seemed to the British as unreliable or unpredictable. Therefore, we can state that one of the determining factors behind the failure of a Kurdish state was that the international world order did not favor the creation of such a state. The very same hindrance seem to be in play in Iraq even today. To drive this point home, we will examine another bid for an independent Kurdish state from 1946. . The 1946 Kurdish state – the Republic of Mahabad – was created with the help of Soviet Union, but could not survive beyond eleven months once the Soviets withdrew its support.
The Kurdish Republic of Mahabad
In 1946 the Soviet Union had northwestern Iran under its control. It promoted Kurdish nationalism in Iran and supported the creation of a Kurdish state with the hope of expanding its influence towards the south. The absence of a strong Iranian central government, coupled with the Soviet intervention resulted in the declaration of the Republic of Mahabad within the limits of the Iranian state. The town of Mahabad was historically a Kurdish one, where a committee of middle-class cadre supported initially by tribal chiefs, took over the local administration. The Society for the Revival of Kurdistan (Komeley Jiyanewey Kurdistan or JK), a political party, was formed under the leadership of Qazi Muhammad, a local notable of a religious jurist family background.
Qazi Muhammad announced the formation of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad on 22 January 1946. It was clear that the Soviet support for the formation of the Mahabad Kurdish Rebublic was crucial for its survival. This support materialized not only in the form of military protection against Tehran and other foes, but also as economic benefits to the new state and its citizens. Significantly, Qazi Muhammad invited Mustafa Barzani of Iraq, a Kurdish tribal leader himself, to form the military (or more correctly, police) force of this weak Kurdish regime. Barzani and his peshmergas happily complied with the invitation which later dismayed many local Kurdish tribes in the Mahabad area. These rival tribes withdrew their initial support of Qazi Muhammad’s leadership. They viewed Muhammad as a puppet of the Soviet Union and were suspicious of the Barzani Kurds, who, as outsiders, strained their resources and livelihood.
“Qazi Muhammad invited Mustafa Barzani of Iraq, a Kurdish tribal leader himself, to form the military (or more correctly, police) force of this weak Kurdish regime. Barzani and his peshmergas happily complied with the invitation which later dismayed many local Kurdish tribes in the Mahabad area.”
On 26 March 1946 the Soviets withdrew from northwestern Iran, including Iranian Azerbaijan and the Mahabad region. This was not only a stipulation of the Yalta Agreement of 1945 but also a result of the pressure from the United States, Great Britain and other Western states., The Soviet withdrawal allowed Iran to reassert its control over Iranian Azerbaijan by the summer of 1946 which led to the eventual destruction of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad.
Iranian forces entered Mahabad and banned the teaching of Kurdish language, and burned all Kurdish books that they could find. Qazi Muhammad was hanged in Mahabad on several counts of treason on 31 March 1947. In repetition of the pattern of failure that was explained above in the example of 1922 attempt at independence, the 1946 experience with a Kurdish independent state also resulted in an utter failure and destruction of Kurds due to lack of international support (this time by the Soviets) and internal divisions..
The 1946 Mahabad experience would carry an extremely significant consequence : the rise of Mustafa Barzani as a nationalist leader. In the aftermath of the Republic of Mahabad, Mustafa Barzani, along with his 500 peshmergas from Iraqi Kurdistan, managed to escape to the Soviet Union through Soviet Azerbaijan in a legendary five-week long journey. Barzani stayed in Soviet controlled territories as a “guest” and only after the 1958 revolution in Iraq that installed its leader, the Soviet leaning Abdul Karim Qasim as the new Prime Minister of Iraq, did he return to Northern Iraq. This return marked the beginning of a series of struggles to fight for an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.
“The 1946 Mahabad experience would carry an extremely significant consequence : the rise of Mustafa Barzani as a nationalist leader.”After his return to Iraq in 1958, Mustafa Barzani followed a nationalist agenda that sought the creation of an autonomous, if not an independent, Kurdish state. His bid and failure to establish a Kurdish state and brings us to yet another example of a failed attempt to realize a hundred-year dream of an independent Kurdistan.
The Molla Mustafa Barzani Movement of Iraq and Infighting among Iraqi Kurds
One of the most internationally known Kurdish nationalists of the twentieth century, without a doubt, is Molla Mustafa Barzani, who hails from a line of respected Naqshbandi sheikhs in the region. When Barzani and his followers returned to Iraq from the Soviet Union in 1958 Barzani quickly established warm ties with General Abdul Karim Qasim who was contemplating to benefit from Barzani as a potential ally in the Iraqi Kurdistan. In time, Qasim grew suspicious of Barzani and attempted to capitalize on tribal divisions in the Kurdish region. Qasim was aware of the long standing tribal rivalry between the Barzanis on the hand, and the Zebaris and the Harki family on the other. The lack of Kurdish unity has historically been a weak-spot for the Kurds. This was often exploited by external forces and Baghdad at the expense of Kurdish nationalism. Qasim tried to exploit not only tribal divisions but also the political schism between the KDP’s Barzani and Talabani factions.
While political control in Baghdad shifted hands over time, Iraqi governments would continue to exploit the tribal and political divisions in the Kurdish region of Iraq, including during the reign of the late Saddam Hussein.
In response to this policy of non-recognition and exploitation, Mustafa Barzani led multiple revolts against the Iraqi government. The most enduring of these revolts started in 1961 and only ended in 1970 when an autonomy agreement was signed between Baghdad and Barzani. This period saw a regime change in Baghdad and intensified Kurdish infighting.
Qasim government was aware of Barzani’s contacts with foreign intelligence agencies such as the CIA and the Mossad, which fueled its suspicions against Barzani especially after he requested autonomy from the new regime for the territories that included much of Iraq’s oil fields around Kirkuk and Mosul. This was not acceptable to the government which moved against the KDP in northern Iraq. The campaign faced difficulties, and contributed to the coup against General Qasim in 1963 which eventually brought Abdul Salam Arif to power and ousted the Ba’athists from the national government.
“The new Arif regime in Baghdad made truce with Barzani. This allowed Barzani to turn his attention immediately towards his KDP rivals, Talabani and Ibrahim Ahmad.”
The new Arif regime in Baghdad made truce with Barzani. This allowed Barzani to turn his attention immediately towards his KDP rivals, Talabani and Ibrahim Ahmad. Establishing a pattern in the dynamics that define Iraqi Kurdish nationalist movement’s internal factionalism, Barzani received funds from Arif to silence his critics within the KDP. In the future Iraqi Kurdish groups would continue to seek Baghdad’s support against their antagonists. For example, the Talabani/Ahmad faction would utilize Saddam Hussein’s support against Barzani (especially during period 1975-1978 but until 2003). What was significant about the Kurdish revolts between 1961-70 was that many international actors, such as the United States, Israel, the Soviet Union, Iran and Turkey, were directly or indirectly, sometimes openly and at other times clandestinely, involved in them.
After the last Baathist coup in Iraq that brought Saddam Hussein to power in 1968, Barzani first rebelled against the new regime over Saddam Hussein’s close ties with the Talabani/Ahmad faction of the KDP and began shelling Kirkuk that was controlled by this faction. In this campaign Barzani enjoyed funds and support from Iran and was successful in entering a new deal with Baghdad. According to the draft of this new agreement, Bagdad recognized the authority of Barzani over the KDP and proposed an autonomy deal with him, marginalizing the Talabani/ Ahmad faction. Importantly, however, Baghdad, without the approval of Barzani, did not include Kirkuk in the final version of autonomy deal with Barzani. Knowing that the survival of a Kurdish state would be impossible without the revenues to be drawn from oil-rich Kirkuk, Mustafa Barzani revolted once again in 1974. While he had sought to play regional rivals against one-another, to Barzani’s dismay Baghdad and Tehran signed the Algiers Agreement in 1975 which included an article to practically cease the Iranian support to Barzani. It is during this time that the CIA and the Mossad stopped military and economic aid to the Barzani revolt which ended the dream of a Kurdish independent state.
The failure of the latest Kurdish rebellion in Iraq caused a split within the KDP and forced the Talabani/Ahmad faction to form a new Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to rival the KDP in the following years. Kurdish nationalist aspirations would remain in the back burner until the American led invasion of Iraq resulted in the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003
The 2017 Kurdish Independence Referendum and Its Significance
The preceding primer on Iraqi Kurdish aspirations point out to the historical significance of September 25, 2017 referendum in the Iraqi Kurdistan. It should be noted that this referendum is not the first one to take place in the post-Saddam Iraqi Kurdistan. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a new autonomous region in the Northern Iraq was created and a new Kurdish government, under the name of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), came into existence. On 30 January 2005, the KRG organized a referendum for an independent Kurdistan. The unofficial results in this referendum recorded that 98.88 percent of the Iraqi Kurds were in support of independence.
“The 25 September 2017 referendum – similar to previous attempts at independence– was a step taken by the KRG, headed by Mustafa Barzani’s son, Mesud Barzani, to pressure the Baghdad government for political and economic gains.”
The 25 September 2017 referendum – similar to previous attempts at independence– was a step taken by the KRG, headed by Mustafa Barzani’s son, Mesud Barzani, to pressure the Baghdad government for political and economic gains. Similar to the 2005 referendum, the latest referendum sparked controversy as it included the disputed territories of Northern Iraq– including the Kirkuk oil fields – to join in with the Kurdistan Regional Government. No doubt that this referendum carried only a symbolic meaning for the Kurds, rather than any real potential for the declaration of an independent Kurdish state. The referendum ballot asked a single question: “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?” The results of the referendum recorded that 93 percent of the participants voted in favor of the question – in comparison to the 98.88 percent in 2005. Nevertheless, Mesud Barzani stopped short of declaring independence in the fashion of the 2005 referendum. Why, then, such a move was put into action despite the fact that almost all international actors – with the exception of Israel – were against it?
“The referendum ballot asked a single question: ‘Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?'”
There should be little doubt that the latest attempt for an independent Kurdish state in the form of a referendum was a gimmick for negotiations with the Baghdad government. The 2005 Iraqi constitution includes many ambiguous articles, such the fate of the disputed territories, the right to exploit oil within the KRG region and the status of the integrated security forces in the region. It seems obvious that Barzani aims at strengthening his hand to get a better deal in future negotiations with the central state. However, observers agree that this referendum poses a great risk for the well-being of the Kurds in Iraq. The latest developments in the second half of October 2017 when Iraqi central government took over Kirkuk and the oil fields with the help of certain peshmerga units have once again demonstrated that Kurdish nationalism still suffers greatly from internal power struggle. History has repeated itself. Predictably, rivalries among Kurdish factions within the KRG will intensify. If so, what conclusions we can drive from the last hundred years of Iraqi Kurds’ aspirations for a Kurdish independent state?
Let us start by highlighting several key insights to be drawn from an examination of the near century long history of past attempts at Kurdish independence in Iraq. The first key take-away is to avoid the grave error to see the Kurds as one unified unit. Historically, there always existed multiple factions with competing interests within the Kurdish communities of the Middle East. This reality is one of the most exploited weaknesses of the Kurdish nationalist movements of the last century and despite the strong leadership of Barzani family in the KDP, there are deep fragmentations of Kurdish political structure in Iraq. Such lack of unity in Kurdish nationalist movement has always been a very visible pattern hindering the creation of an independent Kurdistan.
Undeniably, the geography plays a significant role in the fragmentation of the Kurdish political movements – which is then utilized by regional powers who find it advantageous to interact with a fragmented Kurdish political and military movement. Iraqi Kurds have been located at the intersection of many strong empires throughout history. This geostrategic situatedness allows different Kurdish groups in the Middle East to continuously negotiate with the surrounding powers which results in creating a pattern of interdependency. Given this background, international political environment is highly likely to remain hesitant in supporting the creation of a Kurdish state.
It is also true that Kurdish nationalists’ claims have become louder during international crises and the power struggles, such as World Wars I and II, the aftermath of the Gulf War of 200,3 and most recently the game-changing war against the ISIL. However, we do not predict that the current political earthquake in the Middle East is strong enough to necessarily result in an independent Kurdish state, barring, of course, unexpected international political developments.
Mesud Barzani has sufficient political shrewdness to appreciate and assess hardship of sustaining an independent Kurdish state in such turbulent times. He is aware that this state, if it were to be established, would face an existential threat from the surrounding states, such as Turkey and Iran, not to mention the Iraqi central government. In other words, not enough has changed in the region to realize the hundred-year-long dream of a Kurdish independent state. While we cannot predict the future, we suggest that the reader should avoid presentism and follow the contemporary developments with careful attention to the complex picture that the region’s history presents.
 See, Hakan Ozoglu, Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State: Evolving Identities, Competing Loyalties, and Shifting Boundries (New Albany: SUNY Press, 2004).
 Barzani and Berzenji families should not be confused. They were not related.
 After his escape to the Soviet Azerbaijan, Barzani was forced to stay in Uzbekistan and later in Moscow.
 At this time, Kurdish nationalist movement in Iraq was organized under the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) umbrella. The KDP, which was originally formed in Iranian Kurdistan in 1946, established itself formally in the Iraqi Kurdistan in the same year. The Iraqi KDP elected Mustafa Barzani as its president-in-exile in 1953.
 The KDP at the time had two main divisions. The Barzani faction, tribal in nature, was the most formidable one. The Talabani faction had a more urban profile and its leaders were Jalal Talabani and Ibrahim Ahmad. Talabani, also known as Mam [uncle] Jalal, was the first non-Arab president of Iraq (2005-2014). He passed away on 3 October 2017.
 During the earlier monarchy years, Mustafa Barzani and his brothers were exiled from Iraq from 1932 to 1945 due to their political activities. Mustafa Barzani’s elder brother Ahmad Barzani was the leader of these earlier revolts. It is debatable that these activities can be considered nationalistic or financial considerstions were at play.