Decades after warrior-king Sheikh Mahmud’s overthrow, Kurds keep on fighting for a homeland.
Sulaimania, Iraq – By the time Sheikh Mahmud Barzinji declared himself king of Kurdistan in 1922, over an area that included the city of Sulaimania and its environs, he had already fought dozens of battles; some alongside the British against the Ottomans, others against the British alongside the Arabs, and then several more against the Arabs.
From March 1923 to mid-1924, the British retaliated against Sheikh Mahmud’s perceived insolence with aerial bombardment, and thus ended the Kurds’ first attempt at full-fledged sovereignty.
In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne had dealt a definitive blow to Kurdish aspirations for self-determination in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s disintegration. Three years earlier, the Treaty of Sevres stipulated that the oil-rich Mosul Vilayet be given to the Kurds. But at Lausanne, the British and the French changed their minds and drew up a very different map, which gave rise to the modern state of Iraq.
The man who would be king of Kurdistan lived the rest of his years in relative obscurity, in a village near the city of Sulaimania, and died in 1956. Despite the errors committed by the valiant warrior – by most accounts, he was not a shrewd politician – Sheikh Mahmud remains an idolised figure and a source of inspiration for Kurdish leaders. An enormous mural-portrait of him lies at the entrance of the Sulaimania bazaar.
“They say Sheikh Mahmud didn’t like the British, but that is not true. They promised him a state, but then they changed their minds and gave the Mosul Vilayet to the Arabs,” says Sheikh Salar al-Hafeed, a lawyer and relative of Sheikh Mahmud.
Today, as the Kurds of Iraq, Syria and Turkey play a critical role in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as the only fighting force on the ground, Middle East watchers talk of a new Sykes-Picot in the making.
Some 150,000 Kurdish Peshmerga are on active dutyacross northern Iraq today. They are an integral part of the US-led coalition against ISIL, just as their forefathers were supportive of British forces at the end of World War I, spurred on by disingenuous promises of an independent Kurdish state carved out of an ailing Ottoman Empire.
“They say Sheikh Mahmud didn’t like the British, but that is not true. They promised him a state, but then they changed their minds and gave the Mosul Vilayet to the Arabs.” Sheikh Salar al-Hafeed, lawyer and relative of Sheikh Mahmud
No official source will confirm whether or not Iraqi Kurdish leaders have been promised an independent state in the event of ISIL’s defeat – rumours of an independence deal actually gained momentum around the time of the Arab Spring, some say to appease the Kurdish public – but parallels abound with the conditions on the ground at the turn of the last century.
The line between insurgent and freedom fighter has always been blurry. Revered today as a Kurdish nationalist hero, Sheikh Mahmud was seen as an “insurgent” by the British authorities back in the day.
In 1919, after he was wounded in combat against British imperial forces on the road between Sulaimania and Kirkuk, he was captured and taken to Baghdad to stand trial in a military court.
“During the trial, [the British] refused to acknowledge his status as a Kurdish leader, as a sheikh. They told him, ‘You are an obstacle.’ They called him the leader of a terrorist group,” says Hafeed. “Sheikh Mahmud replied: ‘You promised us a Kurdistan.'”
The Kurdish leader was sentenced to death for insurrection, but this was later reduced to imprisonment in a British fort in India for two years.
On his return to Sulaimania in October 1922, Sheikh Mahmud initially had cordial relations with the British, promising to help them clear the Turks out of Kurdish areas. But scarcely a month had passed before promises on both sides were broken and Sheikh Mahmud declared himself king of Kurdistan. An audacious act that did not go down so well with the British Mandate of Iraq.
While the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has repeatedly expressed gratitude for the US-led coalition’s air support for Kurdish ground forces, there are some who fear that Kurdish interests may be betrayed once again by Western powers. Recently, for instance, Peshmerga commanders have magnified their calls for more updated and sophisticated weapons and artillery, saying their arsenal pales in comparison to those in ISIL’s possession. With over 2,000 Peshmerga already killed and many others injured – according to official figures – they argue that the war cannot be won if the asymmetry in capability persists.
Have today’s Kurdish leaders derived any lessons from Sheikh Mahmud’s ill-fated experience? Hafeed is sceptical.
“No, they never learn anything from him,” he says, shaking his head. “Sheikh Mahmud established his kingdom despite British opposition, as he was being bombed from the air by the British. Today’s regional government was established under a no-fly zone set up by the British and others.”
Prodded further on why Sheikh Mahmud’s family has stayed out of politics, he says: “We know what it is to be a Kurd. We don’t need to be a member of a party to be Kurdish.”
The jibe is aimed at the two main political parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – that have largely dominated the political landscape since the 1950s, having led the armed resistance against the British Mandate and later, the Baathist regime.
Regardless of who’s in charge in Erbil, and the ongoing political rivalry between the two parties, Hafeed dogmatically believes the time has come for an independent Kurdistan.
“Our area is rich in natural resources and we have a strategic importance, because of our borders with Iran, Turkey and Syria. They want us to be something now,” he says.
Hafeed – who has penned a book entitled “Kurdistan as and within the international plan beginning from south” (2012) – says Sykes-Picot lasted 100 years and now it’s time for change.
“Next year, on May 16, they will want to change the map,” he prophesies. “Western powers want to change the map again, put another treaty in place, at another Congress of Peace, and they’ll redraw the map.”
There are others who share Hafeed’s conviction about the redrawing of the borders, if not his optimism for an independent Kurdistan.
“The Western powers have already decided how all this is going to end. The borders of the new map have already been drawn up,” says Dana Qadir, a businessman based in Sulaimania.
“This is about carving out a state for the Sunnis, and the Kurdish Peshmerga are spilling their blood for it. The poorest of our people are fighting someone else’s war again…”
Novelist Rauf Behgard compares the prevailing mood in the Iraqi Kurdish region to that of Austria-Hungary in the early 1900s as per the writings of Franz Kafka. Behgard, who also serves as head of the Sardam Publishing House, says this is a time of crisis for both the Kurdish identity and politics. His soon to be released anthology of short stories, entitled “Slaw Kafka” (Dear Kafka), is meant to show how Kafkaesque themes now pervade all aspects of Kurdish life – whether feelings of alienation from society, or labyrinths of bureaucracy.
“People in Kurdistan are afraid now, just as people in Austria-Hungary were then, when Kafka was writing,” he says. “That’s why I decided to allude to Kafka when writing my short stories set in Kurdistan. The parallels are many.”
He adds: “Compare the mood now, with the mood 10 years ago. You must understand that after the 1991 [Kurdish] uprising, when the Peshmerga came down from the mountains, they were received as angels from the sky who had come to liberate Kurdistan from the Baathist regime. We were euphoric and appreciative. But we slowly discovered that they would not be the solution to our problems. We gave them a chance, for years, until 2003, because we had come to believe that it was Saddam Hussein who was the greatest obstacle to our collective aspirations. But that period of hope quickly dissipated.”
Life under the KRG has brought stability, and some improvements to the infrastructure. But daily hardships persist, such as a chronic lack of electricity and recent budget problems repeatedly leaving civil servants unpaid for months. Erbil’s squabbling with Baghdad over oil revenues, internal disputes among the Kurdish parties and now the war against ISIL have all contributed to the stagnating economy.
As a result, Behgard says many Kurds today find themselves questioning everything they once believed in and thousands are trying to leave the region for Europe or the United States.
“There is a sense of disillusionment,” he says.
Under these circumstances, few in the know believe that an independent Kurdistan is in the cards any time soon.
One politician and member of the Goran (Change) Party, an offshoot of the PUK, dismissed any notion of independence for the time being.
“Let’s get our house in order first,” he said. “We have a presidential crisis to solve, major economic problems and a war going on. This is not the time to discuss independence.”
Until then, the Kurds continue to look back on the kingdom that once was, and take pride in having tried.