Author: Garabet K. Moumdjian - E-mail
V. THE CONSTITUTIONAL PERIOD, WORLD WAR I AND THE QUESTION OF ARMENIAN AND KURDISH INDEPENDENCE (1908-1920)
The Ottoman Constitution was reinstated on the tenth of July 1908. A season of festivity spread throughout the empire. Oppressed nationalities and minorities thought that the constitution would bring them liberty, justice and freedom. Moreover, it was generally thought that the new constitutional government would condemn the brutal policies of the Hamidian regime and initiate era of equality. Armenians also entertained the hope that the constitutional was their long awaited salvation, and that under the new, constitutional government, they would reclaim and even repossess their
lands. As Christian subjects of the empire, Armenians would now be relieved from heavy direct taxation by the central government and indirect levies by Kurdish chieftains.
For the Kurds, the new government structure was something incomprehensible. Rumors indicated that the centuries old feudal system and customs would come to a halt. This was outrageous, since yesterday’s raya (servant) Christians would stand up and demand their rights, their lands, and their rectitude. Diverse interpretations of the established governmental character created an even stronger division and enmity between Armenians and Kurds.
Armenians advocated the Constitution. They remained a pro-constitutional element and protected it until late in 1913, when, in reality, events such as the 1909 massacres in Adana strongly indicated that constitutional Turkey was not the just and ideal state which Armenians believed it to be. Until 1913, and even after, Armenian parties and especially the A.R.F. continued to adhere to a policy of cooperation with the constitutional Young Turk government. They primarily remained an ally of the Ittihad Ve Terraki Firkasi (Union and Progress Party) Turkish party.
Kurds, on the other hand, adamantly remained a pro-sultan element and freely advocated the restoration of feudal-tribal life in the Eastern vilayets of Anatolia and Kurdistan.
The constitution did however bring enlightenment to some Kurds, in and around Istanbul. As was mentioned before, a small Kurdish intelligentsia had developed in the capital. Kurdish intellectuals took upon themselves the tedious and difficult task of educating he Kurdish masses and enlightening them with the idea of liberalism. They realized that Kurds could not continue to live in the Middle ages when the world was changing rapidly. Kurdish intellectuals ultimately aspired for the creation of a Kurdish nation as the first step towards the establishment of Kurdistan.
A. The First Kurdish Organizations
One of the most important reasons behind the failure of the Kurdish rebellions movements of the nineteenth century was the absence of political parties and their programs, which would have enhanced the popular basis of those movements.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, a few Kurdish students had the privilege of attending European universities and acquiring Western education. In Europe Kurdish students were introduced to the nationalistic and liberal ideologies of the day. They brought those notions with them when they returned home. It is ironic to think that after all it was the Ottoman government that sent scores of Turkish and Kurdish youth to study aboard. Engulfed by the new ideologies, those returning intellectuals were not to sit still. Actually, a true process of change had started to ferment in
the Ottoman capital. The reforms earlier in the century had culminated in the edicts of Hatti Sharif and Hatti Humayun, the labor of love of European educated Ottoman reformists who became known as the “Young Ottomans.” The sultan grudgingly ratified those edicts, bowing to the will of the Turkish (and Kurdish) intelligentsia, whose members had by now assumed important positions within the governmental structure. The reform process came to a halt, however, when Sultan Abdul Hamid II ascended the throne in the wake of the 1876-1878 Russo-Turkish war. It was to restart again in
1908, this time by the new Ittihadist “Young Turk” intelligentsia, which had inherited the reformist and liberalist ideologies of its predecessor.
After 1908, many Kurdish intellectuals were assigned to high governmental positions. They motivated many Kurdish students to enter the University of Istanbul and the Military Academy. Those educational institutions had their doors open to Kurds since 1870. However, they were exclusive to sons of prominent Kurdish chieftains. Moreover, Kurds attending those institutions were specially prepared to assume leading positions within the Kurdish nobility and, at the same time, become obedient followers of the sultan.
Yet things were changing by the end of the nineteenth century. According to Kendal:
“In Istanbul of the turn of the century a city bubbling with revolutionary and nationalistic agitation, these privileged few [Kurdish intellectuals, G.M.] became familiar with European bourgeois ideas. They befriended liberal Kurdish nationalists. Like the intellectuals of other nations, they launched journals and associations, both clandestine and legal.”
Until the Young Turk coup d’etat of 1908, Kurdish nationalists worked among various other organizations. Some of them even held important positions within the framework of the Ittihad Ve Terakki Party. In April of 1898, Midhad Bey, son of Amir Bedir Khan, published the first Kurdish bilingual journal (Kurdish and Turkish). This periodical published articles dealing with cultural and educational issues in general. Soon it became “an important reviving tool for the Kurdish national sentiments.” The pages of the publication represented a real platform for Kurdish
intellectuals. Abdul Rahman succeeded his brother, Midhat, as chief editor. Because of the tight political atmosphere, which preceded the first global war, he relocated the periodical to Geneva. Here Abdul Rahman came into contact with the editorial staff of the A.R.F. organ, Droshak. He published his illustrious article “Kurtlere Khitap” which was mentioned earlier. The newspaper offices then moved to London. But in 1908, with the Young Turks in power, the periodical and its editor were repatriated to Istanbul. After a while, Sureya Bedir Khan became the editor of the periodical.
After the war, she relocated to Cairo where she published it under the name “Kurdistan”. The newspaper was by then accepted as the organ of the Kurdish National Movement and it served the cause up to the days of the Ararat Rebellion (1929-1931).
From the beginning, the Kurdish nationalists took their stand beside the Young Turks. They argued that with Turkish “revolutionaries” in power the demands of Kurdish nationalists would be seriously taken into consideration. Grasping the opportunity that the 1908 constitutional movement provided, some prominent Kurdish nationalists such as Ali Bedir Khan Bey, General Sharif Pasha, and Sheik Abdul Kadir (son of the new Ottoman Parliament’s president, Sheik Obeidullah, organized the Taali Ve Terakki Kurdistan (Recovery And Progress Of Kurdistan)
group. Soon after they started publishing the Kurt Teavun Ve Terakki Gazetesi (Gazette of Kurdish Mutual Aid And Progress) journal in Turkish. The periodical became the organ of the newly founded organization. It was also recognized as the first legal Kurdish newspaper in Turkey. Moreover, it enjoyed ample popularity within the Kurdish community of Istanbul.
According to Kendal, the Kurdish Cultural and Education Organization, Kurt Neshri Maarif Jemiyeti (Kurdish Committee For The Advancement of Learning) was formed as a subsidiary of the Taali Ve Terakki Kurdistan. This institution undertook the difficult task of establishing, and also operating, the first Kurdish school in Istanbul, located in the Tchemberli quarter.
Contrary to the fact that the Taali Ve Terakki Kurdistan did not possess any clear political program, ideology, or a distinguished organizational machine, it was able to unite Kurdish intellectuals and nationalists under its banner. With its cultural and educational achievements, the organization spread the torch of education social understanding in the various parts of Kurdistan and among its numerous clans. However, the corruption of its leadership quickened the disintegration of the organization. Sheik Abdul Kadir left and established his own liberal gazette, the Hetawe Kurd
(the Kurdish Sun), which became a new nexus of Kurdish nationalist and intellectual agitation.
Kendal writes in this regard that:
“…While Kurdish activities marked time [sick] in Istanbul, Kurdistan itself was beginning to awaken to modern political life. Young militants and intellectuals set up Kurdish clubs (Kurt Kulupleri) in the main urban centers, notably Bitlis, Diarbekir, Mush, Erzerum, and Musul. The Mush club, for example, had established contact with the main tribes of the vilayet. When it opened at the end of 1908, the Bitlis club had seven hundred names on its roster. The clubs were organized on semi-military lines derived from the young Turks, who had themselves cloned the model of the
Italian Carbonari. These clubs indubitably signaled the start of an organized political struggle in Kurdistan and clearly constituted a first attempt at setting a modern political organization.”
After defeating Abdul Hamid, new policies were formulated within the Young Turk leadership. Some felt that they could now continue without the help or cooperation of the non-Turkish nationalist and intellectual elements. As a result, of this restrictive policy, existing non-Turk schools and organizations were closed, and publications were banned. These measures were decisive blows to the dreams of Armenians, Kurds, and other minorities. As a direct consequence of these policies, many Kurdish intellectuals and nationalists preferred exile to escape imprisonment. Most of the newly
established Kurdish organizations vanished. Only a handful continued to work underground and prepare for the future.
Meanwhile, even with the Young Turks in power, Kurdistan was not a peaceful place. Rebellions resurfaced as early as 1909. The two new centers of agitation were Dersim and Musul, where Sheik Mahmud Barzandji demanded an unconditional withdrawal of all Ottoman forces. The Young Turk government not only did not pull its armies back from Musul, but even reinforced them with new regiments, declared war on Barzandji, destroyed his movement as well as many Kurdish towns and villages that had joined the rebellion.
Another minor rebellion was staged at the outbreak of World War I in 1914. This rebellion started in Bitlis under the leadership of Mulla Selim. He incited the Kurdish population of the city against the Turkish vali (governor) and his forces. In two days the rebels captured the whole city. However, they had to retreat against the arriving Turkish regiments, which reoccupied Bitlis and persecuted the perpetrators of the rebellion. As for the rebel leader, Mulla Salim, he sought refuge in the Russian consulate of the city.
After 1909, Kurdish nationalists themselves embarked on seeking relations with Armenians and Arabs. It is necessary to underline here that the Ittihadist government was encountering an Arab uprising at the southernmost corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Sheik Yahia Said was the leader of this Arab rebellion in the Yemen. He compelled the Young Turk government to change its policies of aggressions against the Kurds to focus its attention on this Arab threat. In 1912, permission was granted to the Kiviya Kurd (Kurdish Hope)--organized
secretly in 1910-- to operate legally. Hassan Motki, who was a member of the Ottoman Parliament, led this organization. It operated for two years with a dynamic program. However, it too dissolved in the beginning of the First World War. Speaking about this “dynamic” period in the Kurdish national movement, Sasuni quotes that:
“The Kurdish intellectuals had finally found the missing cultural, educational and political keys, without which Kurdish unity was impossibility. Unfortunately, Kurdish intellectuals assumed governmental and private sector careers. Some became representatives in the Ottoman Parliaments. Others became senators in the upper house of parliament. Still others became governmental officials, and military leaders. They, however, enjoyed the benefits of these careers personally. Kurds remained without a united literature, or a united alphabet. Kurdistan was still
deprived of education. The few neophyte movements in this regard in Istanbul did no produce any echoes in the distant and isolated parts of Kurdistan. The nationalistic movement was gradually dithered and the Kurdish masses continued their conservative way of life.
Kurdish intellectuals were not totally responsible for the failure of this fledging Kurdish awakening. These were dangerous times that preceded the First World War. During this global conflict many such movements were incapacitated. The Kurdish loss was twofold. Some Kurdish territories became the battlefields of long and exhausting campaigns between the Turkish and the Entente armies. Eventually, it was impossible to bring any sort of organization--let alone nationalistic motivation-- into such war-torn territories. On the other hand, Kurdish
intellectuals living in Istanbul were silenced, as were intellectuals of other minorities. They were unable to speak out to aid their brothers in the homeland. It has been reported, however, that some Kurdish intellectuals had secret ties with their kin in the interior. These ties were the reason behind some major Kurdish revolts during and after the war.
During the first global war, Kurds retained their negative attitudes towards Armenians. Under the constitutional government, Armenian-Kurdish relations – except those on the intellectual level—were almost non-existing. The Young Turks preferred to deal with Armenian and Kurdish nationalists separately. By this token (of liberalism), the A.R.F. became a legal, constitutional party thus attaining its seats in the newly establish Ottoman Parliament, beside those of the Kurds and other minorities. No one suspected that this liberal and to some extent
“revolutionary” administration could after only a few years organize the first genocide of the century.
Divesting from all relations with the Kurds caused Armenians a great deal of suffering. Kurds became the real tools of extermination during the Armenian massacres. History revealed once again that Kurdish tribal hordes could still be employed to butcher innocent Armenians during their march into the Syrian desert.
B. The First World War Period.
Directed by the powerful German Empire, and with dreams of reinstituting Ottoman Might and integrity, the Young Turk triumvirate (Enver, Talaat, Jemal, who had consolidated power in 1912) pushed Turkey into the war. The primary objective was the creation of the Turan, the united empire of all Trukic tribes and peoples. As a new ideology Zia Gokalp, Ahmed Akchura and other ultra nationalist, racist Turkish intellectuals, who had praised the idea of Tuan incessantly in their literature, formulated Pan-Turkism.
Under the cove of the war, the Ittihadist Turkish government undertook the realization of the covert goals of Pan-Turkism. It organized and executed the extermination of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, simply because they were a geographical, historical, and physical hurdle against the creation of Turan. The whole genocidal scenario was prepared in advance. The result was the punishment of some one and one half million Armenians. Moreover, the Eastern, i.e. Armenians, vilayets of the empire was emptied from their original inhabitants. All this was
accomplished just to remove the “obstacle’ that separated the Turks of the Ottoman Empire from their ethnic brethren in Azarbaijian and Central Asia. Ironically, Kurdish sources observe that some seven hundred thousands Kurds perished during this same period. This Kurdish death toll is somewhat questionable. The Young Turk government of the day instructed the feeble Sultan
Rashid to order the people that the extermination Armenians was tantamount to a Jihad, a holy war, against infidel Christians. This was done to secure the cooperation of non-Turkic, Muslim elements of the empire such as the Kurds. It follows that the Kurds assumed an active role in the obliteration of the Armenians by themselves becoming the executioners (and not the “victims” as Kendal or other Kurdish historians desperately try to argue. Therefore, it is plausible to say that Kurdish casualties of war (obviously much lesser than the number given above) occurred because of civilian
deaths during the battles which took place in Kurdistan, and also among the ranks of the Kurdish soldiers serving in the Ottoman armies on the various battlefronts.
It is unimaginable how wars affect people and their fates. Sasuni mentions that:
“… Because of the war, huge Turkish armies were garrisoned in Armenia. The nationalist movement came to a halt, and all forms of civil life changed. All were frightened. And everyone tried to escape with his head. Armenians and Kurdish national volition was crushed. All forms of Armenian-Kurdish relations were uprooted. Military operations became frequent, and Turks seemed to know how to operate in an organized fashion. On the other hand, Armenians were left to their fate. They were subjugated and dealt with according to the military rule which gave
unlimited power to the leaders of the Turkish armies.”
Armenians and Kurds had to enlist into the Ottoman army. The draft law stated that all competent males between the ages of eighteen and forty must enlist as regular soldiers. Many Kurds circumvented the problem by paying the badali askariye (military exemption fee). On the other hand, poor Armenian peasants had to forcibly join the army because of lack of funds. They were enlisted and sent to a certain death if not on the battlefronts (where they were stationed on the advanced battle lines) then in the numerous labor camps, which were an important
element in the process of the obliteration of the Armenian labor battalions. Even in the few locals were Armenians organized self defense battles, Kurds helped the government by weakening Armenian defenses through their continuous raids. Such were the cases Sasun, Van, Shadakh Khnus, Daron, and Bitlis. Only Van was spared total annihilation because it was able to
defend itself until the arrival of the advancing Russian armies and the Armenian Volunteer Regiments (Haygagan Gamavoragan Kunter). But on the whole, Kurds massacred Armenians with their own hands in Sasun, Daron, Bitlis, and the remote environs of Van.
It must be stated, however, that in some areas of Southern Kurdistan, and especially in Dersim, Kurds not only did not participate in the war efforts or the Armenian massacres, but also even confronted Turks as their enemies. On the other hand, some Northern Kurdish tribes came into contact with the advancing Russian armies and fought alongside against the Turkish
armies headed by Enver Pasha, minister of war of the Ittihad government.
Russia, for its part, gave rosy promises to Kurdish tribes that helped her during the war. By securing the cooperation of Armenians and Northern Kurdish tribes, Russia aimed at annexing Armenia and Kurdistan as part of its colonizing policies. Russia’s European allies had similar aims for different areas of the Ottoman Empire. This imperialist mood was apparent in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 between France, Great Britain, and Russia. According to this treaty, the three powers divided the Caucasus and the Middle East between
themselves (Russia later abandoned the treaty when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. Lenin even uncovered all the secret negotiations pertaining to the agreement and its content).
The rapid advance of the Russian armies did protect Armenian lives in Van and some other areas of Western Armenia. Soon Armenian refugee relocation tasks were underway with the purpose of saving the lives of those who were hiding in the mountains and valleys. In the Southern territories, some Armenian families had found refuge near the Kurdish tribes that had not participated in the war or the Armenian massacres. Some Kurds had even helped and gave shelter to Armenian families in Sasun. In Dersim frightened Armenians lived with the Kurdish tribes and
clans of the remote mountains. Here, old Kurdish customs still prevailed. Kurds did not want to break their centuries old neighborly ties with Armenians. They helped their Armenian brethren in their times of utmost need.
Most useful in helping Armenians were the Kurdish tribes of Northern Syria. They protected those Armenians who escaped the death marches in the North Syrian desert. As an eyewitness to these events Sasuni cities:
“I personally was interested in this matter (the Kurdish tribes of Northern Syria helping the Armenians). I was able to confirm that during 1915-1917 many Kurdish tribal leaders were questioned and even tortured by Ottoman authorities, because they had given refuge to Armenians by keeping them in their tribes, under the disguise of Kurdish clothing, so as not to arouse any suspicions.”
It is also to be noted that during the first four months of 1915-- the most active months of the Armenian massacres--Kurdish rayas (serfs) were the greatest tool in the ensuing Armenian Mayhem. The government fully utilized the poor and greedy Kurdish peasants to kill and loot Armenians during the death marches.
What was the result of all this? In 1916, Kurds finally realized that they had actually become the tools of the Ittihad policies. Obviously Armenia was uprooted and soon they, the Kurds, would face a similar fate. It was already too late. But even in those difficult days of self-realization, unity did not find fertile basis among the Kurdish tribes. Kurds remained divided, and they were transformed to a minority even in their own homeland. After 1915, the Ittihad government had no reason to fear Armenian-Kurdish collaboration. Everything seemed to be
ready for the second phase of the Pan-Turkic plan--to bury the Kurdish issue of autonomy.
The Turkish government first made sure that Kurds would never remain a majority on their lands. Massive immigration of Kurds to the remote parts of Anatolia was organized. In the Eastern vilayets, Kurds statistically were reduced to about five percent of the total population. Not content with these measures, the government herded Kurdish leaders and active youth into exile to the Western districts of the empire. Kurdish “nationalists” were thus deprived of their popular basis. According to Sasuni, the exile law had a secret article according to which:
“All Turkish civil and military authorities must see to it that the exiled Kurds encounter the UTMOST DIFFICULTY [G.M.] en-route, in other word, it was suggested that the exiled should, if possible, be massacred like the Armenians before them.”
Although firm on its decision, the Turkish government did no seek the total obliteration of the Kurds. It wanted to relocate them to other areas and to start the process of their Turkification. Even with such Turkish policies in action, Kurds dwelling in the Russian occupied territories of the empire kept on helping the defeated Turkish government. When the Russian armies retreated in 1917, Armenians in Van and its vicinity had to retreat with them to the Caucasus. Kurds now joined forces with the incoming Turkish army. Sasuni states that on the Pergri
Bridge alone Kurds massacred about four thousand Armenians and threw their bodies into the river. A.R.F. leaders tried to negotiate with the Kurds even before the Russian retreat, when there was no actual sign of such a withdrawal. The purpose of this approach was to make Kurds understand that Armenians were willing to forget the past for the sake of cooperation and mutual understanding. Sasuni, who was a participant in the events and also a member of the negotiating team, writes:
“I myself conducted part of these negotiations. I invented forty Kurdish leaders in January of 1918 to speak to them about restoring relations. This could be considered the first Armenian-Kurdish convention of this time…. Some of the leaders promised to be friendly, but the majority obviously showed the enmity and hatred that was hidden deep in their hearts….In February, when the advancing Turkish troops reached Van, those same Kurdish leaders joined them and persecuted fleeing Armenians and even massacred many of them.”
C. Defeat and Victory: The Treaties of Sevres And Lausanne
The Ottoman Empire surrendered in October of 1918, by singing the Mudros Armistice. This not only saved Turkey from being totally conquered by the Entente, but it even created a chance of coming out of the war with only partial losses and an obligation to sign a peace treaty that would in the long run conserve the integrity of the new Turkish State. The Pan-Turkic dreams of the Ittihadists were about to cost the total loss of the empire. The British fleet was stationed in the Bosphorus. English, French, Italian, and Greek troops
occupied big chunks of Turkish territory. The huge Ottoman Empire was drastically reduced. Only Anatolia and the southern shores of the Black Sea remained under its control.
The period between October of 1918 and June of 1919 was therefore an unprecedented opportunity for Kurds to establish their national homeland. It might be argued with some certainly that this opportunity could have been extended even to 1921, since during those three critical years Turkey was experiencing a potentially volatile political vacuum.
The whole country was in a total state of anarchy and chaos. The Ittihadist government had fled; the Sultan’s rule did no go beyond the boundaries of the capital, Istanbul; the remnants of what used to be the Ottoman army were disintegrating; the commanders and officers were fleeing to save their own lives. On the other hand, Russia was encountering severe internal problems. Those were exacerbated by the Bolshevik takeover of the government in October of 1917. The new rulers of Russia cut off its ties with the Entente powers; signed the shameful surrender treaty of Brest Litovsk with
Germany; called their armies home. Russia was now a secluded state trying to cope with the tyranny of the new Communist regime. The revolutionary government, under the leadership of Lenin, abandoned all previous Tsarist policies. This also meant that for the time being communist Russia was not interested in the colonizing policies of its predecessor of which Kurdistan was an essential part, in accord with the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.
The Persian army too was in a state of disintegration. It so happened that all three powers, Turkey, Russia, and Iran were engulfed in internal problems and strife. Europe was unable to interfere. The Kurds could have simply grasped the opportunity to declare the independence of their national homeland.
In May 1918, the three Caucasian states of Georgia, Azarbaijian, and Armenia declared their independence. These states almost immediately enjoyed the recognition of Europe and the United States as well as their economic aid. Europe had to show a positive image to those new republics, because they were to assume the role of natural barriers against Communist Russia. All Kurds had to do was to follow in the footsteps of the Armenians and to declare their sovereignty. Even if European powers like France or England were opposed to such a declaration (rather
unlikely at the time), they were unable to stop it from happening. In fact, their withdrawal from Aintab and Urfa (both in Cilicia) proves this. It must be noted here that France and Britain were at odds in their Caucasian and Middle Eastern policies. England was trying desperately to reach the oil fields of Musul – scientific research proved to the British
that those fields were rich in crude oil. England had kept this a secret from France. It was for this reason that the British seemed ready to negotiate with the Kurds for the establishment of a free and independent Kurdistan. France also approached the Kurds in this direction. What France wanted was a Kurdistan under French mandate. So all that Kurdish leaders had to do was to negotiate with the English and the French simultaneously and to make them agree to the idea of an independent Kurdish state.
However, what Kurds were lacking was their own collective force. There were no Armenians in eastern Anatolia to help this Kurdish move. Moreover, the fledgling Armenian Republic could in no way help the Kurdish cause of independence.
As in the past, there was no hope of the formation of a United Kurdish front, let alone an independent Kurdish state. It was really embarrassing to be unable of grasping such a historic opportunity. The question implies itself. Why didn’t the Kurds unite even when confronted with such an opportunity? In 1919, the hero of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, then an officer in the Turkish army in Istanbul, was sent on a mission to the Eastern vilayets. Arriving in Sivas, Kemal severed all ties with the central government in Istanbul and originated a new
movement to reorganize Turkey as a modern republic. He was able to gather an army of thirty five thousand men (mostly Kurds). Kurdish chieftains could have easily destroyed Kemal and his forces. Some gave serious thought to crushing the new Kemalist army. However, once again Kurdish leaders were the “victims” of British diplomacy, which wanted to use Kemal as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the central Turkish government.
Sasuni writes that in August 1919, prominent Kurdish leaders conducted a meeting in Malatia. Speaking about this meeting, he quotes a paragraph from a Kurdish publication that appeared in the United States under the title “The Case of Kurdistan Against Turkey” (published by the Kurdish National Organization) which states:
“During this time, concern and fear led Kurdish leaders to conduct a meeting in Kahta, near Malatia. The participants decided to join forces and confront the new Turkish Nationalist Movement of Mustafa Kemal. But Col. Bill (surname unknown) of the British Intelligence Bureau of Aleppo appeared at the meeting, and in the name of his government asked the chieftains to keep their silence, and, most importantly, not to organize any military campaign against Kemal and his forces. The Colonel also assured the Kurdish leaders that
the Kurdish Question was to be solved in a just way by the Allied Power.”
It seems that England once more stood as the protector of Turkish integrity. By so doing it extinguished any new hopes of Kurdish independence. But, most of all, England allowed Kemal’s movement to flourish and gain more firm ground. This proved to be a disaster not only for Kurds but also for Armenians. In the long run, Kemal’s momentum hurt even Britain’s policies in the Levant. The new Turkey immerging under the leadership of Kemal regarded Britain as an enemy and didn’t act in a manner which was agreeable or pleasing to England.
Yet one is compelled to think of the reasons behind this pro-Kemal British tactic. The question that asserts itself here is why the Kurdish leaders who were gathered in Malatia accepted the English terms so quickly. According to Kurdish intellectuals, Kurdish leaders were certain that their country’s independence was dependent on English and French approval. In other words, almost all of the Middle Eastern states that immerged during this time or shortly afterwards were either British or French protectorates or mandates. Kurds knew that if they were to
have their independence, then most probably they were to have that under an English mandate. For this reason they were obliged to accept all English demands even if they were opposed to it. Yet what Kurds did not know was the bitter fact that neither England nor France was interested in having a mandate over Kurdistan. Moreover, they were absolutely against antagonizing Kemal for such a venture. France was the first to act and to sign a treaty of friendship and economic exchange and even cooperation with Kemal in as early as 1920, (the Ankara Agreement). Moreover, Most of the participants in
the Malatia Convention were not nationalists or radical intellectuals, but rather conservative and religious sheiks. They were always influenced by the British policies, which was brought to them by British consuls.
The most powerful organization in Kurdish society was the Kurd Istiqlal Jemiyeti (Committee of Kurdish Independence). It had assumed direct talks with Kemal. Some of its members even advocated the nationalistic cause of the Turkish hero. Anyway, this organization became the victim of Kemal’s Milli Movement. Late in 1921, one hundred and ten of its radical members (who detested the close ties with the Kemalist Movement) were sentenced to death. They were either hanged or put in front of firing squads. The failure of the Khata meeting and the accumulating mistakes of the Kurdish leadership gave Kemal the opportunity to strengthen his posture. Once he accomplished this, he moved to the offensive. He fought the Kurdish nationalist elements furiously. Kemal saw in them the capacity of becoming a real threat to the new Turkish republic that he was trying to establish.
Meanwhile, preparations for the Peace Conference were underway early in 1919. Before speaking about the Paris Peace Conference, it is important to give a brief description about the relations and the negotiations that occurred between the two Armenian Delegations and the Kurdish Commission in Paris in the months that preceded the Peace Conference. These negotiations lasted until August 10, 1920, the date on which the Treaty of Serves was signed.
For a period of almost a year between 1919 and 1920, Armenian and Kurdish delegates continued their political and diplomatic “skirmishes” in Paris over disputed borders and overlapping territories. During this same time, in Anatolia, Kemal continued to grow stronger and to constitute the basis of his new Republic. In the early stages, no one thought seriously about Kemal or his feeble movement. This gave the Turkish nationalist a free hand. By the time the Peace Treaty was ready to be signed, Kemal came forth as a capable and to some extent strong leader,
which wanted to definitely be counted as a player in the game. European powers now had to face this new reality imposed by Kemal. They were negotiating with the delegates of a defeated Ottoman Empire, whereas real power in Turkey was in the hands of the young and energetic Mustafa Kemal.
The Kurdish Delegation in Paris was headed by Sherif Pasha who, according to Sasuni, “still kept the character of an Ottoman official and even acted in accordance to that psychology.” He was always confused and unable to reach an agreement. He could not argue effectively. Sherif Pasha did no have a clear picture of the geographic boundaries of an independent Kurdistan. He was unable to define its borders or the territories that he wanted to be included within the envisioned Kurdish state.
The long and tedious negotiations finally resulted in an agreement between the Armenian and the Kurdish delegations. The central theme of this agreement was that the two people wanted to be free from oppressive Turkish rule. The problem of the disputed territories and borders were not solved. They were sent back to the Peace Conference to be decided over.
In an official letter addressed to the Peace Conference and signed by the two delegations, Armenians and Kurds asked for the establishment of independent Armenian and Kurdish states, leaving the problem of disputed territories in Vaspurakan and elsewhere to the discretion of the Peace Conference.
The Armenian-Kurdish negotiations and the matter of the disputed territories met the protests of Armenians everywhere. Some though that too many concessions were being made in order to reach a compromise with the Kurds. The first such protestor was the Armenian Ambassador to Washington D.C., Armen Karo (Karekin Pastermajian). Armenians had two delegations in Paris; Avetis Aharonian, the representative of the Republic of Armenia, headed one, Boghos Nubar Pasha headed the second. It represented Western and Cilician Armenians (it was
this delegation that demanded an Armenia “from sea unto sea” with Cilician territories included within the future Armenian republic (this in turn unleashed a sarcastic campaign in the European and especially the French media about an “Armenian Empire”). The “concessions” issue became the subject of hot debates in the Armenian diasporan media itself. This compelled the two Armenian delegations to publish a joint communiqué in order to clarify the issue and prove that the agreement in no way jeopardized Armenian demands.
Sherif Pasha did not remain as the head of the Kurdish delegation until the end of the Peace Conference. He declared that he opposed the Armenian-Kurdish agreement that he himself had signed. After his departure from Paris, Kurds continued their lobbying but had a very limited and unorganized presence in the diplomatic circles of the Peace Conference.
On August 10, 1920, a Peace Treaty was singed in Severs. The representative of Kemal, the real power in Anatolia, was not present. The delegate of the feeble sultan who had no real power in the Anatolian interior presented Turkey. As a matter of fact, his rule encompassed only the capital Istanbul, and some of its suburbs. During the Conference Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States of America put his famous sixteen points concerning the right of people to decide their futures and freedom on the discussion table. President Wilson
himself drew the borders of the free and independent Republic of Armenia. As for the question of Kurdish independence, articles 62, 63, and 64 of the treaty addressed that issue.
Article 62 stated that a committee formed from the representatives of the three Entente powers France, England, and Italy, was to reside in Istanbul and was in a matter of six months prepare a program of autonomy in the regions inhabited by the Kurds. This offered a partial solution to the question of Kurdish independence. Kurds were outraged. According to them, the newly established Armenian Republic had acquired territories that were considered theirs. Kendal argues that President Wilson annexed to Armenia lands that were inhabited by Kurds in Mush,
Erzinjan, Bingeol, Bitlis, Van, Gharakilise, Iktir, and Erzerum. This is a topic of hot debate. It is clear that by 1920, and mostly due to the Armenian massacres during the war, those Armenian territories were emptied from their original Armenian inhabitants. Was it really possible to translate the ownership of such disputed territories by the mere fact that after the
massacres and the deportation of Armenians Kurds had become a majority in those areas? Nevertheless, even this Kurdish majority was questionable at the time, since with the blessings of the new Kemalist government massive numbers of Turkish immigrants from the Balkans and the Caucasus were being dumped into those areas. However, for the record it must be stated that culturally, ethnically, and historically these disputed lands represented the ancient homeland of the Armenian nation who lived there as an undisputed majority for over two millennia enduring Turkish, Kurdish, Cherkez, and
other immigrations organized by the various Ottoman sultans.
Nevertheless, the Treaty of Severe was destined to fail even before its ink was dried. Kemal was to grow and eventually give a decisive blow to the Allied Powers and their friends, the Greek, who was entrusted with the execution of the ill-fated treaty.
Kemal gathered his forces and first blockaded the Greek advance. Himself moving to the offensive he defeated the outnumbering Greek armies near Izmir and literally threw them into the Black Sea under the very eyes of the British fleet, which stood silently during the whole unfolding “drama.” Kemal literally burned the seaport city of Izmir. Thousands of civilians (including many Armenians who had returned home encouraged by the Allied Powers) were either burned or put at the mercy of the sea.
By new Kemal’s position was that of a strong man. He was now ready to negotiate with Europe according to his own terms. The Treaty of Severe was to be nulled. Another was singed at Laussane in 1923. Armenian and Kurdish independence was totally jeopardized, since Kemal insisted that Turkish sovereignty must be reinstated over all of Anatolia. The Entente powers had to agree in order to gain Kemal as an ally rather then an enemy who was certain to fall into the lap of Communist Russia. Kemal was promised help from Moscow too. His position was a favorable
one. He had all the cards in his hands and he played expertly. By so doing he constituted the cornerstone of a new phase of relations with Europe.
After 1921, the A.R.F. leaders tried once more to establish relations with the Kurds, since now Armenians and Kurds represented the only two people who still had demands from republican Turkey. In 1924, an agreement was reached with the Kurdish National Committee. Soon after, in 1925, a new Kurdish rebellion burst out on Dersim under the leadership of Sheik Said Ali. The Sheik gathered the Kurdish nationalists under his flag and raised arms against the Turkish oppressor, which this time was represented by the new Kemalist Republic.
Chaliand, People Without, p. 34.
Jalil, Jalali, “Bitlisi 1914 Tvi Krtagan Apstambutiune Hay Mamuli Gnahatmamb,” Patmabanasirakan Handes, Erevan, 1985, # 4, pp. 127-130.
Sasuni, Kurt Azgayin Sharzhumnere, p. 206.
Chaliand, People Without, p. 37. Zia Gukalp, the exponent of Pan-Turanism or Pan-Turkism, was from Diarbekir. He was able to influence the Young Turks with his extremely poetic, yet at the same time politically extremist literature. The
leaders of the Young Turks became his ardent followers. Also important in this regard was Ahmed Akchura, another proponent of Pan-Turkism, whose writing gained him a following within the ranks of the Young Turks.
Chaliand, People Without, p. 37.
Sasuni, “Kurteru Ev Hayeru Azatagrakan,” p. 134.
When Turks and Kurds were drafted into the army, the former took part in the Armenian Conscription Committees, while the latter joined the Hamidiye bands, thus remaining in their own territory or region. As for the Armenian villagers, it was almost
impossible for them to pay the “Badali Askariye,” (conscription exemption fee or tax) because, simply put; they could not afford it. A famous scenario was that Hamidiye bands would attack Armenian villages and rob the villagers just prior to the visit of the Conscription Committee officials. Unable to rescue their young men, they were dragged into the army to serve in remote areas, often in “work battalions.” On the other hand, searching for Armenian deserters was often enough for Turkish regular troops to surround Armenian villages and towns causing great hardship to the
inhabitants. Only the mountainous regions of Sasun remained exempt from military draft. While young Armenians from Mush, Van, Bitlis and other eastern vilayets were drafted only to join “work battalions” and then to be massacred once their roles were fulfilled.
Sasuni, “Kurteru Eva Hayeru Azatagrakan,” p. 135.
Chaliand, People Without, p. 38.
Sasuni, “Kurteru Eva Hayeru Azatagrakan,” pp. 135-136.
Chaliand, People Without, p. 39.
Sasuni, Kurt Azgayin Sharzhumnere, p. 231.
Ibid, pp. 234-235. Also see: Simon, Vrats'ian, A.R.F. Archives, # 34-2, Boston, Mass.
Vratsian was a leading A.R.F. figure. During the period of the Armenian Republic (1918-1920) he served twice as prime minister.
Vratsian, Archives, # 34-5. This document represents a copy of the original response that the two Armenian delegations sent to the Armenian newspapers of the day. Both delegations tried to make it clear that no concessions were made to the Kurds during
Sasuni, Kurt Azgayin Sharzhumnere, pp. 236-238. Also see: Chaliand, People Without, pp. 41-42.
Chaliand, People Without, p. 43.