The Heritage Of A Dismembered Caliphate: A Century Later

"The Lausanne Agreement was actually the first stamp of approval on the policy of ethnic cleansing"

The Heritage Of A Dismembered Caliphate: A Century Later

During the Turkish presidential election last May, Recep Tayyip Erdogan excited his supporters with one phrase: burying the Lausanne Treaty. At the same time, the Erdoğan party's rumour machine was spreading the illusion that the Lausanne Treaty will be automatically cancelled on its 100th anniversary, ie June 2023. This trick of Erdoğan, with the aim of inciting nationalist feelings in Turkish voters, was also a reminder of a dark chapter in the contemporary history of the Middle East. This is a history full of conspiracies, massacres, ethnic cleansing and betrayals that the Lausanne Agreement represents.

Britain, in cooperation with France and Italy, signed this agreement with the aim of containing the consequences of the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire or Caliphate, but it was the initial inspiration for the United States’ position.

At the end of the First World War, Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States at the time, published a declaration of 14 points. In this declaration, which was considered a plan for "permanent world peace," the United States pledged to strive for the "right to self-determination" of all nations liberated after the fall of the Austrian Empire and the Islamic Caliphate. At the Peace Conference in Versailles, France, the principle of self-determination for ‘nations’ freed from the Austrian Empire was quickly realised. But when it came to the ‘nations’ liberated from the Ottoman Caliphate, President Wilson had entered history and the new American leaders had adopted a policy of avoiding the troubled continents – Europe and Asia. Tsarist Russia also left the stage after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. As a result, Britain and France along with Italy, as a minor partner, were responsible for determining the fate of the territories of the Ottoman Caliphate.

Their general plan was to divide the remnants of the caliphate among themselves. A year after the Versailles conference, they imposed the Treaty of Sevres on the defeated and shaky Ottoman Caliphate. In that contract, there were shadows of the promise of ‘determining destiny’ that Wilson had made. Wilson, perhaps without realising it, promised to divide the mosaic of the Ottoman state into 8 or 10 countries: the Kurds, Armenians, Maronites, Druze, Assyrians and Chaldeans were supposed to achieve independence with the right to self-determination in their own countries. Wilson's neo-imperialist vision reduced the people of the Middle East and North Africa to the level of puppets to be played with; Dolls that each have their own flag, but move at the player's will. The first result of this ‘sustainable world peace’ plan in the Middle East was civil wars, the massacre of Armenians, Kurds, Druze, Assyrians and Chaldeans and the deportation of millions of people from their ancestral lands.

Since the shaky Ottoman Caliphate did not have the courage and strength to sign the Treaty of Sur, that treaty died a natural death. Three years later, it was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne. The balance of power had shifted in favour of the Ottomans, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The remnants of the Ottoman army were able to drive the invading Greek, Italian, French and British forces out of the occupied parts of the Anatolian peninsula. Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary at the time, accepted the fact that it was not in the empire's interest to continue the war with the newly born Turkey and proposed the Treaty of Lausanne. 

According to this agreement, Turkey, as the successor government of the Islamic Caliphate, renounced all its territorial claims on the Mesopotamia (Iraq), Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Kuwait, Hejaz and northern Yemen and instead was recognised as a new government in Asia Minor.

The history of this neo-colonial agreement is actually the history of ignorance and blind ambitions and betrayals and corruption of the local leaders of those lands. Curzon managed to make the Kurdish leaders agree to his plan by threats and persuasion. At the same time, Hijaz was also placed in the line with the help of Colonel Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). The French, in turn, had drawn the Christian leaders of Syria and Lebanon into line. In partitioning the Kurdish territories, Curzon managed to keep the oil-rich Mosul and Kirkuk regions for Britain and in return gave parts of eastern Anatolia, which had an Armenian majority, to the fledgling government of Atatürk.

In this sad opera, the Kurdish leaders in the remaining lands of the Ottoman Caliphate caused the greatest loss to their countrymen with their short-sightedness, corruption and inner stubbornness. During the First World War, Kurdish soldiers fought with exceptional bravery against the Western powers. While the Kurds constituted only 7% of the population of the Ottoman Caliphate in Asia at that time, by suffering more than 300,000 deaths, they accounted for nearly 15% of the total casualties of the Caliphate. The result of cooperation with the imperialist powers was the expulsion of 700,000 Kurds from their ancestral lands in Anatolia and more than 50,000 deaths in ethnic battles with Turks and Armenians. Curzon humiliated Britain's local ally in dividing the body of the Ottoman Caliphate with the famous line that "Kurds can always be rented, but never bought."

The British scheme of "giving out of the caliph's bag" eventually led to some sort of semi-independence for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Libya, albeit after years of British and French protectorate rule. The Maronites and Druze of Lebanon were also able to gain an important political role in their land within the framework of a clan system. Egypt achieved quasi-independence with the establishment of an Albanian dynasty and Libya was able to bring a local dynasty to power. In Yemen, the Zaidi Imamate gained its independence and Kuwait, under British support, began to form its own identity. Sudan achieved a kind of autonomy under the joint support of Britain and Egypt. Armenians finally got a mini-Armenia after large parts of their ancestral lands were cut off. The only nation that remained without a hat was the Kurdish one.

The mercenary behaviour of the Kurdish leaders at that time had darkened the image of the Kurds in the eyes of the Turks, Arabs and other ethnic groups. Those leaders sacrificed the interests of the nation to their personal interests. Many of them migrated to England after the dust of time settled, but the suspicion that Kurdish leaders are always ready to serve foreign powers remained.

The Lausanne Agreement was actually the first stamp of approval on the policy of ‘ethnic cleansing.’ The expulsion of more than a million Greeks from their ancestral villages and towns in Asia Minor and the expulsion of nearly a million Armenians from their land, along with the ‘ethnic cleansing’ against the Kurds in parts of Iraq and Syria, were models for ‘de-ethnicisation’ in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and in Myanmar this century.

In the hundred years that have passed since the Lausanne Treaty, various powers have used Kurdish leaders to put pressure on opponents or rivals in various cases. Britain used Kurdish leaders as figures to consolidate its dominance over Mesopotamia. In Syria, France sent the minorities against the Arab Muslim majority by organizing Kurdish and Nasiri combat units. Even before that, the unofficial representatives of the US, who were on the sidelines of the negotiations for the Lausanne Treaty, tried to use some Kurdish leaders to keep communication in the region open.

In the 1940s, the Soviet Union used Kurdish leaders to put pressure on Iran and Turkey. In the 1950s and during the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States used Kurdish leaders as pawns in the power struggle in the Middle East. In 1973, then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called the Kurds ‘our best allies’ in the Middle East.

In the same years, Iran managed to solve the Shatt al-Arab issue in its favour by using the Kurdish leaders to put pressure on the Baathist government of Iraq. But in the end, the Kurdish head remained without a hat. 

For the past 30 years, Israel has tried to put pressure on the two potential enemy countries by establishing close ties with the Kurdish leaders in Iraq and the Iranian Kurdish activists in exile. During the attempt to overthrow the Baathist regime in Iraq, the Kurdish leaders of that country had the support of the Islamic Republic of Iran and also the United States, but in the end, they only got a hat for themselves.

What can explain this tragic experience? Three factors are probably important. First, the Kurdish leaders always made a promise that was not easily fulfilled: independence and the creation of a unified Kurdistan. In other words, professional illusions eliminated the reality of the here and now. Second, the Kurdish leaders relied on the help of foreign powers instead of relying on the popular base to fulfil their promise. Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, needed military bases in Syria and, as a result, had no choice but to accept the influence of the Damascus government and, beyond that, the Soviet Union. However, as soon as Syria and the Soviet Union got their demands fulfilled from Turkey, they expelled Ocalan from Syria and closed his bases. The ‘great’ Kurdish leader became a fugitive refugee who was finally tracked down and arrested with the help of the Mossad.

Third, most of the Kurdish leaders thought that they could achieve their goal by fighting the regime in their respective countries. But experience has shown that gaining the independence of a nation by separating from the existing government or empire does not result from armed struggle. Norway separated from Sweden through negotiation, not war. Slovakia and the Czech Republic also divorced each other through negotiations. Twenty years of war did not lead to the independence of South Sudan. What achieved this goal were the three-year negotiations between Khartoum and Juba. After years of guerilla war with Portugal and then Indonesia, East Timor could not achieve independence, but it realised this wish by negotiating within the framework of diplomacy.

Mustafa Barzani - perhaps the most prominent Kurdish political leader in the last 100 years - understood these facts. He had experienced backstabbing from the Soviet Union, Iraq, Iran, Israel and the United States. For this reason, at the end of his life, he recommended ‘fighting another way’ – a political battle aimed at creating legal systems based on social justice. In other words, the promise of independence in a place where there is no legal system based on social justice is a dangerous lie that will only result in bloodshed and the humiliating defeat of the Kurds.

Fortunately, the new generation of Kurdish leaders in both Turkey and Iraq have more or less reached the same conclusion. In Iraq, after the comic show of the independence referendum, Kurdish leaders are trying to play a role in determining the future direction of the country, instead of gun barrels, considering the power of the people's vote. But in Syria, Kurdish leaders tried to take advantage of the civil war to find a place as allies of the Damascus regime after the Assad government, father and son, revoked the citizenship of the Kurds. But the Kurds ended up in the role of local agents of the US.

A hundred years after the Treaty of Lausanne, the people of the Middle East are still paying the price for giving up the Caliphate’s bag. From a historical point of view, of course, the guilt of this disaster lies on the shoulders of the British and French imperialists. But it should not be forgotten that those imperialists could not easily change the map of the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa without using local forces and pitting them against each other.