When I was growing up in another former British colony, I remember seeing the movie blockbuster Lawrence of Arabia, based loosely on the experiences of British military operative Thomas Edward Lawrence who had encouraged Arab tribes to fight the Ottoman Turkish regime during World War I.
Lawrence was only one of several British colonial officers who were sent out to rally local opposition to the Ottomans from various subject peoples, including Kurds, in this crumbling empire, but he was the only one who became celebrated on the cinema screens which was roughly based on his 1926 war memoire The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
But when this book was published, his first chapter was left out on the advice of the British writer George Bernard Shaw because it expressed his bitter shame at the British betrayal of the peoples’ Lawrence and other agents had encouraged to fight the Ottoman empire on the promise that they would then be freed and given self-government.
Lawrence’s mission was mainly working with Arab tribes, but other British agents worked with Kurdish tribes and successfully got them to fight the Ottoman empire on the promise of obtaining self-government.
In the deleted first chapter of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence wrote:
“For my work on the Arab front I had determined to accept nothing. The cabinet raised the Arabs to fight for us by definite promises of self-government afterwards. Arabs believe in persons, not in institutions. They saw in me a free agent of the British government, and demanded from me an endorsement of its written promises. So I had to join the conspiracy, and, for what my word was worth, assured the men of their reward.”
“In our two years’ partnership under fire they grew accustomed to believing me and to think my government, like myself, sincere. In this hope they performed some fine things but, of course, instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed.”
Lawrence did draw up a map of what became Turkey clearly indicating the Kurdish lands but labelling these areas with question marks! Perhaps Lawrence had a grudge against the Kurds. There is one anecdote of Lawrence being teased by a group of Kurdish women. Maybe these feisty Kurdish women challenged his British private school toxic hyper masculinity?
Other British agents reported in greater detail on the Kurds. In 1919, the British colonial military published a report, Kurdistan and the Kurds, based largely on the work of another colonial officer Mark Sykes. This was the Sykes whose name is on the infamous Sykes-Picot secret agreement of 1916 where the British and French colonialists carved up the Middle East between them and Tsarist Russia.
When the Russian revolution overthrew Tsarism, this infamous secret treaty was made public.
According to the Sykes-Picot agreement, many of the Kurdish inhabited areas now in Syria and Turkey would have ended up under French control, while the region east of Kirkuk would have ended up in British control and the most south-eastern part of what is now Turkey would have been included in a new Armenian state. The status of Kurds living in Persia, meanwhile, would not have changed.
At least one British colonial officer, Major Edward Noel, the Political Officer in Sulaymaniyah, favoured an independent state or autonomy for the Kurds. Just as Lawrence made out he was a friend of the Arabs, Noel made out he was a friend of the Kurds.
But as the 19th century British politician and former Prime Minister Lord Palmerston famously said in a parliamentary speech, Britain has “no eternal allies” only “eternal and perpetual interests”.
The Kurds have a saying “We have no friends but the mountains” and perhaps because the Kurds quickly became suspicious of the British colonialists real plan – which was to grab the land with the richest oil deposits and put in place local rulers who would serve its interests – the report Kurdistan and the Kurds also noted that some British agents were hostile to the Kurds.
In the end, the Sykes-Picot plan was not realised.
By the end of World War I, the British army had already seized Mosul (given to the French under Sykes-Picot) and, when the British signed the treaty of Sevres with the seemingly defeated Ottoman Empire, laid claim to what is now the predominantly Kurdish part of Turkey as well.
Under the Treaty of Sevres, the British colonialists suggested they might conduct a plebiscite on the future of this northern party of Kurdistan, however this never eventuated.
Meanwhile in 1920, the British violently suppressed Kurds who rose up against them in southern Kurdistan (northern Iraq today). Then British War Secretary, Winston Churchill, sent in troops backed by the air force. He even authorised the use of chemical weapons, including mustard gas, against the rebels who he considered “uncivilised tribes”. Setting a precedent for Saddam Hussein’s deployment of chemical weapons on Halabja and Turkey’s current use of chemical weapons against Kurdish freedom fighters.
The 1921 Cairo Conference — a meeting of Britain’s Middle East experts —approved a plan for giving control over two large pieces of the former Turkish territories that Britain controlled to princes in the Hashemite family.
“It was agreed that Prince Feisal, with whom T.E. Lawrence had worked during and after the First World War, would become king of a new country created from the Turkish Province of Mesopotamia; it would be called Iraq. His brother, Prince Abdullah, would rule a country made up of Palestine west of the Jordan River: Transjordan (now Jordan).” (Source: At the Cairo conference were Churchill, Lawrence and another British agent Gertrude Bell, the “female Lawrence of Arabia” as some have described her, who helped hatch this plan for the British to control the oil reserves in the area.
However, Kemal Atatürk had organised the remnants of the Ottoman army and, in the course of what is now called the Turkish War of Independence, re-conquered the territory of modern Turkey. The British colonial plan had to be slightly adjusted. This may have appeared relatively inconsequential to the British (who retained Mosul, the jewel in the oil crown) but it had terrible consequences for the peoples of the Middle East.
The Treaty of Lausanne (1926) formalised this conquest and this gave the green light to Turkey to inflict years of brutal repression and genocidal campaigns against the Kurds, Armenians and other minorities.
What are the lessons we can draw from this story?
Today we lived in a world still divided between a few rich and powerful national states which dominate the world and we should never see these powers as the friends of oppressed peoples.
But nor should we be blind to the oppression of less powerful and rich states like Turkey, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria which have served as prison houses of nations in their own right. The world should better appreciate and respect the contribution of imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan in putting forward a creative solution to this problem of multiple nationalities imprisoned within the borders of these nation states.
In this complex matrix of repression, war and colonial domination, it is important to recognise (and solidarise with) the gains that Kurdish-led freedom fighters have won in north and east Syria (better known as Rojava) and in liberating the Yazidi people of Sinjar (in northern Iraq) both against the brutal Daesh/Islamic State terror.
Finally, we should demand that our own governments truly stand by the values of freedom, human rights and people-to-people solidarity.