'The Kurds don’t vote for me’: the Kurds and Britain

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Demonstration in London against attacks on the Kurds, 1991
Demonstration in London against attacks on the Kurds, 1991

For a century, British imperialism has suppressed the Kurdish struggle for self-determination. Armed force has been used in the Middle East, while in Britain the police, prisons and criminalisation have been employed against Kurds. British governments have repeatedly supported Middle Eastern states’ oppression of the Kurds. That oppression has been integral to imperialist domination of the Middle East. Trevor Rayne reports.

* The Sykes-Picot Agreement 16 May 1916:   This secret deal between Britain and France planned the carve-up of the remains of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Initially, Kurds were offered a truncated Kurdistan on what is now Turkish territory, omitting the Kurds of Iran, British-controlled Iraq, and French-controlled Syria. This was proposed in the Treaty of Sevres 1920. With the success of Turkey’s Ataturk and the Turkish National Movement, the promise to the Kurds was dropped in the Treaty of Lausanne 1923. At the end of the First World War among the great losers in the Middle East were the Palestinians and the Kurds. The Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian states were, in part, founded on the oppression of the Kurds. Kurdish self-determination is inextricably tied to the advance of democracy in the Middle East.  

* The RAF gasses Kurds in Iraq 1920: Iraqi Arabs and Kurds rose in revolt against the British occupation in 1920. The previous year Churchill had recommended the use of poison gas to subdue rebellion: ‘I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas…I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.’ Kurds provided a laboratory for testing out new weapons: ‘Phosphorous bombs, war rockets, metal crows’ feet [to maim livestock], man killing shrapnel, liquid fire, delay-action bombs. Many of these weapons were first used in Kurdistan,’ G Simons, Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, 1994. Wing-Commander Sir Arthur Harris, later ‘Bomber’ Harris, head of the RAF’s Bomber Command during World War Two, learned about the effectiveness of bombing civilians in Iraq: ‘The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within 45 minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.’

* The Cairo Conference March 1921: The current borders of the Middle Eastern states were largely drafted at the Cairo Conference, presided over by the British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill. Churchill originally proposed to the British cabinet that Kurdistan should be organised as a ‘friendly state providing a barrier against Turks and Russians’, 14 February 1921. A month later, Churchill dismissed any Kurdish entity. Partly for reasons of costs, Churchill proposed a unitary state in Iraq. With foresight and apparent indifference, Churchill wondered whether an Arab ruler ‘while outwardly accepting constitutional procedures and forming a Parliament [might] at the same time despise democratic and constitutional procedures…[and] with the power of an Arab army behind him…ignore Kurdish sentiment and oppress the Kurdish minority.’

* The Mahabad Republic 1946-1947: The Mahabad Republic was formed in mainly Kurdish north-western Iran in January 1946. It had Soviet support. Next to it was established the Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan. During the Second World War the US, Britain and the Soviet Union agreed to occupy Persia/Iran and agreed that after the war they would withdraw troops and share oil concessions there. Having a nuclear weapons monopoly, the US reneged on the deal and in March 1946 US President Truman summoned Soviet ambassador to the US, Andrei Gromyko. Truman gave the Soviet Union 48 hours to withdraw troops from northern Iran or ‘We’re going to drop it on you.’ The Red Army reportedly left within 24 hours. Truman said the atomic bomb was ‘the greatest thing in history’. Iranian forces regained control over Iranian Azerbaijan in June 1946, leaving the Mahabad Republic isolated. On 15 December 1946, Iranian forces, backed by British and US troops, captured Mahabad. Once there, they closed down the Kurdish printing press, banned the teaching of the Kurdish language, and burned all the Kurdish books they could find. The Republic’s leader, Qazi Muhammad, was hanged for treason in March 1947.       

* The British SAS in Iran: The Iranian State Security and Intelligence Organisation (SAVAK) was established in 1957; its officers were trained in Israel, the US and Britain. British SAS ‘on loan’ to the Iranian military trained its special forces for operations against Kurdish guerrillas. ‘Another SAS unit was entrusted with the protection of the GCHQ monitoring station near Mashhad, close to the Soviet border; four of them were captured and executed by Fedayeen guerrillas in 1972,’ J Bloch and P Fitzgerald, British Intelligence and Covert Action, 1983.  

* Halabja 16 March 1988: In March 1988 the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq fell to Kurdish guerrillas and Iranian forces during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. 48 hours later, on 16 March, Iraqi forces attacked Halabja with chemical weapons, killing approximately 5,000 civilians. Thousands more people subsequently died from complications, birth defects and diseases caused by the attack. Despite a supposed proscription on arms sales to either Iran or Iraq during the war, British companies sold Iraq ‘known and easily identifiable raw ingredients for chemical weapons, sodium cyanide and sodium sulphide…’ Britain provided £3.5bn of export credits for arms sales to Iraq during the 1980s. When he was questioned about the use of British weapons for killing Kurds, the former Conservative Minister of State for Trade in 1986-1989, Alan Clark, said on the BBC’s The Moral Maze, ‘The Kurds don’t vote for me.’ (Eddie Abrahams, Iraqgate: arms, lies and profits, FRFI 110 December 1992/January 1993).       

* Criminalising Kurds in Britain: The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded in 1978 and began armed struggle in 1984. Kurdish people arrived in Britain in significant numbers from Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Armenia in the 1980s. From 1992 onwards a series of articles were published in The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent, Daily Telegraph and London’s Evening Standard accusing the Kurds of running extortion rackets and general involvement in crime. On 24 March 1992, Kurdish people responded to massacres perpetrated by Turkish forces with a protest outside the Turkish embassy in Belgravia, London. Police attacked the demonstrators with dogs; three children and six adults were hospitalised and over 30 people were injured. 17 Kurds were arrested. On that day, the Chief of Staff of the Turkish army was in London talking to the Foreign Office.

Visiting Ankara in January 1994 British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said, ‘We do not believe that an independent Kurdistan is possible’, adding that Britain had arrested 66 Kurdish ‘extremists’ and convicted 26 in the past year. Delivering her maiden public speech in June 1994 as head of MI5, Stella Rimington named only one other potential source of ‘terrorism’ in Britain besides the IRA – the Kurds. The following month the London Metropolitan Police announced they were setting up a special team to tackle crime and terrorism in the Kurdish and Turkish communities. Blatant surveillance operations began.

* Kani Yilmaz arrested and gaoled: Kani Yilmaz was the European representative of the PKK. Having been invited to address British parliamentarians by John Austin-Walker, Labour MP for Erith and Thamesmead, Yilmaz was seized by police outside the Houses of Parliament on 26 October 1994. Although Yilmaz intended to discuss a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question, Home Secretary Michael Howard said he was a ‘threat to national security’. When Kani Yilmaz appeared at Bow Street Magistrates Court to hear an extradition order, police in riot gear told protestors outside the court to take down a banner with a picture of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. When Kurdish people refused to do so, they were attacked by police using their new long truncheons and dogs. Two Kurds were hospitalised and five arrested and charged with assaulting the police.

Kani Yilmaz was held in Belmarsh prison, in Austin-Walker’s constituency, pending extradition to Germany. A House of Lords appeal against his extradition was rejected in June 1997, without explanation. Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw extradited Kani Yilmaz to Germany on 19 August 1997. By accepting the German extradition order, Straw recognised the crimes that Yilmaz was accused of, including conspiracy to cause an affray, arson, incitement to riot, kidnapping etc. When Lord Rea asked the Labour government if British military training was given to Turkish armed forces, he was told ‘it is normal practice between NATO nations’. The British governments acted at the request of the Turkish state. The PKK was proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the Labour government in March 2001.

* Silan Ozcelik: On 20 November 2015 18-year-old Silan Ozcelik was sentenced at the Old Bailey to 21 months’ imprisonment. The prosecution and the judge drummed the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ into the jury’s ears. Silan wanted to help the Kurdish resistance against Islamic State in Kobane and Shengal and she supported the PKK. She got no further than Belgium and Germany, but, nevertheless, Silan was arrested at Stansted Airport on her return. Many young men and women have gone from Britain to support IS and other jihadi groups in Syria and returned without being arrested. Silan was convicted and gaoled as a warning to anyone opposed to NATO and Turkey’s war against the Kurds.

* Arms sales to Turkey: The British government lists Turkey as a ‘priority market’ for arms sales. Since 2008 British governments have issued over £800m worth of export licences to British companies for arms sales to Turkey. Britain’s second biggest arms company, Rolls-Royce, has offered Turkey its EJ200 engine to power the first Turkish-made fighter jet. Rolls-Royce intends to open an ‘advanced manufacturing technology centre in Turkey’.

British governments dismiss appeals for rights for the Kurds. If Kurdish self-determination challenges imperialist domination of the Middle East, it has been and will be suppressed. Weapons used today by Turkey to destroy Kurdish towns and villages in Turkey, Iraq and Syria are supplied by British firms. The ban on the PKK must be lifted, the criminalisation of Kurds must end and British arms sales to Turkey must be stopped. Imperialism must be confronted in the Middle East and in Britain.

Demonstration in London against attacks on the Kurds, 1991

Demonstration in London against attacks on the Kurds, 1991

Demonstration in London against attacks on the Kurds, 1991