Front row, left to right: Shiekh Sherif, Sheikh Said, back row: Sheikh Hamid, Major Kasim (Kasım Ataç), Sheikh Abdullah.


Armenian Kurdish Relations in the Era of Kurdish National Movements (1830-1930)



“My natural life is finished. I do not regret that I am dying for my country and nation. I would be satisfied if our grand-children do not shame us in front of our enemies.”

Sheik Said Ali of Piran

After defeating the implementation of the Sevres treaty, Kemal approached communist Russia for economic and military aid. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 gave the impetus necessary for the creation of a pseudo Turkish Communist Party. Kemal tolerated the formation of such a political entity to secure Soviet friendship and, most importantly, aid. Later, however, in an effort to rectify his position with Europe—that is, to appease its powers–Kemal dissolved that party in 1925, of course after physically eliminating its leaders first.

Front row, left to right: Shiekh Sherif, Sheikh Said, back row: Sheikh Hamid, Major Kasim (Kasım Ataç), Sheikh Abdullah.
Front row, left to right: Shiekh Sherif, Sheikh Said, back row: Sheikh Hamid, Major Kasim (Kasım Ataç), Sheikh Abdullah.

The initial Kemalist tilt towards Communist Russia alarmed Europe. Its most affected powers, i.e. France, Britain were worried that such a tilt would definitely endanger their new Middle Eastern possessions. Moreover, a Turkey friendly to Russia would extend communism’s frontiers to the detriment of Europe and its spheres of influence.

France was the first to sign a treaty of friendship with the Kemalist government. This happened in early October 1921, when Kemal’s forces had not yet extended their rule over all of modern day Turkey. Moreover, Greek forces were still active in Anatolia. In fact, to most Turkish nationalist leaders, the very existance of such massive Greek forces did endanger the very existence of their fledgling nationalist movement.  It is in this context that France’s erratic behavior must be understood and properly analyzed— most probably a case of “cold feet.” With such French encouragement—as the signing of a treaty of peace and friendship with Turkey could have entailed– Kemalist forces were able to halt the advance of the Greek armies who had already conquered Izmir and were moving inward, toward central Anatolia.

This Turkish victory was achieved through substantial Kurdish aid to Kemal’s army. Thousands of Kurdish tribal warriors and previous Hamidiye regiment soldiers joined Kemal’s army. The Turkish leader was thus not only able to confront the Greek armies but even to stage a strong counter-offensive which swept the advancing Greek army back to Izmir and literally into the Black Sea, together with the Greek and Armenian population of the city, under the very eyes of the British fleet which watched the tragedy unfold (according to some reports Her Majesty’s sailors, following orders from their officers, even went as far as pouring boiling water on those seeking refuge on board British ships.

What was the reason or reasons behind this massive Kurdish aid to Kemal? After all, it was only months before that’s Kurdish chieftains who had met in Malatia had agreed to get rid of him. There is nothing surprising in such Kurdish attitude. By now, Kemal had become a seasoned politician. So, in order not to alienate the Kurdish chieftains, Kemal never used the term “Turkish Republic” when addressing them or the Kurdish population at large. Instead, he started his movement in the heart of Kurdistan, where he promised Kurds a country where Turks and Kurds would live mutually, and harmoniously like brothers and equals in every aspect. Kemal’s promises were negotiated and hammered down during several. meetings and conventions.

The first such convention was held in Erzerum. It is also known as the Congress of the Eastern Vilayets. Rumors had it that the Paris Peace Conference had already annexed the vilayets of Erzerum, Kars, Bitlis, Erzinjan, Musand Van to the Armenian republic, whose borders were to be drawn by the president of the United States of America, Woodrow Wilson. Fifty-four prominent Kurdish chieftains and leaders from these territories came to Erzerum to meet Kemal and to join forces to struggle against the annexation of Kurdish territories to neighboring Armenia. Kendal, who had previously erred by claiming that those vilayets were “historically Kurdish territories,” and that “Armenians had no legitimate claims over them,” contradicts himself by stating that:  

“The Kurdish notable [who did participate in the Erzerum Convention of 1919, G.M.] had their own reasons for resisting such an outcome [annexation, G.M.]. When Armenians were deported during the war, Kurdish notables had sized their goods (lands). Serving under Armenian domination would have meant dispossession as well as persecution [by] and servitude to a Christian regime.”[1]

The Erzerum Convention decided to act quickly, and to do all that is in its power to prevent the annexation of the six eastern vilayets to the Armenian republic. The Convention also decided that Kurds would help the Turkish army against any Armenian expansion. Kazim Karabekir Pasha was sent to Kurdistan to recruit Kurdish soldiers and to supervise their training. It was this mainly Kurdish army that advanced against the Armenian Republic in 1922. This offensive lead to the singing of the peace treaty of Gumri (Leninakan, during the Soviet era) which resulted in the Armenian loss of not only the contested vilayets but also of the districts of Kars and Ardahan. The Armenian Republic was thus squeezed into a small state, with an area of a bit over thirty thousand square kilometers.

The question that asserts itself here is weather the Kurds, after all their endeavors, were able to keep the eastern vilayets for themselves or their posterity? The answer to this question is a definite no. After the Erzerum Congress, Kemal led his army from one victory to another. He destroyed all possibilities of executing the Treaty of Severe. For three years he waged a two front war against the Allies in eastern and western Asia Minor.He made them realize that they had to deal with him as the new strong man in Turkey. In 1923, a new treaty was signed at Lausanne. Here, Kemal’s free and independent Republic of Turkey participated as an equal negotiator. European nations, who only months before were engaged in a war of attrition against him, were now desperate to gain his friendship and have his new Turkey on their side as an important new ally, and, of course, a barrier, against Communist Russia.

In Lausanne, all dreams of Kurdish autonomy were shattered. The treaty made it abundantly clear that hopes of establishing an “enlarged” Armenian Republic were futile. Deserted by its European allies and even the United States (which completely reneged on its previous promise of providing the feeble Caucasian state with a mandate and protection because of its important strategic value as a country bordering Communist Russia), Armenia now came under the duel fire of Turkey and Russia. Kemal’s Army had already reached Kars and Ardahan. On the other front, the Russian Red Army, through the help of local communist agitators and agents, defeated the abruptly organized Armenian army; instituted Communist rule over the republic; and compelled the leadership of the liberal, pro-Western ruling party, the A.R.F., to exile first to Iran, then to the newly established Middle Eastern countries (some finally settled in Europe and the United States).

As for the Kurds, they were deprived of any political recognition. The Turkish envoy to Lausanne silenced all talks about Kurdish autonomy. He stressed that “Kurds and Turks are now equal partners in the government of Turkey,” and that “although Turks and Kurds may speak different languages, these two people are not different from the point of view of race, faith and custom.”[2] If anything, this statement indicates that Kemalist Turkey viewed the assimilation and Turkification of the Kurds as a natural process. The Treaty of Lausanne gave other minorities in Turkey–like Armenians, Greeks, and Jews religious as well as some cultural “freedoms.” But Kurds, because of being represented as “equal partners” to the Turkish majority, were not counted as a minority. Thus, they were deprived from even the meager “freedoms” that other minorities were to enjoy. After 1923, the Turkification of the Kurds accelerated with the objective of literally melting them within the Turkish race.

In yet another blow to the Kurds, the Treaty of Lausanne divided Historical Kurdistan between the newly established Middle Eastern states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. This was an indirect consequence of the planning and the execution of the Sykes-Picot agreement. England wanted the oil-rich fields of southern Kurdistan (Musul). It was annexed by Iraq, a British mandate. The oil issue exacerbated relations between France and England. Supposedly, oil was discovered after the Lausanne Treaty was signed. However, France insisted that the British already knew about the oil reserves in the area and preferred to say nothing about it during negotiations. Nevertheless, the two European powers were able to reach a compromise. Accordingly, France received twenty five percent of the oil revenue and also the districts of Jezireh and Kurd Dagi (Kurdish Mountain) in southwestern Kurdistan, which it annexed to its Syrian protectorate.

A. Sheik Said Ali’s Rebellion in Dersim

In the Turkish parts of Kurdistan, and also in the eastern vilayets, Kemalist oppression followed the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne. As an initial phase of assimilation, Mustafa Kemal closed all Kurdish schools and deployed new methods Turkification in areas inhabited by the Kurds. There was no doubt in Kemal’s mind that Turkey was to become a homogeneous Turkish state. By this token its inhabitants were to be only Turks.

To add insult upon injury, unfair taxation, unjust judicial procedures, and bribe taking, corrupted Turkish civil and military officials made life unbearable for Kurds.[3]

Late in 1922, Kurdish deputies in the Turkish parliament such as Yusuf Zia of Bitlis and Colonel Halid Bey from Chebran founded the Kurt Istiqlal Jemiyeti (Kurdish Association of Independence). The association organization branches in the major towns and cities of Turkish Kurdistan. This underground organization had its sub-committees in Diarbekir, Bitlis, Urfa, Siirt, and Elazig (Kharput, Kharpert). Army officers of Kurdish origins joined the association because they feared that the Turkification policies imposed by Kemal aimed at cutting the Kurdish people from their roots.

Kurdish nationalists and intellectuals joined the association as well. Surprisingly, even some Kurdish religious figures such as Sheik Said Ali of PiranSheik Sherif of Palu and Sheik Abdullah of Melkan contacted the leaders of the association and put themselves under their command.[4]

In March 1924, Kemal nulled the Khalifateby a governmental decree. Soon, another decree followed. This time Kemal banned all Kurdish organizations, as well as regular and religious schools. This action enlarged the existing gulf between him and the Kurdish people. It also pushed the latter into rebellion. From the onset, the Kurdish Association of Independence was making preparations for a general rebellion.[5] It had established ties with most of the religious sheiks and tribal chieftains. Its leadership had also created links with the Kurdish communities of Istanbul and Aleppo. In other words, the period 1923-1924 was completely devoted to the accumulation of military and other provisions in preparation for the general rebellion.

Late in the summer of 1924, Yusuf Zia, the Kurdish deputy from Bitlis, went to Istanbul with the objective of contacting the leaders of the anti-Kemalist party, the Terraki Perver Chumburiyet Firkasi (Progressive Republican Party). It seems that Zia was successful in his mission. Yet, after only few days of his return to Erzerum, rebellion broke out in the northern districts of Bitlis. It follows that the Turkish government was also closely monitoring the underground activities of Yusuf Zia. It had assigned a number of agents and spies for this purpose. Taking advantage of the opportunity that this Kurdish insurrection provided, Turkish troops besieged Zia’s home; put him under custody; demanded the arrest of his brother–who was accused of being one of the primary agitators of the rebellion. Hundred of Kurdish rebels and Independence Association members were also imprisoned. They were brought to trial before a special military court in Bitlis in October 1924. They were charged with treason and were sentenced to death.

It was at this juncture of the rebellion that Sheik Said Ali of Piran assumed the leadership of the Kurdish Rebellion. Knowing well that most of the captured Kurdish leaders and rebels were to be summarily murdered, he contacted the Kurdish tribes of Kharput, Diarbekir, Gendj and Darhini and persuaded them to raise arms against Mustafa Kemal and his government. Sheik Said also established ties with some Armenian nationalists and through them with the A.R.F. According to sources Sheik Said even had an A.R.F. representative, Vramian, in his camp. This Vramian became the liaison between the Kurds and the A.R.F. He also oversaw the administration of Armenian aid to the rebels.

There is no doubt that this Armenian aid was symbolic. However, its significance lies in the fact that it was perhaps the first step toward a more rigid Armenian-Kurdish cooperation after almost decades of hostility and intolerance. This Armenian cooperation could also be considered the beginning of a decade long (1924-1934) mutual understanding and cooperation between Armenian and Kurdish nationalists, during which the A.R.F. tried to help the Kurdish people in its struggles against the almost genocidal procedures imposed on them by Kemalist Turkey.

Kemal sent several Turkish regiments to the rebel Kurdish territories. Even with the leaders of the Kurdish independence movement either murdered or imprisoned the general Kurdish rebellion was underway. On February 5, 1925, Kurdish rebels took to the offensive and seized Mush, Khnus, Vartoand Arzni.[6] 

The Kurdish rebellion gained momentum day after day. Kurds from all over came to join the rebel forces. This was happening in spite of draconian Turkish measures to silence the rebellion. For example, in Kharput alone, four hundred Kurds were hanged after being summarily sentenced by the established pseudo military court.

Kemal’s cunning character becomes apparent when one considers how he used the Kurdish insurrection to rid himself of the Turkish communist movement and party that he himself had instituted years ago as a puppet organization to attract Soviet aid. By introducing the brutal and unjust court martial system, Kemal created a permanent source of fear in the eastern vilayets and Kurdistan.

On the international front, Kemal tried to convince the international community that the Kurdish uprising was a reactionary movement that aimed at restoring the sultanate. He worked hard to manipulate both the domestic and the international newspapers by attributing fanatic, religious overtones to the nationalistic aspirations of Kurdish rebels.[7] Moreover, Kemal went as for as to suggest that by restoring the Ottoman Sultanate Kurds were aiming at destroying Kemal and his cause of modernization.

Nevertheless, all of Kemal’s measures considered, according to the A.R.F. central organ “Droshak”within only two months– end of March 1925– Kurdish rebel forces had occupied almost all of the twelve districts constituting Turkish Kurdistan.[8]

Kemal and his government could not envisage such a Kurdish victory. A Turkish army of eighty thousand men was deployed within the areas engulfed by the rebellion. Moreover, with the permission of French authorities in Syria, the Northern Syrian railroad was utilized to transport new Turkish infantry regiments to Kurdistan. Soon, these two Turkish armies besieged the mountainous town of Diarbekir. They shelled it day and night until it fell in April 1925. Most of the Kurdish rebels were either murdered or captured. Others, however, still managed to escape and to seek refuge with the Kurdish tribes of Iran and Iraq.

After the Turkish seizure of Diarbekir, atrocities began to multiply in the Kurdish territories. On September 4, 1925, the government hanged the rebel Sheik Said Ali and fifty-two of his followers. Thousands of Kurds were massacred, and scores of towns and villages were pillaged and reduced to ashes. Not content with these measures, the Turkish government instituted yet a new court martial that after only short and staged trials condemned hundreds of Kurdish rebels to death.

It took the Turkish army months, even years to cleanse the rebel areas and to cut all supply and communication lines between the rebels. Turkish Kurdistan was put under military rule. Deportation measures were reintroduced to uproot Kurdistan from its original inhabitants. Kurds were relocated to eliminate all fears of future rebellions.

Kurds had to fight for their existence. To do so they had only their rifles and their mountains with which to continue the uneven battle. Sasuni writes that: –

“Now Kurds had finally realized that the Turks were after them for good. They were no more the victims of Turkish lies. The Kurdish National Revolution had acquired a general character. Internal conflicts and personal enmities were all forgotten in the face of Turkish danger. The notion of a united Kurdish national organization was spreading quickly into every corner of Kurdistan. The Turkish brutality indirectly helped in the development of this new spirit. Thus, every Kurd realized that unity was a necessity rather than a tactic or a political maneuver.”[9]

During the last stages of Sheik Said Ali’s Rebellion, some Kurdish rebels had escaped to Iran and Iraq. From, there they reentered Kurdistan in small groups and gathered in the region of Ararat which seemed to be the final refuge–and also the new center of rebellion– for all Kurdish freedom fighters.

In 1926, Col. Ihsan Nuri Pasha, a Kurdish nationalist serving in the Turkish army, deserted the ranks and with the help of some Kurdish and Armenian friends reached Mt. Ararat, where he joined the rebel forces of Haski Telli, the new Kurdish rebel leader. During the following months, hundreds of Kurdish rebels reached Ararat to partake in the preparations for the big event.

On the other hand, minor skirmishes and battles still continued to occur in Hakiari, Hazzo, and Dersim. Kurdish rebel chieftains in these areas too had established relations with the A.R.F. through the agents of the latter.

It is interesting to note that Kurds had started to approach Armenians differently as early as 1924. Gone were the memories of Armenian as friends and neighbors that Kurdish Amirs of the previous century had tried to instill in their people. For decades, Kurds had viewed Armenians as an element that can be officially exploited. As a matter of fact that was what the government had made them learn.  That Armenians, after decades of Kurdish cruelty, were ready to forget the past and were still eager to lend them a helping hand in their struggle against the government was enough to change Kurdish attitudes towards them. Kurds thus developed a new appreciation towards Armenians and their organizations.[10]

The spirit of Armenian-Kurdish unity and cooperation at last started to flourish. Kurds were convinced that in order to gain their freedom they had to fight Kemal’s armies to the last man. As for Kemal, he continued to shape public opinion to his side by attempting to convince it that the continuing Kurdish menace was not an internal issue, but rather one that had many external links, and that England and its agents were primarily involved in it.[11] Kemal’s propaganda did not work in this intense. Moreover, Kurds were sure that Europe and especially England had long since abandoned them and their cause. In their disparity Kurds turned their eyes towards their past neighbors and primary allies, the Armenians, who “sometimes Islamized and wrapped up in Kurdish dress fought by their side and were even martyred for the sake of the Kurdish cause, thus gaining the gratitude and the admiration of the Kurdish people.”[12]

            Sasuni states that Armenians in Iran, Iraq and Syria were the motivating forces behind organizing the different Kurdish forces and political currents. The A.R.F. was active and even instrumental in this regard. On their part, when Kurds saw the enthusiasm with which Armenians approached their—i.e. the Kurds– cause, they became strongly attached to the Armenians and welcomed their help. As a result of this Armenian endeavor, Kurdish intellectuals and nationalists coalesced to create a united political and military organization that was essential in leading their struggle. Sasuni also writes: –

“Kurdish and Armenian revolutionary elements worked hard during 1926-1927: They prepared plans for the future, brought together opposing groups and leaders, and, in the summer of 1927, organized a series of conventions and meetings. In autumn, all preparations were made and everything seemed to be ready for the commencement of the first Kurdish National Congress. Exiled Kurdish intellectuals, leaders of the Kurdish Diaspora, and representatives from the rebel areas of Mt. Ararat came together under the same roof. This could be considered the first serious Kurdish political, and at the same time, revolutionary, congress.”[13]

The congress gave birth to “Hoyboun” the Kurdish National Political Party, around which all Kurdish forces gathered. The party was built along lines similar to the A.R.F.  During tedious discussions, its goals, political program, and its internal workings were all meticulously crafted.[14]

B. Hoyboun and Its Activities

In the Kurdish language, Hoyboun means independence. After the failure of the 1925 rebellion, rebel Kurds from all over Turkish Kurdistan gathered in and around Mt. Ararat to continue the struggle for the Kurdish Hoyboun.

The founding meetings of the Hoyboun party were conducted in August 1927, in the Lebanese mountain resort town of Bhamdoun. All Kurdish organizations and rebel groupings had sent their representatives to this convention. Among the most important achievements of this congress was that it established a consensus about the issue of the unification of all Kurdish elements under the flag of a single and general organization. Another priority that was achieved during the convention was the implementation of a strong and firm Armenian-Kurdish cooperation. The A.R.F. even sent its representative, Vahan Papazian, better known as Koms (a seasoned revolutionary and a member of the Ottoman parliament during the Ittihadist period), to the convention. Sources agree that Kurds desperately sought the A.R.F. for consultation. Kendal states that:

“This Armeno-Kurdish alliance seemed essential to the Kurdish leaders who were very much on the lookout for possible sources of support and aid for their movement. The Armenian party [A.R.F.] seems to have enjoyed more genuine Western support, perhaps because it was struggling not only for the liberation of Turkish Armenia, but also against Soviet control of Russian Armenia…It was as a result of this agreement between the Kurdish and Armenian nationalist leaders, and probably at the request of the latter, that the Ararat region, not far from Soviet Armenia, was chosen as a center for the new uprising. Another factor influencing this choice must have been the fact that from the Ararat area it would be easy to establish lines of communication with Iran, which had also promised to aid the Kurdish movement. The Shah had everything to gain: He would be weakening his rival, Kemalist Turkey, and his control over the insurrection would enable him to forestall the Kurdish revolt which was threatening to break out in Iran itself, under the leadership of Simko.[15]

The founding congress also elected a central committee that soon became known as the Kurdish National Cabinet. The central committee realized that in order to gain momentum and recognition a flexible diplomatic corps was needed to capture international attention toward the Kurdish cause of freedom. The committee also approached Iran and the Arab states of Iraq and Syria in an effort to establish friendly relations with their respective governments. The Kurdish National Cabinet also consigned letters to the Second Socialist International (S.S.I. hereafter) and important European newspapers to direct Europe’s attention towards the Kurdish cause.

Turkey had every reason to fear what was happening. According to Kemalist intelligence sources, the Ararat Mountain was a hotbed of external influence and interference. It was a nest of anti-Kemalist elements. The Turkish army was put on the alert and regiment after another were sent there to give the Kurdish National Movement the final and decisive blow.

Late in 1927, a Turkish army of ten thousand men reached Mt. Ararat and launched a triangular offensive. Ironically, it was Turkey who provoked the Kurdish forces and ignited the general rebellion. During the initial battles, the Turkish army suffered nearly two thousand casualties between dead and wounded.

1928-1929 was a year of military preparations on both sides. Hoyboun published one communiqué after another and motivated Kurds to Join the general rebellion both physically and morally.

[1]Chaliand, People Without, p. 55.

[2] Ibid, p. 59-60.

[3]Hakki, “Krtakan Apstambutiune,” Droshak, 1926, #6, pp. 179-182.

[4] Chaliand, People Without, p. 60. Also see: Sasuni, Kurt Azgayin Sharzhumnere, p. 240. According to Sasuni, the organization was founded in October 1920, with the objective of liberating Kurdistan from Turkish rule. On the other hand, Kendal shifts the founding of the organization and the Central Committee to 1922. Kendal’s date, i.e. 1922 is more plausible, since in 1920 Kurds and their leaders were still followers of Kemal and were engaging their capabilities against the Republic of Armenia.

[5] Sasuni, Kurt Azgayin Sharzhumnere, pp. 242-244. After the fall of the independent Armenian Republic, A.R.F. leaders and members at large were forced to exile and to an eventual process of reorganization. In this regard, many exiled leaders were in favor of close cooperation with the Kurds. It follows, therefore, that this exiled A.R.F. leadership was instrumental in the formation of Hoyboun, and the preparations for the Ararat Rebellion. It is perhaps worth mentioning, that an agreement was signed between the A.R.F. and the Kurdish national Movement (Hoyboun) in 1924, with the purpose of rejuvenating the Treaty of Sevres and accepting the articles of that treaty as a determinant for the boundaries between Armenia and Kurdistan.

[6] Hakki, “Krtakan,” p. 182. Also see: Chaliand, People Without, p. 61.

[7] Hakki, “Krtakan,” p. 182.[8]Chaliand, People Without, p. 63.

[9] Sasuni, “Kurt Azgayin Kusaksutiune,” Hayrenik, 1931, # 5, p. 75.

[10] Ibid, p. 76.

[11]Chaliand, People Without, p. 63.

[12]Sasuni, “Kurt Kusaksutiune,” p. 77.

[13] Ibid, p. 78.

[14] Sasuni, Kurt Azgayin Sharzhumnere, pp. 255-266.

[15] Chaliand, People Without, p. 64. 

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