Throughout modern history, Kurdish leaders have consistently forged strong ties with their French counterparts to convey their political aspirations.
This practice stems from the legendary Mustafa Barzani, the renowned Kurdish nationalist leader, who was the first to establish a line of communication and appeal to the French for support, urging them not to supply arms to Iraq in the late 1960s.
In the tumultuous year of 1968, the geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East were shifting and, on February 8, Barzani penned a heartfelt letter to French President Charles de Gaulle, imploring him to reconsider France's decision to arm Iraq. This historic letter reflected Barzani’s deep concerns about the dire consequences of such a move for the Kurdish people.
In his plea, Barzani made the letter personal and passionate: “General, allow an old man, who has been fighting since his youth for the freedom and dignity of his people, to send you this supreme appeal.”
He went on to argue that sending arms to Iraq without acknowledging its brutal treatment of the Kurdish people “would only lead to still further destruction of our country and to the massacre of our women and children.”
This pivotal moment in history sheds light on Barzani's astute foresight and unwavering commitment to Kurdish aspirations. Let us delve into the details of this remarkable letter and its implications.
Mustafa Barzani recognized the precarious nature of Iraq's political landscape and its implications for the Kurdish people. In his letter, he highlighted the Iraqi regime’s history of discrimination and oppression against the Kurds and expressed his concerns about the potential escalation of violence and suppression if Iraq were to be further armed.
Barzani argued that bolstering the military capabilities of the Iraqi government would ultimately exacerbate the already strained relationship between the Arab-dominated Iraqi regime and the Kurdish population. An increase in arms, he maintained, would embolden the Iraqi government to intensify its repressive policies and endanger the lives and aspirations of the Kurdish people.
Kurdish aspirations and the geopolitical context
Barzani's plea to de Gaulle should be understood within the broader context of the Kurdish struggle for self-determination. The Kurdish people long yearned for an independent state, and Barzani was a fervent advocate for their cause. He recognized that the balance of power in the region directly shaped the prospects for Kurdish autonomy.
During the Cold War, the Middle East was a battleground for influence between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Iraqi government under Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim, and later under President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, aligned itself with the Soviet Union, which sought to expand its sphere of influence in the region. Barzani understood that the Soviet Union's military support for Iraq would tip the balance against the Kurdish people, potentially derailing their aspirations for self-rule.
Barzani's appeal to de Gaulle
In his letter, Barzani thus appealed to de Gaulle, one of the most prominent leaders in post-World War II Europe, for assistance: “General, you did not fail to denounce the Vietnam war; I am sure the fate of the Kurdish people is not less dear to you than that of the Vietnamese.”
He implored the French president to reconsider France's military support for Iraq and highlighted the historical friendship between the Kurdish people and France. Here Barzani's letter seems to imply that France showed support for Kurdish self-determination during the Treaty of Sèvres negotiations in 1920.
Barzani expressed the Kurdish people's deep admiration for France's democratic principles and their desire to establish a democratic society in Kurdistan: “… you are President of France, the very nation that gave the world the idea of political freedom and the right of all people to self-determination.”
He deeply believed that French support for the Kurdish cause would align with France's values and contribute to stability and peace in the region.
Outcome and legacy
After Barzani’s letter, many prominent French figures issued statements appealing to de Gaulle to halt France’s supply of weapons to Iraq or to send the arms on the condition that the Iraqi army would not use them against the Kurdish population. Among these figures were the novelist M. Francois Mauriac, a Gaullist deputy M. Leo Hamon, and M. Wladimir d’Ormesson, who was Director General of the French state’s radio and television service.
Barzani's letter helped to raise international awareness about the Kurdish struggle for self-determination. It also exemplified his tireless efforts to seek support and build alliances for the Kurdish cause.
Ultimately, the path towards Kurdish autonomy was fraught with challenges and setbacks. However, Barzani's steadfast leadership and determination paved the way for future generations to continue the struggle.
Nahro Zagros is the Editor-in-Chief of Kurdistan Chronicle and a senior fellow at Gold Institute for International Strategy in Washington D.C.