Armenian Involvement in the 1925-1946 Kurdish Rebellions in The Republican Turkey: Trying to Map the Origins of “Hidden Armenians
By: GARABET K MOUMDJIAN
The history of Armenian-Kurdish relations extends over centuries. In the 1800’s, Armenians were involved in the Kurdish rebellions in Kurdistan proper. The rebellions were crushed by Ottoman military might.
After the Armenian Genocide of 1915, a new phase of Armenian involvement in yet a new episode of Kurdish rebellions ensued in Republican Turkey. This new collusion lasted all the way to the late 1930s. The aim of the ARF (Armenian Revolutionary Federation, AKA Tashnagtsutyune) at the time was twofold: Dispersion into the Middle East was considered to be a temporary sojourn and the ARF was adamant in its thinking that Armenians should repatriate to their historic homeland. The ARF attempted such an adventurous plan due to its knowledge that many pockets of Armenians—ergo, what would later become known as “Hidden Armenians”—existed in the Eastern Provinces of the newly established Turkish Republic.
Toward the end of World War II there was some optimism that the Soviet Union could reoccupy some of the historical Western Armenian lands and incorporate them into the Soviet Armenian Republic. The ARF, regardless of its ideological opposition to the Soviet Union at the time, agreed to a détente with its arch-enemy for such a nascent purpose.
Having access to archival material from republican Turkey, the Soviet Union, Armenia, France, Britain, as well as the memoirs and letters of some prominent ARF leaders involved in the Kurdish rebellions of the time creates a unique opportunity to present a more detailed account about the period under.
It was only after 1947 that this détente and the whole policy of returning to the homeland were totally abandoned by the ARF. By 1965, the 50th anniversaries of the Armenian Genocide, Armenians still living in Turkey were forgotten. The ARF announced that there were no Armenians left behind and that the only policy to follow was that of the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
This chapter will not involve itself with the events pertinent to the Kurdish rebellions in the 1920s and 1930s. Rather, it will focus on Armenian and especially ARF participation in those uprisings. This has to be done in order to close a gap in the international historical discourse regarding the subject, since Armenian and ARF participation were not tackled by historians for several reasons most important of which was and still is the language barrier (knowledge of Armenian) or the paucity of Archival material (perhaps the researchers in question didn’t pursue the matter until “no stone remained unturned”). Moreover, and as an archival historian, it is my aim to present archival records almost in their entirety in order not to leave any room for individual interpretations and the misunderstandings they produce; in other words, I want to make the documents speak for themselves regardless of their length in some instances.
Finally, it must be underlined that the aim of this narrative is to bring to light the issue of Armenians who were left behind after the genocide and deportations. The archival documents from Armenian and Turkish sources indicate that such a phenomenon existed since the early days of republican Turkey. It is important to shed light on such people and their participation in the Kurdish rebellions of the period, since, as shall be seen, it was this people that today represent what has become known as Islamized and/or Turkified/Kurdified Armenians…
I first got interested in Armenian-Kurdish collaboration in the period 1830 to 1930s in the early 1980s when I was preparing my senior thesis at the Institute Superior d’Aarmenologie in Beirut. After arriving in the United States, I translated my thesis to English and presented it for my bachelor’s degree in History/Armenian Studies at the University of La Verne. The thesis was published in 1999.
At the time, having access to only secondary sources and some newspaper articles, the puzzling question at the time I wrote the thesis was why did the ARF wholeheartedly participate in and offer logistical support to the Kurdish uprisings from 1920 to 1940? The issue was baffling for me and many in my generation, since the Kurds had been the very instrument of Armenian demise during the genocide. Furthermore, they were now occupying the same lands that constituted the Armenian historical Homeland.
After years of extra research on the subject, the answer to this perplexing question came by way of a Turkish-Armenian activist, Hrant Dink, who in early 2000 uttered what seemed to be a taboo to us, Armenians: That Armenians were still living in pockets of Western Armenia, albeit Islamized or Kurdified.
This made sense; since my research indicated that as early as 1924 the leadership of the ARF was cognizant of the existence of those Armenians that were “left behind.” What made more sense was that the ARF leadership considered those Armenians as strategic assets for a policy of bringing the rest of Armenians that were dispersed into the Middle East as a result of the genocide back to their Homeland. Thus, Kurdish uprisings on these territories presented a means to accomplish that end.
This policy of returning to the homeland, which was central for the ARF leadership at the time, continued unabated all the way to WWII. At the time, the ARF, which was ideologically diametrically opposed to the Soviet Union, was even willing to let go of that animosity for the time, if the USSR would implement a policy of demanding Armenian lands to attach them to the Soviet Armenian Republic. When all hopes for such an endeavor vanished, the ARF leadership completely disassociated itself from the policy it had followed for over 30 years. With the coming of the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 1965, the policy was not only completely abandoned, but it became a taboo to even speak about those Armenians who were “left behind.” From that time on, the mantra of the time was that Armenians were completely annihilated in their homeland and common sense entailed that all activism should be directed toward pressuring Turkey to acknowledge the veracity of the Armenian Genocide.
Today, as tumultuous events are shaking the Middle East and the legacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 is almost spent and the general area is in a geopolitical flux, the issue of the creation of a Kurdish state has once again been brought to the forefront. I am certain that with this new opportunity, the issue of the “Hidden Armenians” will also come to the forefront.
The geopolitical landscape: 1920-1924
In order to assess how serious this rebellion was viewed by Turkey in terms of it leading to the formation of a Kurdish state on parts of the nascent Turkish Republic is apparent from the following fact:
In September, 1919, the British government sent Lt. Colonel E. Noel, who was a well informed intelligence officer, about the intricacies of the Kurdish movement in Western Armenia. The Major was tasked with identifying the power structure in the area and to conduct intelligence subterfuge operations and to gather as much pertinent information as possible. Major Noel was accompanied by Kurdish nationalist leaders Kamuran and Jeladet Bedirkhan, who were proponents of the creation of a Kurdish state. The Major toured all over the area of his operation. What he was able to ascertain was indeed remarkable and almost dumbfounded him: He found that Turks living in Western Armenia who feared the creation of a Kurdish state would rather prefer the creation of an Armenian state instead.
It is important to note here that, regardless of Colonel Noel’s reports, “the high ranking officers of the British Intelligence Service—who considered Noel as the best authority on the Kurdish subject—were of the opinion that Great Britain will benefit more by having the Kurdish issue as a trump card in their hands rather than the Armenian one. In their opinion, the creation of a greater Armenia would mean that a proportion of one Armenian was to rule over ten Kurds, which meant instituting the rule of a very tiny minority over an large majority, which in itself could lead to unwarranted consequences…Noel also underlined that following such a policy would also deter an emerging Soviet Russia from playing the Armenian card in the future by announcing once again that it was the protector of the Armenians in the area.”
An ever cognizant Kemal understood the intricacies of such an international political maneuver by tolerating the formation of a Communist Party in Turkey in order to secure Soviet friendship and, most importantly, financial and military aid. Later, however, in an effort to rectify his position with the West—that is, to appease its powers—Kemal dissolved that party in 1925, of course after physically eliminating its leaders.
The initial Kemalist tilt towards Communist Russia alarmed Europe. Its most affected powers, i.e. France, and Britain were worried that such an inclination 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 existence of such massive Greek forces did endanger the very fabric 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.
What is interesting here is that 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 Greeks 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 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; in order not to alienate the Kurdish chieftains, he 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 as equals and in absolute harmony. Kemal’s promises were negotiated and hammered down during several meetings and conventions.
The first such convention was held in Erzurum. 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 Erzurum, Kars, Bitlis, Erzinjan, Mush and 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 Erzurum 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 Erzurum 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.
The Erzurum 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 toward the end of in 1921. The offensive ended with the singing of a peace treaty of Gumri, 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? The answer is a definite no. After the Erzurum 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 Greeks and 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. 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.” 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,” which meant nothing on the ground. 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 Daghi (Kurdish Mountain) in southwestern Kurdistan, which it annexed to its Syrian mandate.
1925: Sheikh Sa’id of Piran’s Rebellion and its Armenian Connection:
In the field of Kurdish historiography there is a general consensus that the first Kurdish rebellions—most pronounced among which was the Sheikh Sa’id of Piran’s rebellion of 1925—in republican Turkey were religiously motivated. Mustafa Kemal, by abolishing the institute of the Caliphate in 1924 and introducing a westernized form of society upset the basic privileges of the tribal Kurdish population in the southeastern part of the new republic. However, before analyzing Sa’id’s rebellion some statements must be made regarding the politics of the era.
Moreover, Kemal Soon introduced yet another decree; this time he 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. 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.
That an Armenian element was present in those early days of Kurdish unrest is also apparent from a letter that two members of the Turkish parliament from Dersim (Tunceli) wrote to the presidency of the parliament:
An Armenian with a Turkish name was apprehended in Dersim's (Pasen and Artnik) county. The people in the area were instrumental in identifying this person who was collecting money. A decision has to be made regarding Armenians who have assumed Turkish names in Dersim in order to stop their rebellious activities. I present this issue to the Turkish Higher National Assembly asking that such a decision is taken as soon as possible.
Member of Parliament from Dersim
Member of Parliament from Dersim
January 21, 1924
In February 8, 1925 a Kurdish rebellion broke out in the Eastern Vilayets (provinces) of Turkey. The Sheikh Sa’id [of Piran] Uprising’s aim was to achieve Kurdish independence through military means. The rebellion encompassed some fifty to sixty thousand square kilometers of land to the west of Lake Van (see map bellow). The rebellion was crushed in April 1925 and the conspirators were put to the gallows in Diyarbakir. What is interesting to note is that many Western Armenians—precursors of what later was to be known as Kurdified or Islamized Armenians—participated in the rebellion. Of these most famous were the blacksmith Boghos of Chemesgadzak, who was condemned to death on September 26. Turkish authorities spearheaded a media campaign where they underlined the participation of Armenian and Assyrian militants in the Sheikh Sa’id Rebellion.