A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter holds a position on the front line in the Gwer district, south of Erbil. AFP Photo.
When Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists blitzed across Northern Iraq in the summer of 2014 it symbolically dismantled the Sykes-Picot border which demarcated the nation-states of Iraq and Syria in order to declare their new state. Its newly declared unrecognized state conspicuously straddled Iraqi and Syrian territory inhabited by the Sunni Arabs of both countries whom, while not necessarily endorsing ISIS outright, saw their respective central governments as repressive Iranian and Shiite-backed entities who would never serve their interests.
The Sykes-Picot arrangement has long been dismissed as unrealistic and destined to collapse. Take Iraq for example, in the post-2003 ethno-sectarian violence it appeared that that country, populated by heterogeneous communities, made no sense to begin with. Here cobbled together were Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds with no common national identity to bind them together.
Professor Joshua Landis is an expert foremost on Syria. Having followed the Middle East for decades now his input on the current crisis is frequently cited and solicited. He has devised a broad theory to try and summarize what is happening across the region which he calls ‘the great sorting out’. Hence, as with Europe over the course of the century past different underlying ethno-sectarian tensions reached boiling point at a time of war and the regions different ethno-sectarian groups are being reorganized on more homogenous grounds. While this doesn’t necessarily mean Iraq and Syria will permanently break-up Landis’s precedent is a dire one.
“Borders laid down in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference in Europe largely remained unchanged,” Landis explained to Rudaw English, “It was the people that were changed to fit the borders.”
Landis elucidated several examples to make his case, “In Poland there were 64% Poles before World War II, after it was almost 100% Polish, completely homogenous. Similarly Czechoslovakia was emptied of minorities who, before the war, made-up 32% of the population. European Jewry was destroyed and so forth.”
“This great sorting out paradigm leaves you with various options: One is that the majority ethnicity or religious group ethnically-cleanses the minorities. That’s the European model. It’s a Middle Eastern model also, we’ve seen with the Christians: 20% of them in Turkey in 1914, all gone by 1923. In Iraq it has been the case with the Christians, Armenians, Shabak minorities are all gone. The Jews were the first to go. One can presume that this trend will continue.”
The denial of Kurdish statehood has seen the Kurds bitterly and brutally repressed for decades.
“Iraq might have had a chance of binding together a common identity but the way Saddam Hussein treated the Kurds burnt any possible chance of that,” Landis explained. “Syrians dealt with the Kurds, not as brutally, but in a very dismissive way. In 1947 a tribal authority in Syria was interviewed by the American representative in Syria. The American was worried about Communist influences among Syria's Kurds. Remember this was early in the Cold War. The Syrian official, with a wave of his hand, dismissed this and essential said, 'Do not worry about the Kurds, they are an entirely feudal society, he argued. ‘There are something like 15 major tribal chieftains who used to live in Turkey. They have been chased over the border into Syria by Ataturk and his successors after various uprisings and they are all condemned to death by the Turks. So if they are anyway rebellious we'll simply send them across the border where they will be executed.’
That's how they controlled them, made them dependent upon Damascus so they had complete control over them. That's the way he chose to sum-up relation between the Syrian state and the Kurds up in the northeast. Very condescending, very paternalistic and of course the threat of the hangman's noose was always behind the relationship and that's the way it remained. And the Kurds are sick and tired of it.”
“Today,” Landis added, “they have what may amount to a historic opportunity. Syria is going to be on its knees for decades, like Iraq and that’s opened the door for independence. The Kurds understand this and they have been exploiting the opportunities this presents them for their independence aspirations. And they have played their cards very deftly.”
Landis argued that the Iraqi Kurds in particular were very wise to foster good relations and business ties with Turkey. He believes that the future of Syrian Kurdish autonomy and greater self-determination for that region will be predicated on coming to terms with Turkey.
“The Syrian Kurds will find their natural complement in Turkey much more so than Syria. Because Turkey has got good schools, good economy and for rebuilding Syria Kurdistan it will be Turkish businessmen who will come down and offer the best help. Syrians are flat on their backs and have no money for development and there are big Turkish cities sprawled out right next to them. So everyone is going to send their kids to school in Turkey, learn Turkish and likely forget their Arabic. But not their Kurdish. This is the move to, if not independence at least a very significant form of autonomy. Syria really has nothing to offer them. Turkey has a tremendous amount to offer them if only they can overcome past rivalries and forge a mutually beneficiary relationship,” Landis reasoned.
ISIS to some degree, Landis argues, did pursue a state whose population was primarily homogenous and could have served the interests of the people within its confines more than the old Sykes-Picot order, if it weren’t governed by such a group. The nature of this entity is going to be its downfall. “It’s so utopian and so wacky that it is bound to be destroyed eventually because it antagonized every regional and international power,” he said.
The various powers arrayed against ISIS seek to preserve the nation-states of Iraq and Syria under their old internationally-recognized borders. “While power-sharing has been what the United States is seeking,” Landis said, “it’s not going to work. In the Middle East today there is no successful power-sharing model for them to emulate. If Iraq’s borders are kept together it’s because the Sunnis will have been completely crushed. The Shiites in Iraq can do this because both America and Iran want the Iraqi nation state preserved and because they make-up 60% of the population. In Syria while Assad has Russian backing its more complicated because his support primarily derives from the minorities. So he’s going to be have to at least coopt a substantial number of Sunnis to be able to re-conquer the country and keep it together.”
ISIS aren’t the only ones to declare the Sykes-Picot order an unjust and oppressive order. The President of the Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani has recently called for a new order in the Middle East and denounced Sykes-Picot as being oppressive by design given how unjust it has been to the Kurds. If the Kurdistan Region declares independence the borders of the Middle East will indeed be re-drawn. Except unlike ISIS Barzani has played his cards prudently and sought friendly relations with his neighbours and has striven to demonstrate that an independent Kurdistan Region would be no threat to them. The complete opposite of what ISIS has done. While Landis predicts this process may prove to be very difficult and will ultimately “depend on its relationship with its neighbours” he nevertheless believes that, “it’s going to happen. It’s only a matter of time.”
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.