ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The people to lose out most from the new order created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed 100 years ago today, are undoubtedly the world’s estimated 25-30 million Kurds, who remain the world’s largest stateless nation.
The agreement, which demarcated the Middle East into Anglo-Franco imperial spheres of control at the end of the First World War, cut through Kurdish-populated territories in the Middle East. The repercussions of that were that today the world’s Kurds are scattered over parts of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, each group struggling to retain identity or fighting for greater rights, autonomy or outright independence from nations where they never felt they belonged.
The lines that colonial agents Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Francois Georges-Picot of France drew across the map for the secret division of the Middle East, are blamed for much of the chaos in the region since then.
When the Islamic State (ISIS) group symbolically dismantled the border between Syria and Iraq nearly two years ago, it declared that reversing the effects of the Sykes-Picot deal was one goal of its insurgency.
"This is not the first border we will break, we will break other borders," a jihadist warned in an ISIS video shortly after the group stormed across Iraq in June 2014. A month later in a speech in Mosul, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi vowed: "this blessed advance will not stop until we hammer the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes–Picot conspiracy."
Last January, Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani told The Guardian
newspaper he believes that Sykes-Picot, which marked the beginning of the Kurds misfortune, is already history.
“I think that among themselves (world leaders), have come to the conclusion that the era of Sykes-Picot is over,” he explained. “Whether they say it or not, accept it or not, the reality on the ground is that. But as you know, diplomats are conservatives and they give their assessment in the late stages of things. And sometimes they can’t even keep up with developments.”
Divided among four states, the Kurds have been subjugated by all of these governments over the course of the last one-hundred years. Today, with the exception of Iran, all of these Kurdish regions are embroiled in wars.
The Kurds of Iraq have had to organize themselves and could not count on the central government in Baghdad to protect them from ISIS. Having been oppressed and subjected to mass-murder under the regime of Saddam Hussein and now only able to rely on themselves to protect their region and their people against ISIS, Iraq’s Kurds are opting to hold an independence referendum before the end of 2016.
While Syria’s Kurds have not opted for independence, their federalism declaration earlier this year was vehemently opposed by both the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition. Both are wary of the Kurds having too much self-determination, even if within the boundaries of the Syrian state.
The Kurds of both Iran and Turkey have very little self-determination. Turkey is once again embroiled in conflict in its own Kurdish-majority southeast against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after the breakdown of peace talks last year. In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani promised reforms last year, which have yet to bear fruit.
On the hundredth anniversary of this agreement both Iraq and Syria are under existential strains and at risk of fragmentation.
Having been run by elites from minority sects for decades, the Alawites in Syria and the Sunni Arabs in Shiite-majority Iraq, both countries experienced fundamental change in recent years, which shook the foundations upon which they were built and their very existence as unitary nation states.
The bloody-stained legacy of the agreement has been present in the minds of Western officials on its centenary.
Speaking to US troops in Baghdad last month, US Vice President Joe Biden alluding to the agreement.
"Think of all the places we are today trying to keep the peace, all the places we've sent you guys and women," Biden said. "They're places where because of history, we've drawn artificial lines, creating artificial states, made up of totally distinct ethnic, religious cultural groups and said, 'Have at it. Live together.'"
Barzani is set to hold a referendum on independence before the end of 2016 to decide on breaking away from Iraq and creating an independent Kurdistan.
On the anniversary of the agreement, the PKK-affiliated Kurdish National Congress intends to protest the border dividing Iraq and Syria’s Kurdish regions arguing that they ”are not in debt, and for sure not bound” to uphold an artificial boundary. The Iraqi-Syrian border which emerged directly from the Sykes-Picot agreement effectively divided those two Kurdish regions.
Syria expert Professor Joshua Landis has long argued that these developments in the Middle East are reminiscent of what happened in Europe 50 years ago.
“In Poland there were 64 percent Poles before World War II, after it was almost 100 percent Polish, completely homogeneous. Similarly Czechoslovakia was emptied of minorities who, before the war, made-up 32 percent of the population. European Jewry was destroyed and so forth,” he told Rudaw English
in an interview earlier this year.
Yugoslavia also broke-up because of the inability of its heterogeneous population to co-exist within common borders.
“Iraq might have had a chance of binding together a common identity but the way Saddam Hussein treated the Kurds burnt any chance of that,” Landis added.