The leader of the semi-autonomous state of Kurdistan in the northern region of Iraq believes the old borders are irrelevant and should be redrawn.
President Massoud Barzani has been the leader of Kurdistan for just over 10 years, and through that time he has witnessed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the rise of Islamic State, the civil war in Syria and severe destabilization of the Middle East in general. Though the Iraqi Kurds have their own government, military and society, they are still in the jurisdiction of Baghdad’s government. Barzani wants that to end.
“I think that within themselves, [world leaders] have come to this conclusion that the era of Sykes-Picot is over,” Barzani told The Guardian Friday. “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.”
Sykes-Picot was a secret agreement made between Great Britain and France during World War I that carved up the Middle East following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Dissolving the agreement may not be so much a matter of political expediency — the Kurds have wanted a country of their own for decades — as much it is an inevitable reality.
“The breakup of the Syrian and the Iraqi states is happening before our own eyes, and ISIS is just one symptom of the new post-Sykes-Picot configuration,” wrote Joyce Karam, Washington bureau chief for the Arabic Al-Hayat newspaper, for Saudi Arabia-based Al-Arabiya news in June 2015. “While the international community still emphasizes publicly the unity of Iraq and Syria, in reality everyone is quickly adjusting to the new order.”
Indeed, ISIS itself has made clear its intention to shatter the borders of Sykes-Picot and redraw the map of the Middle East. In one of the group’s many propaganda videos, an ISIS spokesman, speaking somewhere around the border region of Iraq and Syria, declared an end to Sykes-Picot in June 2014: “This is not the first border we will break, we will break other borders.”
The Kurds themselves number over 25 million, yet they are spread throughout the border regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and parts of Armenia. Despite having their own language, customs and traditions, they have not had a fully independent state for hundreds of years despite their key role in the fight against ISIS.
“Europeans had little interest in understanding the maze of Middle Eastern identities,” wrote Gabriel Scheinmann, director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center, for The Tower magazine in 2013. “The borders of the new states were determined neither by topography nor demography … a political map of the region from 1930 looks nearly identical to one from 2013.”
David Lesch, professor of Middle East history at Trinity university, pointed to the crisis in Syria as an example of the failure of Sykes-Picot.
“The pressure of the current Syrian conflict probably has broken this down into smaller units, such as Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, Shiite, Druze, Christian, secular, jihadist, etc.,” wrote Lesch in an op-ed for Al-Monitor in 2013. “In the end, what kept these artificial creations together was the on-the-ground military presence of the British, French and eventually the Americans. And when one of these three was not present, military dictatorship filled the void that emerged from colonialism, political immaturity, imperialist machination and the lack of a national identity.”
The demographics of many of the countries created out of Sykes-Picot are remarkably diverse, and in many ways fail to make sense. Iraq itself is a conglomeration of Kurds, Shia and Sunni Muslims. Bashar al-Assad still rules portions of Syria, yet he is of the Alawite sect, which makes up only 13 percent of the country. Lebanon, one of the most diverse countries in the Middle East, is made up of made up of 54 percent Muslims, evenly divided between the Sunni and Shia sects, 40 percent Christians of various denominations and just under 6 percent Druze, with the remainder of the population being of other sects and backgrounds. The various factions in Lebanon fought a bloody civil war for over two decades beginning in 1975.
“There must be a [new] agreement,” Barzani claimed Friday, “it is important to see what type of agreement it is, what mechanism it can bring and rely on to formalize things, and what will be its status. When the formalization of that agreement will be is not known yet. [sic] It’s illogical to continue or insist on repeating a wrong experiment that was repeated for 100 years and is leading nowhere.”
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