It was in 1916, in the midst of World War I, that Britain and France (pitted against the Germans, Austrians and Ottoman Turks) made their infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. In grand imperial style, they used this agreement to divide up the Middle East between them. It was a daring move, considering that the war was at a stalemate and the two allies did not know if they were going to win the struggle. Nonetheless, they went ahead with the agreement and in doing so made a number of decisions that continue to shape the region to this day.
Besides bringing traditional European imperialism forward into the twentieth century, what made Sykes-Picot infamous was the fact that it broke a significant previous promise made to the Arabs. By 1916 the Arabs had taken to the battlefield against the Turks. For their doing so, the British had promised to support the creation of a large Arab state. But this promise had always clashed with the imperial ambitions of Britain and France, and so, in the end, they secretly conspired to betray their non-Western ally. Among the eventual consequences of this betrayal, the “Arab state” was confined to what is, today, Saudi Arabia; Palestine (which originally was to be part of the Arab state) would become a “national home for the Jews”; Syria went to the French, and much of the rest of the region was given over to the British.
The Sykes-Picot agreement allowed for one further change. It made possible a state for the Kurds – a people who constituted the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East. This state, known as Kurdistan, was to be carved out of territory within the eventually defeated Ottoman Empire. This intent was publicly confirmed in the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. The Kurdish leaders, who by this time must have been aware of the Western powers’ betrayal of the Arabs, therefore should not have been surprised when, despite the treaty, the British and French betrayed them as well. The 1923 Treaty of Lucerne amended the Treaty of Sevres, and sure enough, the state of Kurdistan was omitted. The lands that would have made up the Kurdish nation instead become parts of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Thus, the Kurds remained stateless. However, they never gave up statehood as a goal.
Now we can fast-forward to 20 March 2003, the date that President George W. Bush took the fateful step of invading Iraq. Bush had an array of flimsy excuses for doing this: Saddam Hussein’s non-existent nuclear weapons, Saddam’s alleged plot to assassinate Bush’s father, the dream (really the nightmare) of forceable “regime change” as a way of making the Middle East safe for the U.S. and Israel, or perhaps just the cutting loose of neoconservative bellicosity. Whatever the president’s depth of ignorance led him to anticipate, the invasion set loose forces that neither Bush, nor any subsequent U.S. president, has been able to control. Among these are the consequences that followed the falling apart of Iraq.
The Kurdish Issue Resurfaces
Like the destruction of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the destruction of Iraq that resulted from the 2003 U.S. invasion opened up a Pandora’s Box of potential territorial changes. Not the least of these was the possible creation of the state of Kurdistan.
Like the Arabs in World War I, the Kurds became a fighting ally of the West in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent Syrian civil war. The region’s chaos allowed for the emergence of the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (aka ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh). ISIS turned out to be a grim and brutal manifestation of religious fanaticism run amok. Its growth threatened just about every state in the region, as well as the citizens of the European Union and the U.S. If stability was to eventually prevail, ISIS had to be defeated, and the Kurds played (and continue to play) a notable role in this fight. There is little doubt that one of their goals in doing so is to create favorable conditions for a Kurdish state.
For all those powers (Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq) seeking to reestablish the status quo ante, the prospect of an independent Kurdish state is anathema. Each state has Kurdish minorities and is afraid that an independent Kurdistan, even one carved out of another state’s territory, would lead to or exacerbate Kurdish insurgencies in their own countries. The possibility that such a state might instead cause a lessening of minority Kurdish restiveness through voluntary immigration seems not to have occurred to the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Syria.
As Jonathan Cook has recently made clear, the question of Kurdish independence has been complicated by Israeli influence in this matter. The Israelis have long been keen on an independent Kurdistan not because, as some of their politicians disingenuously claim, the Kurds have a “moral right” to a state (so do the Palestinians). Rather, the Israelis have an undeclared but official policy aimed at “Balkanizing” the Arab states. They have been encouraging “sectarian and ethnic discord” in order to destabilize their neighbors. In other words, Israeli support of the Kurds is an effort to weaken primarily Iraq, and secondarily, Syria and Iran (Turkey is just “collateral damage” in this process).
One can hardly blame the Kurds for taking help where they can get it – in this case from Israel – in a fight for independence that has been going on for centuries. Nonetheless, one can also understand that Israeli meddling seriously frightens the other states affected.
Leaving aside the Israeli issue for a moment, the question that should guide policy here is: can Iraq be reestablished as a viable state? Putting the question more informally, in 2003 a rather stupid American president, working under the influence of Zionists, Iraqi nationalists bearing false witness, and witless neoconservatives, knocked the Iraqi Humpt