A Kurdish Peshmerga planting the flag of Kurdistan in Kirkuk, June 2014. Photo: Rudaw
MONTREAL, Canada — The recent seizures of swaths of land by the Kurds and Sunni insurgents in Iraq has called into question borders that were drawn nearly a century ago. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) launched its assault on the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June, Iraq has effectively been partitioned.
Jihadist-led Sunni rebels proclaimed a “caliphate” stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala, northeast of Baghdad, while Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani signaled the Kurds would take steps towards independence including new territories Kurdish fighters seized in the north. Iraq’s Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has been left in control of Baghdad and of the south.
Iraq was carved out under the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, through which the British and French partitioned their respective spheres of influence after World War I.
“New state borders were drawn in European capitals without giving any regard to the historical and local conditions. Lines were drawn in the sand, in the mountains and in the towns and villages of the MENA (Middle East and North Africa.) Within a short period of time, people became members of new political entities,” Khaled Salih, vice chancellor of the University of Kurdistan in Erbil, told Rudaw in an email interview.
“Most of these artificially created borders divided and combined different ethnicities and sectarian groups which today have created enormous problems in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon,” agreed Michael M. Gunter, Professor at Tennessee Technological University and an expert on Kurdish affairs.
“It is not so much up to us to re-consider how these borders were originally drawn, as much as it is up to us to accommodate ourselves to the changes that are now occurring particularly in Syria and Iraq involving the Kurds and the lines of separation between the Sunni and Shiite,” Gunter maintained.
The secret accord initially aimed to secure French and British trade and oil interests along with creating artificial nation-states, which proved problematic early on.
“No place in the Middle East is truly homogeneous and one of the big challenge of creating national boundaries is that those minorities need to be integrated or they suffer repression,” Howard Eissenstat, history professor at the University of St-Lawrence in New York and an expert in the late Ottoman Empire, told Rudaw in a phone interview.
The recent territorial claims by Sunni insurgents and the open Kurdish pursuit of independence are perhaps the biggest threat Iraq’s unity — and the Sykes-Picot agreement — since the nation was conceived.
“With the collapse of the political orders in many states — particularly in Syria, Iraq and Libya — the notion of the nation-state has come tremendous pressure. It is now very likely that these states can be altered by internal forces from within these countries and by trans-border cooperation between armed groups,” Salih said.
Baghdad is now caught between the Kurds and ISIS, which have no interest in Iraq’s unity. Barzani, the president of the autonomous Kurdish region, is moving forward with the plan for statehood as Baghdad fails to shift its policy toward Erbil or deliver the Kurdistan Region’s budget, which Baghdad cut in January over oil disputes.
“Until recently, an independent state of Kurdistan was considered beyond the pale because it seemed to threaten the territorial integrity of the existing states. However, in recent years, the region has had plenty of time to adjust to the idea of Kurdish empowerment and with the seemingly collapse of Iraq and Syria as we knew them, at least independence for the KRG,” Gunter told Rudaw.
Last week the Kurdistan Region’s Parliament passed a law to create an electoral commission independent of Baghdad, paving the way for a referendum on Kurdish independence.
Yet unless it becomes more moderate, the extremist ISIS militia “in theory threatens all the existing states in the Middle East, possibly the KRG and Israel even more than the Arab states, because the KRG and Israel are not Arab,” Gunter said.
“Although changes in the existing borders in favor of the KRG and Sunnis in Iraq and Syria now seem inevitable, too many changes too quickly would probably lead to instability,” Gunter warned.