Will the revived march of the Kurds for an independent homeland be the time when the Sykes-Picot agreement, which amidst the chaos of the First World War divided the Arab world between British and French inﬂuence and control, becomes ﬁnally unstuck?
This deal, struck between the two senior British and French diplomats in 1916 at the point of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, opened a new era of colonial domination over a hugely oil-rich region of the utmost racial, religious, ethnic and tribal complexity. On less than clear instructions from their governments, they cheerfully drew straight lines through the region which determined the contours of the future Syrian and Iraqi states, and which politically led indirectly to the later emergence of Israel. Straight lines, being the shortest distance between two points, were preferred to avoid cartological complications notwithstanding that the resulting population complexities sowed the seeds of continuous conﬂict from then to the present day.
The states thereby created, initially controlled by those colonial powers, eventually afforded local dominant groups the chance to mobilise and exploit national sentiment and govern as recognised entities in the international system – albeit with frequent civil unrest, instability and external interference, compounded ﬁnally by the US/Australian invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The group that missed out most from the outcome of the Sykes-Picot Agreement were the Kurds, a distinct ethnic collection of some 30-40 million scattered in overlapping border locations in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, but predominantly in Iraq. Their quest over the decades for their own independent state has been thwarted and repressed constantly by all of the above, though under the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which wrapped up the Ottoman Empire, they were promised the option of an independent state of Kurdistan. Unfortunately for them the treaty was not ratiﬁed by Turkey and in this respect it fell apart. Since then Kurd politics has been ﬁerce and turbulent as factions emerged among them or, moderately united, they were engaged in skirmishes, rebellions or armed conﬂict with one or another of their neighbours, or the reigning colonial powers – when, for example, in 1946 British RAF bombers came to the aid of the then Iraqi royal government, which drove many of them into Iran. Since then the Iranians drove them back to Iraq.
The most recent context for the Kurds is twofold:
(i) in 2005 the US-imposed Iraqi Constitution recognised a Kurdish Regional Government to the north of Iraq (which previously Saddam Hussein had tried to destroy); and
(ii) the extraordinarily effective military campaigns conducted by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces (men and women) against Islamic State (IS).
It seems that no amount of recognition of the Kurds’ efforts and sacriﬁces will take their quest for independence any further forward, such is the determination of the four adjoining states to prevent it. In their on-going struggles they are deemed by these (except when ﬁghting IS, and even then at times) to be terrorists – whether true or not – not least by Erdoman’s dictatorship in Turkey.
This has brought the now largely united Kurds, under President Masoud Bazani of the Kurdish Autonomous Region in Iraq, to set in process a referendum on the independent state question, a question that is consistent with the universal right of self-determination but inconsistent unfortunately with universal diplomatic practice against questioning the territorial integrity of existing states (Biafra, Southern Sudan and Bangladesh being recent examples of the contradiction). In any case the Kurds would have another seeming insurmountable difﬁculty for viable independence in that it would be a land-locked state and its neighbours, rather than being cooperative, can be expected to be largely hostile. Whether Afghanistan and the former Soviet “Stans”, being land-locked too, could have helpful experience in this regard would remain to be seen.
The referendum called by President Masoud Bazani is to be held this week. All four neighbouring states are now threatening serious repercussions if the referendum goes ahead and, if passed as expected, even invasion to quash (yet again) the Kurds’ aspirations altogether. The leading Western nations, with in this case their typical double standards, are leaning on Bazani to stop the campaign, arguing that it would seriously disrupt the precarious situation (not to mention balance!) now existing throughout the Middle East and would provide IS with an opportunity to regain lost ground.
It is hardly any wonder that the Kurds, who are now in a stronger position than they have ever been, are disinclined to heed these counsels having been let down so many times in the past. Moreover their chance is better than before now that both Iraq and Syria are broken states and there is nothing sacrosanct, in terms of the broad sweep of history and the betrayals of the past, about their existing boundaries. If independence is a step too far for the Kurds even now, they should be allowed full respect for their autonomy in their respective regions (these are not cohesive throughout) and left to live their lives and culture in peace, without external harassment, pending any future overall settlement in the Middle East when the irrationalities and injustices of the 1916 colonial settlement may in time be put to rest. Meanwhile we await the event of the referendum and its outcome with interest.
Andrew Farran is a former Australian diplomat, trade adviser and senior academic in public and international law. He is a long-standing member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London.