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Redrawing the map

Guest post by DaveM

Anybody who’s spent any time on the Arab world can attest that, at least in public, introspection is very hard to come by. There’s still a dominant and powerful Pan-Arab position which holds that pretty much everything wrong in the region can be attributed to one of two factors – Jewish self-determination and the Sykes – Picot Agreement.

As I’ve discussed before, Arab Nationalists claim there is a single Arab Nation which has been divided into artificial states by the Imperial powers of England and France.

Rather than being recognised for what it is, an ideology just like the others– e.g. Communism, Fascism or Anarchism– for a long time a lot of people in the Arab world saw it as a reflection of the truth.

In 2008 Al Jazeera English carried out a small vox pop on this issue; but it does reflect the views I experienced when I was in Syria the previous year, such as this one:

“One could say that the Arab nations of the Middle East were created by the agreement. The Sykes-Picot agreement was a secret understanding between Britain and France dividing up remnants of the Ottoman Empire into areas that would be administered by these two superpowers.

From an Arab perspective, the divisions created were entirely artificial.

Nevertheless, these divisions led to the national boundaries that followed”.

This year the Guardian published an opinion piece from Hassan Bin Talal which said much the same thing.

[O]ur British and French “allies” doomed us to decades of divisive sectarianism and destructive rivalry, confined by borders that failed to match the economic, ethnic and environmental realities on the ground. The infamous Sykes-Picot agreement that partitioned west Asia into British- and French-mandated territories quashed the nascent Arab renaissance movement, forcing its sentiments to simmer under the surface of the Arab psyche and boil over only intermittently for the next century.

And of course it wasn’t just Arab voices promoting this ideology.

One of the main grievances held by its adhererents is that the borders in the Middle East do not reflect any ethnic realities on the ground. However after the uprisings and turmoil which have engulfed the region for the last three years, this looks like it’s about to change, yet not in a way which Arab nationalists would like.

Masoud Barzani: “I’m certain that the independent Kurdish state is coming. I have no doubt.”

Sky News Arabia: “Barzani is bringing the destiny of Kurdistan Iraq back into the forefront. While this isn’t the first time in which he’s talked about the Kurdish state it is one of those rare times in which he’s been frank in regards to the inevitability of establishing the entity.

“Barzani’s old-renewed position is now becoming more crystallized and he considers that the unity of Iraq has become something hypothetical.”

Masoud Barzani:“The central authority doesn’t have any authority over must of Iraq and especially the region of Kurdistan. And the central authority doesn’t have any authority in lot of the other regions. There doesn’t exist a government which controls the situation in Iraq. It’s a government of agreement but in truth it’s no longer that”.

Sky News Arabia: “Barzani thinks that the issue goes beyond the Iraqi border. In his view the developments which are being witnessed by the region have come in order to rectify the international and regional agreements and to leave behind the huge errors (which were made) in the drawing of the countries and regions borders since Sykes-Picot.

“He says that the path is beginning with confederation in Iraq but that it’s aspiring to more than that both inside and outside the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq).”

Across the border in Syria the situation is not a lot different, though its Kurdish enclave is is run by political rivals to the Kurdistan Iraq government.

The Middle East order, established after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, has been rocked to its foundations in recent years. One of the results of this is that nations and groups which lost out in the period of ferment that followed the Ottoman collapse now have the distinct sense that history may be about to afford them a second chance.

Most prominent among such peoples are the Kurds. This ancient, non-Semitic Middle Eastern nation of around 40 million people is spread between four Middle Eastern states – Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

[Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Zubeyir] Aydar is soft-spoken and precise – a lawyer, not a military man. Born in the town of Siirt, in the Kurdish heartland in southeast Turkey, he fled the country in 1994, and has made his base in Brussels ever since. Our conversation was the first this senior PKK official had conducted with an Israeli publication.

It took place in the [Kurdistan National Congress] offices in the Belgian capital, which are located behind discreet wooden doors in an elegant if slightly shopworn old Brussels house. The Kurdish official’s messages were clear and unambiguous.

First and foremost, he noted the reality of emergent Kurdish self-government: “In the Middle East, a Kurdistan is rising,” Aydar said. “It doesn’t yet have official borders. But it is there, a reality. There is Kurdish authority running all the way from the Iranian border to close to the Mediterranean.”
…….
“It’s possible Syria may collapse,” he continued.

“If it does, the Kurds won’t put it back together. They will rule their own areas. The map of the Middle East may change. Its not written by God; no one asked us when they drew the map. In any case, the Kurds must be ready for all possible developments.”

This is something which could have wide ranging consequences for Israel.

Aydar also made some fascinating and far-reaching comments about Israel and its place in the region. His tone was one common among Kurds, yet probably without parallel elsewhere in the region.

“There is an Islamic approach toward Israel in the Middle East,” he said. “Before that, there was a leftist point of view. But both of these were based on Arab nationalism. This view was saying that Israel has no place in the Middle East, and Jews have no rights in the Middle East.

“The other nations in the Middle East – Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Kurds – have to accept the existence of Israel in the Mideast. They have to recognize that these people are from the region, and are indigenous people of the region. And whatever rights Arabs have, Israel also has. This nation has the right to live on its own soil.”

Aydar went on to call for “breaking the walls between Kurds and Israelis, and getting to know each other. If we can continue our friendship, both sides will benefit from it. The region needs the Israeli experience.

So it’s important that we develop and further relations – not just as two peoples, but also at the highest levels.’

Of course an affinity between Kurds and Israelis shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody; after all both sides have paid a heavy price to achieve self-determination.

Now more than at any time in the past there could be more nation states in the Middle East which finally reflect the ethnic makeup of their populations, giving them rights they never had prior to independence.

“The reality of Kurdistan is emerging in the Middle East – Kurdish sovereignty is on its way,” Aydar reiterated… That this statement sounds more realistic today than at any time in recent memory is a testament to the deep and historic changes underway in the region.