When the great powers divided the Middle East in the aftermath of the First World War, there was little consideration for the sectarian, ethnographic and tribal make-up of the new nation-states they were creating. Previously part of the Ottoman Empire, the region’s diverse people had existed relatively harmoniously for centuries.
The short-sighted carve-up was characterised by treachery and deceit. The Arabs, discontent with the Ottoman Empire’s new ‘Turkification’, were persuaded by the British to revolt — a decisive factor in the subsequent Allied victory. In return, they sought the establishment of the unified Arab State, as promised to Sharif Hussain, even as the ink was drying on the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, in 1916, secretly planned to divide the region, post-war, into nation-states that would be British and French protectorates.
The Kurds — who have inhabited contiguous territory in today’s Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran for centuries and now number around 30 million — were also cheated by the Europeans. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which formalised the partition of the defeated Ottoman Empire, provided for an autonomous Kurdish homeland in part of what is now modern Turkey. Unfortunately for the Kurds, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk almost immediately led a successful armed bid for power and by 1923 was signing the Treaty of Lausanne, which replaced Sevres and erased the putative Kurdistan.
For the past few months, there has been increasing talk from both Washington and Moscow regarding a ‘Plan B’ for Syria, which would see the country effectively divided into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish entities: A sinister second chapter of Sykes-Picot, with a hidden agenda and repercussions for the whole region.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has found himself increasingly isolated as the Syrian civil war has progressed. Now, the Kurdish question looks set to destabilise the relationship between Nato member Turkey and the United States, at a time when the latter is finding common ground with Moscow, while Ankara is at odds with the resurgent superpower.
In 2012, I attended Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party’s fourth congress in Ankara. It was held in a huge arena and attended by thousands of delegates. I was amazed when, during his address, Erdogan began reciting a litany of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire from Ozman Gazi in the 13th century through to Mehmed V1, whose Caliphate was abolished by the allies in 1922. As he progressed through the 36-strong list, he became increasingly impassioned and the crowd increasingly frenzied until everyone was on their feet cheering wildly. Perhaps Erdogan has visions of restoring the Empire, which invaded as far as Vienna. He is certainly passionately committed to a united Turkey.
Having waged a 30-year civil war against a guerrilla army, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), Erdogan will not countenance Kurdish independence. Washington and Moscow, however, have recently had increasing reason to be grateful to the Kurds whose YPG (People’s Protection Unit) battalions have successfully evicted Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) from Syrian towns and cities with air-cover from the West and Russia. An independent (or at least autonomous) Kurdistan may be on offer as a reward; the Iraqi Kurds were enabled to establish an autonomous zone, having worked with the West against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain. Having been excluded from the Geneva peace process at the insistence of Turkey, the Syrian Kurds announced a ‘Federation of Northern Syria’ last Wednesday; uniting three Kurdish zones into one entity. This, in effect, constitutes an autonomous Kurdish region along the Turkish border. The question now is will it receive western backing?
In February, Erdogan warned Washington that it must choose between Ankara and ‘the terrorists’ as he characterises the Kurdish YPG units. Receiving no assurances from his western allies, Erdogan dispatched his Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to Tehran last week in a surprise move, given that Iran and Turkey have been backing opposing sides in Syria. Like Turkey, Iran is violently opposed to Kurdish autonomy. At a joint press conference with Iranian Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri, Davutoglu emphasised a shared position that Syria should not be divided and that both countries want to stop ‘foreign powers’ from interfering.
The West is wary of headstrong leaders and appears to be losing patience with Erdogan. The so-called ‘strong men’ of the Arab world — Saddam, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad — are anathema to Washington and the many European capitals who have worked hard to hasten their downfall. The political concept of Pan-Arabism — which remains dear to the hearts of many in the Middle East — presents a similar threat.
Sectarianism and demands for autonomy by ethnic groups are useful tools in the big game of ‘divide and rule’ that foreign powers have been playing for centuries and that reached its apotheosis in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Underlying the current turbulence in the Middle East is the Sunni-Shiite schism (if not fomented then certainly not prevented by the West), to which we can now add the revived impetus for Kurdish independence.
I believe the western powers and Russia are seeking to implement a second chapter of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which would see much of Middle East federalised. In time, federalisation Middle East-style will practically become dismantlement. We can already see this in Iraq, which adopted a federal constitution in 2003 and has now devolved into three distinct — Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish — entities. The added complication here is that Daesh now dominates the Sunni heartland in western and central Iraq.
If ‘Plan B’ for Syria is implemented, the creation of a transnational Kurdistan is almost inevitable, with drastic consequences for Turkey and Iran, which will both, in effect, also be forced onto the path towards federalisation. How can it be a good thing to create even smaller administrative entities based on sect and ethnicity that are constantly warring against each other, making powerful national Arab armies a thing of the past? The only regional actor who would benefit from such chaos is Israel. Meanwhile, the great powers would benefit from weak regional governments, enabling them to exploit the region’s resources.
The first chapter of Sykes-Picot had diminished the dream of Pan-Arab nationhood. Chapter two will finally kill it.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor-in-chief of digital newspaper Rai alYoum: http://www.raialyoum.com. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@abdelbariatwan.