Written by Max Bluer
Since at least 2011 it has been clear that the break-up of the modern state of Iraq into its constituent ethnic territories is a distinct possibility, one only strengthened by IS and their dramatic gains across the region. Although many in the Western world have been fretting about the break down of the artificially imposed borders of the contemporary Middle East, the historical reality is that Iraq has always been a fractious and divided country. Its multiple ethnicities historically hold a greater attachment to their tribes and their ethnicities than to their state, particularly those Sunnis and Kurds that have been the victims of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s pro-Shia sectarianism. Analysts such as General Jay Garner are right to argue that the state of Iraq no longer exists,yet Western governments need to go still further and support the establishment of a sovereign Kurdistan, something they should have done a century ago when the region’s borders were being drawn in London and Paris.
2014 was a year replete with acts of remembrance and the centenary of the First World War should remind observers of the effects of that conflict and how they are felt today across the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot agreement – a secret series of treaties between Britain and France carving up the Ottoman Middle East between them according to imperial interests – divided not just Iraq but the entire region according to the interests of European powers and secular, personally ambitious Arab elites. These European bureaucracies – which included among their number one Winston Churchill – took little notice of the complex national, tribal and religious divisions that define Middle Eastern politics and were exposed as imperial anachronisms as soon as 1918 by Woodrow Wilson and his famous 14 points speech. In his declaration Wilson emphasised the character of the new units of international relations; not ethnically heterogeneous empires such as those run from London, Paris and Istanbul, but homogeneous nation-states made up of national communities with a shared linguistic, religious and cultural base from which a coherent nation-state could be formed.
Yet the Republic of Iraq boasts no such cohesion. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein a Shia majority – led until relatively recently by the unashamedly sectarian Nouri Al-Maliki – has dominated Iraqi politics leaving a deep sense of political disenfranchisement amongst Sunnis and Iraqi Kurds looking to carve out their own autonomous state in the North. This ambition of statehood has historically been sidelined by the West as a Kurdish state would demand a large chunk of South-Eastern Turkey, a secular, Western ally. Yet the Islamisation of the Turkish state under President-elect Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led to a cooling of Western-Turkish relations and a willingness upon the part of Western capitals to risk the previously steadfast alliance in favour of supporting the Kurdish nation and its status as a bulwark against Islamic State. American and European governments have decided that the threat of Islamic State, or IS, is so strong that military support for Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga, is necessary – despite the possibility of this Kurdish army turning its weapons upon the Syrian, Iraqi and even Turkish central governments for the establishment of a sovereign Kurdistan.
In fact the dramatic rise of IS has counter-intuitively benefited the cause of Kurdish statehood. Should the peshmerga be able to drive IS out of Kurdistan – and with Western military support it is likely that they will eventually be able to do so – they will find themselves well stocked with significant upgrades on the Soviet era weaponry they have previously had access to. More importantly the West will also find itself morally and politically in the Kurds’ debt for their sacrifices in defeating IS and will therefore reconsider Kurdish demands for statehood. With the Kurds already having carved out de facto independent territory in Northern Iraq and North-Eastern Syria, there will be increasing momentum towards a sovereign Kurdish state. Although this prospect angers Erdogan and his Justice and Development party, Western governments may well feel this to be a necessary price to pay in order to reward a key ally and establish a friendly state in the heart of a region riven with anti-Western sentiment. With Iraq and Syria unable to control their own territories, Turkish nervousness of how the establishment of a Kurdish state on its borders could radicalise its own sizable Kurdish community is the last significant hurdle to Kurdish statehood. The threat of IS has pushed the situation of the Kurds to the top of the international agenda, and the establishment of a sovereign, pro-Western Kurdistan with an ethnically homogenous, strong state that will be able to act as a buffer against future invasions from actors such as IS will prove too tempting for many in the West to resist.
The rise of IS has placed the Kurds on the frontline of one of the most blood-drenched battlefields in recent Middle Eastern history. A zeitgeist of Sunni dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement is blowing across the region, channelled by a group determined to introduce a caliphate governed by a harsh, puritanical version of 7th century Islam. The Kurds find themselves the principal force attempting to push back what has, at times, seemed an irresistible advance by the jihadists, aided by American air strikes and deliveries of Western arms. Yet the West owes far more to the Kurdish people than military assistance. The Sykes-Picot accords cut the Kurds out of the picture, leaving them as guests in the lands of the Syrians, the Iraqis and the Turks. The tradition of an homogeneous nation-state is strong in Western diplomacy, and it offends this tradition that the Kurds were not accorded their own under Sykes-Picot. Now is the perfect opportunity for this historical wrong to be righted, when the Kurds are as high on the international agenda as they have been for many years, and when the principal objectors find themselves, to varying degrees, either as an international pariah (Syria), too paralysed to seriously object (Iraq), or cooling relations with the West (Turkey). Should the Kurds decide to make a serious diplomatic and even military push for the establishment of their own state, the West is obliged by expediency and by its own traditions to support it.