The president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish north has called on international leaders to acknowledge that the Sykes-Picot pact that led to the boundaries of the modern Middle East has failed and urged them to broker a new deal paving the way for a Kurdish state.
Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, who has led the troubled nation’s Kurds for the past decade, said the international community had started to accept that Iraq and Syria in particular would never again be unified and that “compulsory coexistence” in the region had been proven wrong.
“I think that within themselves, [world leaders] have come to this conclusion that the era of Sykes-Picot is over,” Barzani said. “Whether they say it or not, accept it or not, the reality on the ground is that. But as you know, diplomats are conservatives and they give their assessment in the late stages of things. And sometimes they can’t even keep up with developments”
The political map of northern Iraq has changed drastically in the 18 months since the Islamic State overran Iraq’s second city, Mosul. Kurdish forces are now in full control of Kirkuk and Sinjar and have claimed control of thousands more kilometers of land that had been under control of Iraq’s central government.
Now, four months before the centennial of the Sykes-Picot agreement under which Britain and France carved spheres of influence from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Barzani said maintaining the status quo would ensure further regional disintegration and destruction.
He said independence, which has been the centerpiece of Kurdish ambitions for decades, but has been fiercely opposed by suspicious regional neighbors, was “now closer than at any other time.” Nations that had long been against the move were being swayed by the claim that sovereignty within the current borders of the Kurdish regional government could instead bring clarity, he said.
Over the past 10 years, an already tenuous relationships with Baghdad has been shredded. Iraqi leaders have been particularly angered by the seizure of Kirkuk, which has seen Erbil direct the flow of the city’s oil to its pipeline spreading north to Turkey. Erbil, meanwhile, had seen its prescribed share of central budget revenues slashed before it took the city, beating the Islamic State in a race for control in the days following Mosul’s fall.
Barzani said regional and international powers now needed to enshrine a new pact that would protect communities in Iraq and Syria, where divisions have become entrenched on socio-religious and sectarian lines.
“There must be a [new] agreement, it is important to see what type of agreement it is, what mechanism it can bring and rely on to formalize things and what will be its status. When the formalization of that agreement will be is not known yet. It’s illogical to continue or insist on repeating a wrong experiment that was repeated for 100 years and is leading nowhere. Right now, Iraq is divided. We are not responsible for it. On the contrary, we have done our best to preserve Iraqi unity and a democratic Iraq. In 1991, we went to Iraq and negotiated with those criminals that were responsible with the chemical bombardment, the Anfal campaign [launched by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein against the Kurds],” Barzani said.
“People talk about the experience of national reconciliation in South Africa. With all my respect for what they experienced, what we as the Kurds did happened even before the South African situation. After 2003, we went to Baghdad and tried our best through the constitutional process, but the existing culture in Iraq is not one of coexistence,” he said.
“So if we can’t live together we have to live with other alternatives,” he added.
Barzani announced he would push for independence on July 1, 2014 the first time a Kurdish leader had pledged to do so after decades of armed struggle, civil war and displacement. The announcement was meant to lead to a referendum, but it failed to generate momentum and was soon subsumed by the Islamic State advance on Erbil, and the worsening crisis in Iraq and Syria.
He told the Guardian that some neighbors had come to see the Kurdistan region as a source of stability in a region otherwise dominated by geopolitical chaos.
“All of the opposition to us has been based on some wrong perceptions. The Kurdistan region is not a source of threat for any of the neighbors. Our experience throughout the last 15 years proves that we are the element of stability,” he said.
Neighboring states have long been concerned about the domestic implications of a sovereign Kurdish state. Turkey, Syria and Iran have large Kurdish minorities of their own. Turkey, in particular, has fought a four-decade campaign against Kurdish militants that it believes want to create an autonomous region in its south-east.
However, at the same time it has cultivated warm relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government leadership.
“We have not discussed this with Turkey, whether they are going to accept this or not. I don’t think [they would oppose it]. This is our national right. We are not a threat to anyone, but we don’t seek permission to exercise our rights,” Barzani said.
Barzani said regional attitudes had shifted markedly.
“It has been a dramatic change,” he said. “To give you one example. Using Kurdistan and Kurds was forbidden in Turkey, but a month ago when I went to Turkey, the Kurdistan flag flew in the presidential palace.”
“If you compare it to the time I have lived with, throughout all our experiences, I think it is now much closer than at any other time. I know that it’s a heavy weight, but it’s a sacred responsibility,” he said.
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