Suheil, Iraq—A century after Britain and France drew their famous line in the sand, dividing the Middle East into zones of influence, the leader of one of the region’s few oases of stability, Iraqi Kurdistan, says it’s time to replace artificial with “natural” borders according to national identity.
But change should come through peaceful means such as referendum, following “dialogue” with existing governments, said Massoud Barzani, the 69-year-old president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. That applies to Iraqi Kurdistan, where independence is a national cause but faces adamant opposition from the government in Baghdad and the dominant outside power in the region, Iran.
“This Sykes-Picot agreement may have been good at the time. But it’s clear that it was a mistake, the mistake of the century,” Barzani told The Nation. “The borders were drawn by hand in the name of the great powers. But in practice, these borders no longer exist today. It’s time that others recognize that, and accept this reality.”
The carve-up of the Levant took place during World War I. Mark Sykes, a British politician, sketched the line on the map from the “E” of Acre, in what is now Israel, to the third “K” in Kirkuk, in Iraq, at a meeting with British cabinet ministers in December 1915, and French diplomat François Georges-Picot agreed to it the following month. In a May 1916 exchange of letters, France asserted the right to dominate what is now Syria after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, and Britain asserted the right to do so over what was to become southern Iraq, parts of northern Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan.
“Every people should have its natural borders,” Barzani said. “Borders drawn by force should no longer apply.”
Calling for referenda as the mechanism for change, he said: “One should ask the peoples: Do you want to live together? Do you want to separate, and draw the borders accordingly? No solution should be forced. In my view every change, every new solution, shall come about through a referendum.”
“People cannot be forced together. No matter how long one tries, it will fail in the end,” he said.
Barzani spoke from inside a prefab building at a military base in the north of the Kurdistan region, his modest forward headquarters close to the Turkish and Syrian borders. From here he directs the Kurdish peshmerga, perhaps the most effective ground force in the 60-plus-nation battle against Islamic State extremists.
The oil-rich Kurdistan region, which operated under semi-independence after the US invasion of Iraq, is still embroiled in bitter dispute with an ever more dysfunctional central government in Baghdad. At issue are the governance of Iraq, major deficiencies in financial and arms support for the peshmerga, and still-missing payments for the sale of oil, not to mention the future of disputed areas along the border between the Kurdish-ruled and predominantly Arab areas.