A new voice in the Mid­dle East

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Ge­of­frey Al­der­man

IN CASE YOU hadn’t no­ticed, the map of the Mid­dle East is now be­ing re­drawn. Spokesper­sons for “Isis” — the self-styled “Is­lamic State in Iraq and the Le­vant,” whose hys­ter­i­cal hordes have butchered and be­headed their way down from Syria into the heart of Iraq — claim that the cur­rent bound­aries are the re­sult of the Sykes-Pi­cot “con­spir­acy.” This is a ref­er­ence to the se­cret agree­ment con­cluded in 1916 be­tween the French diplo­mat François Pi­cot and his Bri­tish coun­ter­part Mark Sykes. Un­der this ac­cord, which sought to dis­mem­ber the Ot­toman Em­pire, the French con­ceded a Bri­tish sphere of in­flu­ence that in­cluded Pales­tine, Tran­sjor­dan and much of Iraq (in­clud­ing the Kur­dish oil­fields around Kirkuk), while the Bri­tish con­ceded a French sphere that em­braced what is now Le­banon and much, though not all, of Syria.

Sykes, a friend of Chaim Weiz­mann, was a prom­i­nent Gen­tile Zion­ist; the Arab po­si­tion has al­ways been that the agree­ment he signed with Pi­cot was part and par­cel of the Zion­ist “colo­nial en­ter­prise”.

As a mat­ter of fact, the Sykes-Pi­cot agree­ment was never im­ple­mented. By the time of the 1919 Paris peace con­fer­ence, its ma­jor in­ten­tions had been over­taken by events on the ground. Iraq and Syria were not par­ti­tioned in ac­cor­dance with the wishes of Pi­cot and Sykes.

In­stead their bound­aries re­mained as they had been un­der Ot­toman rule, an ar­range­ment that was im­ple­mented fol­low­ing dis­cus­sions be­tween the Bri­tish High Com­mis­sioner in Iraq, Sir Arnold Wil­son, and Feisal, who had fought along­side Lawrence of Ara­bia and was briefly King of Syria (1920) and later King of Iraq (1920-33).

Feisal dreamt of a state stretch­ing from the Turk­ish bor­der to the Gulf, which would em­brace all Arabs, whether Shia or Sunni. In one sense, Isis is heir to this as­pi­ra­tion. Its wider am­bi­tion, which it now claims to have achieved, is to re-es­tab­lish the me­dieval Is­lamic caliphate, to which the Ot­tomans paid lip ser­vice un­til its abo­li­tion by the sec­u­lar Turk­ish repub­lic in 1924.

The Ot­toman caliphate was lit­tle more than a cloak, screen­ing Turkey’s cen­turies-long bru­tal op­pres­sion of var­i­ous Arab pop­u­la­tions. But even if the borders of Syria and Iraq owe noth­ing to 20th-century im­pe­ri­al­ists, their ar­ti­fi­cial­ity can­not be de­nied. Sun­nis and Shi’ites are never go­ing to be rec­on­ciled. Un­der Sad­dam Hus­sein, the Sun­nis of north­ern Iraq lorded it over the Shi’ites of the south. Un­der Nouri al-Ma­liki the Shi’ites have had a short-lived re­venge. The coun­try has now bro­ken apart.

But in this cloud there is a sil­ver lin­ing: the borders of an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dish state are be­ing mapped out. The Kurds were losers

Surely the Kurds are en­ti­tled to a state of their own

in the post-1918 peace-mak­ing process. They were not per­mit­ted self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. Mas­sa­cred by the Turks, gassed by Sad­dam, Kurds are surely en­ti­tled to a state.

For Is­rael, noth­ing but good can come from the mur­der­ous dis­in­te­gra­tion of Iraq and the es­tab­lish­ment of an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dish state. For the past half-century, in their nec­es­sar­ily dis­creet deal­ings with Is­rael, Kur­dish lead­ers have em­pha­sised that they are not Arabs and that they do not view the Jewish state through Arab eyes.

Per­sis­tent ru­mours of Is­raeli sup­port for the PKK — the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party — have nat­u­rally been de­nied. But it’s an open se­cret that the PKK has de­ployed mil­i­tary hard­ware of Is­raeli ori­gin, and that Is­raeli-Kur­dish busi­ness re­la­tion­ships have deep­ened in re­cent years. Re­ports sug­gest that oil may at last be reach­ing Is­rael from the au­ton­o­mous Kur­dis­tan re­gion of north­ern Iraq.

I was not sur­prised that, in a speech in Tel Aviv at the end of June, Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu should have called openly (if pre­ma­turely) for the cre­ation of an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dish state, which he hopes can form part of a broader coali­tion of mod­er­ate na­tions across the re­gion.

These sen­ti­ments have been echoed by Is­raeli For­eign Min­is­ter Avig­dor Lieber­man and even by out­go­ing pres­i­dent Shi­mon Peres. Af­ter his re­cent meet­ing with US pres­i­dent Barack Obama, Peres told re­porters that main­tain­ing a uni­fied Iraq would be im­pos­si­ble with­out “mas­sive” mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion. “The Kurds have, de facto, cre­ated their own state, which is demo­cratic.”

Such a state un­ques­tion­ably de­serves and has surely earned Jewish en­dorse­ment.

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