A new voice in the Middle East

By Geoffrey Alderman, July 17, 2014

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 Fran├žois 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.

Surely the Kurds are entitled to a state of their own

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 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.

Last updated: 1:10pm, July 17 2014