The remapping of the Middle East

By Claudio Gallo 

Jeremy Salt is a professor of History and Politics of the Middle East at Bilkent University, Ankara. His book The Unmaking of the Middle East is a brilliant history of the last hundred years in the region, not affected by “orientalist” cliches. We asked Professor Salt to explain the present transformation of the Middle East, including the Kurdish knot. The Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey now can’t stop talking about the emergence of a Great Kurdistan. 
Claudio Gallo: Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad gave a free hand to northern Syria Kurds. May this become a real casus belliwith Turkey? 
Jeremy Salt: It may be going too far – to conclude that Assad gave a free hand to the Kurds in Syria. It is more likely that in the complete turmoil spreading across the country, he could not stop them from taking control of Kurdish areas close to the Turkish border. He certainly would not want to open up a front against the Kurds while trying to suppress the armed groups. 
Whether this becomes a casus belli depends on how the Turkish government chooses to read the situation. But it is alarmed at the possibility of a Kurdish enclave being established in Northern Syria, strengthening the prospect of a “Greater Kurdistan” being created in the future. These complications should have been foreseen but apparently were not when Turkey decided to confront the Syrian government more than a year ago. 
CG: Ankara is keeping a direct connection with the Iraqi Kurd administration, bypassing Baghdad. What in your opinion is the goal of Turkish diplomacy? 
JS: It is very difficult to read Turkish diplomacy at the moment or to understand what the present regional policy is intended to achieve. If we look at Turkish policy until the beginning of 2012, we can see that “soft power” and “zero problems” [as pushed for by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu] had worked. Turkey had a strong working relationship with all of its eastern neighbors. As a result of the decision to work for “regime change” in Syria all this has been turned upside down. 
The US and the Gulf states may be grateful for the central role Turkey is playing in the campaign to dislodge the Syrian government but the costs for Turkey have been great. Apart from the complete rupture with Damascus, the relationship with Iran and Iraq has been undermined. Turkey has also put itself at odds with Russia. 
Again, all of this should have been foreseen a year ago as the inevitable outcome of confronting the government in Damascus, which has a strong strategic relationship with Iran and which gives port facilities to the Russian fleet and has had a strong relationship with Russia/the USSR for the past half century. 
Iraq has been opposed to Turkish policy in Syria from the beginning. This is partly because Iraq is still suffering the consequences of armed Western intervention in 2003 and partly because of the way Turkey has developed its relationship with the Kurdish governorate in the north at the expense of its relationship with the Iraqi capital. 
Turkey has a strong trading relationship with the Iraqi north and one has to assume that its position is dictated by trade, oil and the strategic importance of the Kurdish north to the Western-Gulf state alliance confronting Syria and Iran. 
It must be remembered that more than 60% of Iraqis are Shi’ite. The sectarian element in Iraqi politics has been brought to the surface by virtually daily attacks on the Shi’ite and by the charges laid against the Sunni Muslim vice president, Tareq al-Hashimi, of organizing an anti-Shi’ite “death squad”. Hashimi is now out of the country, with the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, among those who have risen to his defense. 
CG: Is independence in the agenda of the president of the Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani? 
JS: The Kurdish governorate of Iraq is already independent in all but name. It maintains a strong army – officially described as security forces – and increasingly goes its own way whatever the government in Baghdad thinks or wants. So a declaration of independence is probably only a matter of timing once it is judged that the circumstances are right. 
Barzani has never made any secret of his view that a large slab of eastern Anatolia is “Western Kurdistan”. The incorporation of all this territory in a Kurdish state would be his ultimate objective. This makes Turkey’s dealings with the Kurdish north at the expense of its relationship with the central government of Iraq even harder to understand. 
Ultimately the Kurds will put their own interests first, a point that was underlined when Barzani recently brokered a meeting of Syrian Kurds and pushed them into reconciliation. As the Syrian Kurds include a faction close to the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] the Turkish prime minister was infuriated. Turkey is now very alarmed by the awakening of the Syrian Kurds. 
CG: May the possible fall of Assad’s Syria be the starting point for the creation of a Kurdish state? 
JS: The repercussions of the collapse of the Syrian state would be so severe that no one could now predict what might come out of the ruins. Such a collapse is not on the agenda for the moment, and it is probable that even the enemies of the Syrian government don’t want it because of the uncontrollable spillover effect. 
They might want a compliant government in place but they do not want chaos that will threaten their own interests across the region. A Kurdish state-in-being was able to arise in Iraq because of the invasion and occupation of 2003. This is not likely to be repeated in Syria. 
CG: Is Iran playing the Kurdish card against Turkey? 
JS: These states are always playing one card or another against each other. This is what is called diplomacy. Both Iran and Turkey have a Kurdish problem that governments inside and outside the region can exploit, as they have exploited it in the past. For both these countries, exploiting the Kurdish issue always carries the risk of blowback. 
I see no evidence that Iran is at present using the Kurdish card against Turkey, unless there is something I have missed. The greater danger arises from northern Iraq, where both the PKK and its Iranian Kurdish counterpart maintain bases of operations. It is from Iraq and not Iran that Kurdish militants – terrorists according to the Turkish government – have traditionally operated against Turkey. 
CG: It seems that we are back to the “unmaking” of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. Do you think that the parallel is correct? 
JS: What we are witnessing behind the immediate scenes of horror in Syria is the most comprehensive attempt to reshape the Middle East since World War I. The Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916 set out the geostrategic parameters of the modern Middle East but the model no longer works for the imperial/post-imperial powers and their regional allies. 
We have been through several phases but until now the nation-state has withstood the stress to which it has been subjected. These include the Suez War of 1956, the Western-backed Israeli attack on Egypt and Syria in 1967 and Israel’s attempt to set up a puppet government in Lebanon. The center of attention is what used to be called the “fertile crescent”, what is now Iraq and what is now Syria, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine. 
This entire region lends itself to ethno-religious breakdown if the “West” can get its foot through the door. 
The invasion of Iraq was followed by the destruction of Iraq as a unitary state. The constitution written in Washington – much as the constitutions of Iraq and Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s were written in London – turned a secular state into a state with a sectarian religious basis. It created a weak central government and fostered the growth of an increasingly powerful Kurdish governorate in the north. By submitting the future of Kirkuk to a referendum (yet to be held) it encouraged the demographic war that has been taking place as the Kurds seek to build up their numbers in and around this city. 
Syria lends itself to the same process of ethno-religious separation if the country can be collapsed and there is opposition to a Western-installed government. In 1918, the imperial powers divided the Middle East in a certain way that suited their interests at the time. They are now remapping it again – and again to suit their interests. It is not coincidental that this program dovetails with Israel’s own long-term strategic planning. 
Russia and China are fully aware of what is going on, which is why the present situation can be seen as a 21st century extension of the “Eastern question” or of the “Great Game” between Russia and Britain. Certainly the outcome of the struggle for Syria will shape the future of the Middle East for a long time to come. However they see themselves, the local actors are pawns in this game. 
Claudio Gallo is world news editor of Italian daily La Stampa. 

(Copyright 2012 Claudio Gallo.)

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