The risk of pushing border changes in the Middle East

The risk of pushing border changes in the Middle East

Current borders in the Middle East are far from perfect. They were drawn mostly as “lines in the sand” through two world wars. Starting from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 until the establishment of Israel in 1948, the borders in the region were also drawn through zones of influences over oil and gas fields.
There were similar effects in southeast Europe from the disintegration of the Ottoman dynasty, only there it took much longer – lasting until the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.

Today the focus is on the Middle East. The U.S. occupation of Iraq and then the Syrian civil war have added to the instabilities of Israel, Palestine and Lebanon in the region, but in a much more widespread manner.

Not only that. The Iraq crisis led up to a Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) being formed in the north along the Turkish and Iranian borders and a de facto Shiite-dominated rule in the south, bordering Iran, the Persian Gulf, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. 

Ten years later, the Syrian civil war has resulted in the potential for two separate and hostile border changes.

One of them is led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), the most violent terror organization of modern times claiming control over a third of both Syria and Iraq. The other is led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syria, which is linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has fought Turkey for Kurdish independence since 1984. With the advantage of being a ground force assisting both the U.S. and Russia against ISIL, the PYD-PKK now controls a region across more than 500 km of the Turkish border - from the KRG region in Iraq to the west toward the Mediterranean Sea. This is actually the area where they are fighting for domination against ISIL.

The PYD declared autonomy yesterday (March 17) for a three-piece, federal Syria, which Turkey and the U.S. have long warned against. By coincidence or not, KRG leader Massoud Barzani also stated three days ago that it was time for an independent Kurdistan, which he said Kurds have been looking for since the Lausanne Agreement of 1924. Barzani was referring to the agreement that internationally recognized the new Turkish Republic in 1923 after Turkey’s War of Independence against Greek, British, French, Italian and Armenian invaders.

One ranking diplomatic source suggested to me a week ago that the Kurds are currently dying in order to be rewarded for their fight against ISIL.

But is it possible to “reward Kurds” by carving out territories from four countries - Syria, Iraq and Iran (which recently signed a nuclear deal with the West), and Turkey (a key member of NATO vis–à–vis Russia)?

Let’s assume that the failing Syrian and Iraqi governments cannot perform an effective resistance to this. What would Turkey and Iran do? Any ideas?

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Barzani, the PKK and the PYD may have a valid point in raising their voices for a “people without a state,” despite Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu saying “Turkey is the state of Kurds as well.” 

But there is another aspect of the situation to consider. 

If Syria and Iraq end up officially failing, disintegrating and imploding, there will be four countries with a new political, economic and military potential to expand: Iran, Saudi Arabia (at odds with Iran), Israel and Turkey.

Once the already fragile borders start to change in the Middle East, no one could guess where and how the process will end. It seems that drawing “New Lines in the Sand” in the Middle East (the title of a Ditchley Park conference that started on March 17) is easier said than done.