By Maxime Fischer-Zernin
In May 1916 the United Kingdom and France signed the Sykes-Picot agreement, carving out arbitrary nations with little regard for natural religious or ethnic borders. Today, two years shy of the agreement’s centennial, the northern border between Syria and Iraq seems to have all but disappeared as a result of the territorial gains of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Although the fight against ISIL is far from over, it is imperative that the U.S. government engage regional stakeholders early on in order to plan for the next phase of the conflict: reconstruction. There must be an extensive debate as to how eventual border can be redrawn. For instance stakeholders must decide whether to draw borders along the Sykes-Picot lines or ethno-religious borders and whether a new independent Kurdish state may be necessary.
An Intervention Without Borders
The lack of Syrian or Iraqi control in the region over the past year has created a power vacuum allowing ISIL to establish an “Islamic State” across the former border. This development is not lost on the United States and its allies, who have expanded their Iraqi operations, namely air strikes, without expressed permission from President Assad’s Syrian government.
11 weeks after the first air strikes in Iraq and a month after the United States began bombing ISIL target in Syria, the mission has expanded to include ISIL-held targets in the beleaguered Syrian border town of Kobani. U.S. Central Command says eight strikes were carried out October 29th in and around Kobani, and “destroyed five [ISIL] fighting positions, a small [ISIL] unit, six [ISIL] vehicles, an [ISIL-controlled] building, and the command and control node.” Kurdish troops from Iraq have followed the President’s lead. A day after the bombings ten Kurdish fighters from Iraq, the first of a deployment of 150, entered Kobani in an attempt to secure the embattled town, a key border crossing with Turkey.
As the United States increases its intervention across Northern Syria and Iraq, it has invariably become the leading force combatting ISIL and a major stakeholder in deciding what is next for the region.
States Crumble and a Border Disappears
The dissolution of the Syrian-Iraqi border and national infrastructures in the stateless areas creates a problem few could have foreseen just six months ago. Joel Rayburn, author of Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance, told ForeignPolicy.com, “Syria no longer exists, certainly not in the way that we have known it, and I think the Syrian state can never be reconstituted within its old borders. In other words, some new political arrangement is going to emerge in Syria, and in my opinion it is highly unlikely to be a unitary state.”
Rayburn does, however, draw a distinction between Syria and Iraq. “I do think that Iraq still exists, and that there’s still some hope that it can remain intact. So there is a distinct difference between the health of the Iraqi state and the health of the Syrian state, and I think, actually, our strategy takes that into account.”
In both cases the reconstitution of states after the eventual dismantling of ISIL will be a difficult and lengthy process. Laurence Pope, a retired American diplomat, says that both regimes “are disintegrating, and we have nothing to replace them with, nor the means to prevent their further decay. My point is that rebuilding political legitimacy in the Bilad ash-Sham will be the work of a generation, and there are no international mechanisms for unmaking a modern nation state. Which means that in their moribund state, they may still be troublesome for many years.”
Mapping the New Middle East
For post-War boundaries to succeed, wherever they may lie, the process by which they are drawn cannot be a repeat of Sykes-Picot, in which Western powers toyed with the region as a colonial playground. Instead the negotiation must emanate from the Middle East itself, with input and arbitration from the United States and its allies. Major stakeholders to be consulted should include Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Further, success will require these countries to bridge the sectarian divide, if only temporarily, to establish a sustainable Middle East. This, unfortunately, is no small task.
The most likely outcome of this negotiation would be the establishment of an independent Kurdistan. Iraq’s 6 million Kurds live in a semi-autonomous region in the North with their own language and military. With U.S. support, Kurdish fighters have been leading the ground offensive against ISIL, as Iraq’s Army has repeatedly failed to make significant advances. The public U.S. government position has been to encourage Kurdistan to remain part of Iraq, if only in name, but allies such as Turkey and Israel are increasingly calling for an independent state.
Discussing Baghdad’s failure to live up to its pledges to Iraqi Kurds, Fuad Hussein of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq told NPR, “Baghdad couldn’t offer democracy when we agreed about that. Baghdad couldn’t offer federal structure when we agreed about that. Baghdad couldn’t offer security when we agreed about that. So the Kurds has the right to protect themselves, to establish themselves and exercising self determination – the right of self determination.”
If ever there were an opportunity to fix the lines that have done so much to destabilize the Middle East, it is now. Ninety-eight years after Sykes-Picot ISIL has disrupted the borders of the Middle East in a way few have expected. Whether an independent Kurdistan is necessary remains to be seen, but what is known is that if and when ISIL’s grip on the region is loosened, the United States and its allies must be prepared to pick up the pieces and reconstruct an improved Middle East.