In 2003 I traveled to northern Iraq as the guest of the then head of the Iraqi Kurdish Mission to the UN and future Iraqi Ambassador to Canada, Howar Ziad, and Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Barham Salih. I was in Iraq for almost three weeks traveling extensively throughout the Kurdish areas interviewing survivors of Saddam’s chemical and biological warfare and meeting with political, religious and cultural leaders.
While there I also met briefly with Leslie Gelb and others who spoke about a solution to the concerns of Iraq outside of the boundaries of what the Bush administration was proposing. Gelb wrote in 2003 in the NY Times an important statement suggesting a division of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia autonomous regions federated together or separated into three new states. Gelb and then Senator Joe Biden followed this article with a second one in 2006 arguing in a similar fashion.
I was convinced that they were exactly on the mark regarding Iraq and I have been lecturing on this for the last decade. Gelb, Biden and others who wrote on this issue have been more than prophetic. If the US and other powers in Iraq had listened to Gelb et al there might have been the possibility of avoiding the horrible civil war in Iraq that followed and avoided the Shia takeover of the country and even avoided the loss of so many American lives. Most of all we could have avoided the situation we see today of the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as they are also sometimes called) taking over much of the territory of central Iraq from Mosul to Tikrit and most of north Central Syria from Aleppo to the Iraqi border.
Instead of a calm orderly secular based empowerment of the three groups Kurds, Sunni, and Shia we have each group carving out what they can. Today the Kurds have all but a state in Northern Iraq and have taken over the important city of Kirkuk. Equally important, the Kurds of Syria have all but achieved autonomy in northeastern Syria bordering the Kurdish regions of Iraq.
Instead of a secular Sunni autonomous government in Central Iraq we have one of the most extreme of Islamic fundamentalist groups, condemned even by Al Qaeda for its extremism, now connected territorially to north central Syria forming a continuous territory from Aleppo to Tikrit. The ISIS has now even threatened Jordan and is attempting to gain territory in the Golan to attack Israel.
The Shi’ites already have achieved a continuous territory connected from Lebanon and Latakia to southern Shia dominated Iraq. We are seeing Iranian Revolutionary Guards entering into Iraq to fight against the ISIS just as they have joined Hezbollah and Assad’s forces in Syria.
The only national ethnic group to come out of this on the positive for the moment may be the Kurds whose control of Kirkuk is critical in securing their already existing autonomy. The breakdown of the rest of Iraq and the solidification of Kurdish control over northeastern Syria gives the Kurds critical strength, as well as oil wealth, to pull off the creation of a Kurdish national entity, if they can put aside their own tribal, clan and familial conflicts long enough to form a nation.
The rest of the world seems to be willing to sit back and watch as millions of new refugees are created and hundreds of thousands more are killed in the fighting. In the end it will be the Arab world which suffers the most from the armed conflict finally ending the artificial map of the Middle East created by the Sykes Picot Agreement. The real shame is that this all could have been avoided in 2003-06 if the world had listened to Leslie Gelb and Joe Biden.
As the one hundredth anniversary of WWI approaches we all must begin to reflect on how the next hundred years will be changed forever by what we are doing today and the policies and actions we all are taking now. The map of the Middle East may be changing but the implications of that new map are frightening and at the same time exciting. We still may have a chance to rectify the damage done by the Sykes Picot Agreement but not by sitting back, throwing up our hands and silently watching as the violence grows.