INTERVIEW 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 belli with 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
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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.