David Shearer: Border decisions condemn countries to conflict

A firefighter tries to extinguish a fire at the scene where one of the rockets hit the Dubeet hospital in Aleppo, Syria. Photo / AP
A firefighter tries to extinguish a fire at the scene where one of the rockets hit the Dubeet hospital in Aleppo, Syria. Photo / AP

David Shearer MP is the Labour Party spokesman on foreign affairs.

When I was working in the Middle East, travelling through the West Bank to cross the Jordan River into Jordan, I told my young daughter - who was about 8 at the time - "we're crossing into Jordan now, it's a different country" and she replied, "How can it be another country? We haven't been over any ocean yet".

It made me reflect on the luxury we have in New Zealand of uncomplicated natural borders, courtesy of geography, when so many other countries are defined by borders that are arbitrary - or worse, disputed.

This year marks 100 years since that most famous border, the Sykes-Picot line, was drawn through the Middle East, secretly carving up the Ottoman Empire between England and France, seemingly without much nuance or thought about what that might mean for the future.

Englishman Mark Sykes was pro-Arab and pro-Islam, but both he and Frenchman Francois Georges-Picot had the arrogance characteristic of colonial powers in those days, and an apparent belief in their god-given right to quietly divide up the Middle East between their two nations.

The lines on a map they dealt us a century ago have stayed with us, and despite their artificial nature - for example creating the brand new, made-up Kingdom of Jordan - they now define the familiar countries we know as today's Middle East. In the same way, people in 100 years will live with the consequences of the decisions we make now. If nothing else, Sykes and Picot have taught us that if we simply respond to the issues of today, without thought for the future, we can condemn whole societies to conflict for a century and beyond.

For example, the Kurds were completely overlooked in the Sykes-Picot agreement, and 100 years later they continue to long for their own state. That's 35 million Kurds - very distinct, with their own culture and language - who make up the largest ethnic group in the world without any form of homeland, formal recognition or statehood.

Kurds currently comprise 15 to 20 per cent of Turkey and 15 to 20 per cent of Iraq, as well as sizeable chunks of Syria and Iran. Yet Turkey implacably - and, on occasion, violently - rejects any possibility of a Kurdish state being created on its border.

War and instability have been the offspring of Sykes and Picot and future generations will likely live with that until it is resolved to the satisfaction of the indigenous people.

One of Sykes and Picot's motivations was simply to break up the Ottoman Empire that had sided with Germany in World War I. That empire, seen as the ancient caliphate of Islamic rule, stretched as far as Iraq, incorporating lands that are modern-day Jordan, Israel, Syria and Lebanon. They succeeded in the short-term: reform under Ataturk moved the new republic of Turkey culturally closer to the West, adopting a non-sectarian government and the Latin alphabet.

But a century later, one of the main aims of Isis (Islamic State) is to restore that empire or caliphate. Their propaganda is full of passport-burning imagery. In 2014, when Isis bulldozed part of the border between Iraq and Syria, they tweeted images of the breach under the hashtag #SykesPicotOver.

Inevitably, the Isis self-proclaimed caliphate will be retaken. But just as inevitably, as Isis becomes less relevant in the same way al Qaeda is now, something else will rise to take its place.

Of course the other huge issue is Palestine, which Sykes gifted to Britain. There were already plans for much of it to be handed to Europe's Jews. But while the state of Israel was recognised in 1948, the state of Palestine remains stillborn, its future potential statehood being progressively whittled away by ever expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

In reality, the Middle East is riddled with borders that aren't official, or on maps. The Sykes-Picot agreement saw outsiders drawing borders in secret, fuelling suspicion that has continued down the generations. Who will be next to re-draw the lines, and will they take the lessons from the past?

- NZ Herald

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