GSTAAD–From my residence in Gstaad, Switzerland, you can see the Bernese Alps silhouetted against the sky. The range is home to one peak in particular — the 2,632-meter Gertrudspitze — named after Gertrude Bell, the greatest woman mountaineer of the 20th century, who once survived 53 hours clinging to a rope against the sheer face of an uncharted cliff during a freezing blizzard. But as spectacularly daring as her alpine exploits were, it was in the deserts of the Middle East where Bell left her biggest mark.
In addition to being a remarkable mountaineer, Bell was also an Oxford-educated historian, adventurer, archaeologist, British foreign officer, and spy — a female Lawrence of Arabia (and a friend and colleague of Lawrence himself). She traveled thousands of miles through Arabia by camelback, while insisting on eating off fine china. She was the daughter of England’s sixth-richest family, yet spoke Arabic, Persian and Turkish like a native. And she was so knowledgeable and respected that one Iraqi sheik, asked about his own tribes’ geographic boundaries, referred the question to Bell.
It was Bell, as an officer of Britain’s post-World War I Arab Bureau, who helped fix the region’s boundaries after France and Britain carved it up in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. (“I had a well-spent morning at the office making out the southern desert frontier of the Iraq,” she once wrote to her father.) And it is Bell — who not only defined the borders but also trained and installed the young King Faisal as its (foreign) ruler — who has been hailed as “the Mother of the Faithful” and called “the architect of an unstable Iraq in the middle of an unstable Middle East.”
It’s a stark reminder — despite the hand-wringing of a foreign-policy establishment that diplomat and scholar Peter Galbraith rightly calls “professionally committed to the perpetual existence of every country on the map” — that Iraq as it is presently constituted has had only a brief and haphazard existence. In the five millennia since the rise of the “cradle of civilization” between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the territory we currently call Iraq has been controlled by a dizzying succession of empires: the Akkadians and the Assyrians, the Sumerians and the Sassanids, the Babylonians and the British — and, thanks to a misbegotten 2003 invasion, the Americans. (To say nothing of the Medians, Parthians, Romans, Umayyads, Abbasids, Mongols, and Ottomans.) Astonishingly, if the whole history of Iraq was condensed into a single day, modern Iraq — Gertrude Bell’s Iraq — would have existed for only 5.5 seconds.
Today, as Sunni extremists in ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — sweep across Iraq from Syria in their dream of a restored Islamic caliphate, the geography and ethnography of Iraq is being reconfigured once more. With the country again teetering on the brink of sectarian chaos, it is time to stop forcing Iraq’s 35 million inhabitants — Shiite Arabs in the south, Sunnis in central Iraq, and Kurds in the north — to coexist within arbitrary British borders. And it is finally time to remedy one of the biggest mistakes Bell and her compatriots made: lumping in the Kurds with the rest of Iraq and rejecting an independent Kurdistan.
Though ethnically distinct from Iraq’s Arab majority, the British included the Kurds as part of Iraq for one crude reason — literally. As the historian William R. Polk writes, “Oil made Kurdistan Iraqi.” Rightly suspecting that the Kurds inhabited petroleum-rich territory, the British unwittingly sparked decades of conflict and repression, gruesomely illustrated when Saddam Hussein gassed tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988. Along with their similarly-oppressed brethren in neighboring Syria, Iran, and Turkey, the Kurds — numbering 25 million people — are the largest ethnic group on earth without a true homeland.
Despite this difficult history, Iraq’s 6.5 million Kurds have carved out a 15,000 square-mile oasis of democracy, stability and prosperity in the northeastern corner of the country, protected by an American no-fly zone after the Gulf War. Established by the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government is a pro-American and pro-Israel Muslim parliamentary system. The Arab Tourism Board named Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil a top destination this year, and Hilton, Sheraton and Marriott are rushing to meet the growing tourism demand. Kurdistan’s borders are guarded by 100,000 well-trained, well-armed peshmerga fighters (literally “those who confront death”) who have taken advantage of the vacuum left by fleeing Iraqi forces to seize the long-disputed northern city of Kirkuk, the “Kurdish Jerusalem.”
Meanwhile, the Kurds are finally reaping the windfall of the resources that caused the British to deny them their own country in the first place. With 45 billion barrels of proven reserves, Iraqi Kurdistan controls more oil than Libya. Even Turkey — whose 30-year struggle against Kurdish separatists previously caused Ankara to regard Iraqi Kurdistan as a threatening model of Kurdish autonomy — has decided that oil is thicker than bad blood, and has helped construct a $350 million, 125-mile pipeline between Turkey and Kurdistan. The recent capture of Kirkuk’s “supergiant” oil field — which the Kurds have already linked to their Turkish pipeline — now makes them one of the largest and most reliable sources of oil in the region. Improbably, the most stable country in the Middle East is not a country at all.
With ISIS — outnumbered 100:1 by the Iraqi forces — overrunning the key northern cities of Mosul and Baiji and controlling a territory the size of Jordan, Iraqi President Nuri al-Maliki has now turned to the Kurds and their peshmerga to save Iraq. Yet, as the scholars Dov Friedman and Cale Salih caution, “those expecting Kurdish enthusiasm for a fight are likely to be disappointed.” For one thing, the Iraqi government — which is constitutionally bound to pay the KRG 17 percent of Kurdish oil revenues — has been withholding the Kurds’ allotment, and recently cut off the KRG’s federal funding to retaliate for the Kurds selling oil directly to Turkey. Nor do the Kurds trust the Iraqi army — a situation exacerbated by a recent “friendly fire” incident in which an Iraqi helicopter fired on Kurdish forces south of Kirkuk, killing several and wounding 34. “We can’t stomach the idea” says Ramzi Osman, a peshmerga major. “We’re against terrorists, but we don’t like Baghdad.”
“So long as ISIS respects” the Kurds newly-enlarged territory, Friedman and Salih write, “Kurdistan–which banks on its reputation as a stable, private-sector friendly outpost in a region fraught by sectarian turmoil–would have very little reason to invite war.” Adds Galbraith, “The United States should stop asking the Kurds to help save Iraq because Iraq is not saveable, and, if it were, the Kurds would not want to save it.” Or, as journalist Jeffrey Goldberg puts it, “No glue could possibly hold the place together.”
Instead, the Kurds — and the rest of Iraq — should take their cue from the separatist movements gathering momentum from Baluchistan to Scotland and form their own countries along ethnic lines: Kurdistan to the north (welcoming Syria’s Kurdish refugees and others from Iran and Turkey), central Sunnistan, and Shiastan down south. (This was essentially the solution then-Senator Joe Biden and others proposed in 2006.) “Let everyone split and rule themselves,” an Erbil shopkeeper told the Financial Times. “Iraq needs to do what Berlin did and build a wall between the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shia. There’s no solution to this turmoil because the country is already divided in spirit.” While “Iraq” is Arabic for“to be deeply rooted,” perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the only thing deeply rooted in the country is sectarian division, not national unity.
“Have I ever told you what the river is like on a hot summer night?” Gertrude Bell wrote from Baghdad in quieter days. “At dusk the mist hangs in long white bands over the water; the twilight fades and the lights of the town shine out on either bank, with the river, dark and smooth and full of mysterious reflections, like a road of triumph through the midst.” The date on her letter was September 11, 1921, exactly 80 years before two planes hit two towers, bringing the Middle East and the West onto a collision course. Where we go from here, nobody knows — but after centuries of meddling, the time has come to let the river run its own course.