How the Kurds Got Their Way

Economic Cooperation and the Middle East's New Borders

Traffic signs in Arabic, English, Kurdish, and Turkmen in Kirkuk, December 2, 2010. Ako Rasheed / Courtesy Reuters

The surge of ethnic and sectarian strife in Syria and across the Middle East has led a number of analysts to predict the coming breakup of many Arab states. This potential upending of the region’s territorial order has come to be known as “the end of Sykes-Picot,” a reference to the secret 1916 Anglo-French agreement to divide up the Middle Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire into British and French zones of control. Because the European treaties that created new Arab states in the aftermath of World War I upheld the outlines of that agreement, Sykes-Picot became the convenient shorthand for the map that colonial powers imposed on the region, one that has remained essentially constant to the present day.

With bloodshed from Aleppo to Baghdad to Beirut, it is indeed tempting to predict the violent demise of Sykes-Picot. But although the worst fighting is spilling over borders and pushing some countries, such as Syria, toward fragmentation, there is another force crossing national lines and even realigning national relationships: trade. New transnational zones of economic cooperation are making Middle Eastern borders more porous, but in a way that does not directly challenge existing states. Instead, mutual economic interests, especially in the oil and gas industries, may signal a softer end to Sykes-Picot.

This dynamic is most apparent along the border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, where oil deals in recent years have directly challenged Baghdad’s claims to exclusive control of Iraq’s natural resources and where Turkish and Kurdish leaders have talked trade instead of war. Economic cooperation is emerging as an alternative to political violence elsewhere, too. Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey are discussing shared oil and gas pipelines despite their disagreements. So are Sudan and South Sudan, which have reluctantly accepted the need to cooperate in order to export both countries’ oil after splitting apart in 2011. Economic cooperation is not a cure-all in any of these places. But it does allow states to come together in new ways rather

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