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On 100-year anniversary of Sykes-Picot, Kurds remain divided

The Kurdish parties in Syria and Iraq are divided over power sharing, aid delivery and the Syrian peace process
A YPG fighter mans a mounted machine gun in the northeastern Syrian province of Hasakeh (AFP)

QAMISHLI, Syria - On the centennial of the Sykes-Picot agreement - the deal between the French and British that divided the Kurds across four countries - the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria now run their own administrations in the region. The Kurds, however, are upholding these borders today by closing the only border crossing between the two Kurdistans.

Kurds in Europe last week protested against the agreement in Germany that divided the Kurds and called for Kurdish independence, amid plans to hold a referendum before October spearheaded by Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani to create a sovereign state for the Kurds in Iraq.

“We must acknowledge the new realities; citizenship has not been developed; borders and sovereignty have become meaningless, the Sykes-Picot agreement is over,” Barzani said in a statement on Monday.

However, the Peshkhabour border crossing between the Kurdish regions in Iraq and Syria has remained closed since 16 March, due to political differences.

The decision by Barzani’s administration is making life more difficult for Kurdish civilians in Syria with rising food prices in regions run by Barzani’s Syrian Kurdish rival, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is closely allied to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PYD has called the closure an embargo, and has fiercely criticised the decision.

The famous Syrian Kurdish cartoonist Kaniwar Zidan mocked the high prices of food in a cartoon showing a jewellery store in Qamishli, Syria with no jewellery, only displaying meat, sugar and vegetables in the show room.

Barzani opposes PYD control of the Kurdish areas of Syria, and backs the Kurdish National Council (KNC) - which is part of the Syrian opposition but is powerless on the ground in Syria.

Several power-sharing agreements between the PYD and the KNC failed, including the last agreement reached in Duhok, Iraq on 22 October 2014. As a result, the PYD is not participating in the Geneva talks, while the KNC participates in the talks as part of the Syrian opposition. However, as of now both the Syrian opposition and the government oppose any form of Kurdish autonomy.

The PYD and its allies announced the establishment of a federal region for northern Syria and Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) on 17 March without the KNC. The PYD suspects the closure is related to Turkish opposition to the PYD and that Turkey pressured Barzani to close the border, while the KDP blamed the PYD for monopolising revenues at the border gate.

“I wish for relations to get better with the KRG. Even they in Iraqi Kurdistan have economic problems, and Turkey gave the KDP $200 million to close this border crossing,” the local administration’s head of foreign affairs Abdulkarim Omar told Middle East Eye.

“According to us, this decision was made by Turkey, not the KRG,” he added.

Sanharib Barsom, the Christian co-head of foreign affairs of the administration in Hasakah province, told MEE the embargo is suffocating the local civilians in northern Syria. Recently, there has been a shortage of tomatoes and sugar in the markets.

Moreover, it is difficult to find spare parts on the market to repair cars, and as a result, several cars have been left useless in the street as it became too difficult to repair them.

‘Unite two parts of Kurdistan’

Barsom called on the international community to recognise the local administrations set up by PYD and its Christian and Muslim Arab allies, instead of just assisting the Kurds with military support against the Islamic State (IS) group.

“They say they support us in their speeches, but in reality we have no support. Now all the borders are closed and we suffer from poverty and everything is expensive,” she said.

“We hold Turkey responsible, they closed all the border crossings and pushed Barzani to close the border, and they help IS and push it towards our area,” she added.

However, the grey-haired Mohammed Ismail, a leading official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria, closely allied to Barzani, rejected the accusations by the PYD and its allies.

“The KRG want to open the border to help people,” he told MEE.

“If they implement the Duhok agreement between the KNC and [PYD], they will open the border and send everything,” he said.

He accused the PYD of not allowing aid to enter and taxing all goods coming in, and giving certain goods such as sugar, cement and iron to certain businessmen linked to the PYD.

“The PYD don’t allow anyone to send food or aid - unless they are controlled by them,” he added.

“The PYD in the media say that the border is closed because of [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and Turkey. Why would Erdogan close this border? This is not realistic.”

Hassan Salih, a leading member of the Kurdish unity party, also blamed the PYD.

“Many countries send aid for our people and food and clothes, but the PYD prevent it,” he told MEE.

However, local civilians in northern Syria are tired of the high prices, amid high unemployment and a record drop of the Syrian pound against the dollar.

“We understand that regional pressures may be behind this decision, but the border crossing is a humanitarian issue. No one can take responsibility for the closure, which risks the starvation of Rojava and a worsening of the economic conditions,” Kurdish Reform Movement leader Amjad Uthman told local Kurdish outlet ARAnews.

The Kurdistan National Congress (KNK), which is sympathetic to the PYD, on Monday called all Kurds to end their differences.

“Today, the geographic boundaries between Iraq and Syria have already disappeared - the geographical lines between Bashur (Iraqi Kurdistan) and Rojava no longer exist,” the KNK said.

“The de facto status of two Kurdish federal entities is now a reality on both sides of this division. We are not obliged and not in debt, and for sure not bound to protect the boundaries of artificial territories for others,” the KNK said in a reference to Turkey.

“We, as the people of Kurdistan, must in practice abolish these colonial borders between Bashur and Rojava. In this way, we unite two parts of Kurdistan,” the KNK said in a press conference today at the border crossing in Iraq.