Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria have proclaimed the end of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that carved up the region at the end of the First World War. But who is really destroying it, asks Jeremy Salt in Ankara
The Sykes-Picot Agreement was the post-First World War agreement by which Britain and France divided the conquered Arab lands of the former Ottoman Empire between themselves.
The precise boundaries were fixed after the war. France wanted a large Syria, including what is now southeastern Turkey, within a “sphere of influence” stretching as far as Lake Van, but it was blocked by Turkish national resistance and had to settle for less. It then carved Lebanon out of Syria, a decision met with rioting and demonstrations in downtown Beirut and a refusal to fly the new country’s cedar flag.
Britain, guided by oil interests and seeking domination of the Arab Gulf from the north as well as the south, created the new state of Iraq out of three distinctive ethno-religious regions, the Kurdish north, the Sunni Arab centre and the Shia Arab south. The state of Jordan, created out of the original League of Nations Palestine mandate — not that sharq al-urdun, or east of the Jordan River, was ever part of historical Palestine — became a British and then a British-American protectorate.
Its political development was put in the deep freeze until such a time as the Zionists had the numbers and military force to take it over. Outside the mandates, Iraq and Egypt were given nominal independence while being brought under the domination of the British through malleable constitutional monarchies and treaties protecting British commercial and strategic interests.
The wave of revolutions in the 1950s — the Arab Spring of those years — then raised expectations that the liberation of the region was at hand, but after the death of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1970, the national idea withered on the vine.
Today, the present state of the Middle East is probably the worst anyone watching it over a long period of time can probably remember. Indeed, there is no longer anything as coherent as a “Middle East,” any more than there is anything as coherent as an “Arab world.” Instead, there is war, fragmentation, suspicion, rivalries, cowardice and endless bickering and dirty deeds being plotted behind closed doors and then carried out, all benefitting the common enemy of the Arabs, Israel.
Arab history is something that others are deciding. There are standouts — the resistance of Hizbullah is a shining example — but mostly the Arabs collectively are not shaping their history at all except by default. How this tragic state of affairs can be turned around no one can say.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq has begun to dig up the post-1918 roots of state formation in the Middle East. So it says and so people believe, but is it really the Islamic State that has begun the reconstruction of the region? In and around Mosul in northern Iraq and other areas that have fallen under its control it is busy setting up the apparatus of a state. It has the rudimentary equivalents of government departments. It has an army, the estimated size of which is somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 men — not a large force compared to the size of the military forces that could be deployed against it by the regional and more distant states which say the Islamic State is their enemy.
So how has it been possible for this miniscule army to make such dramatic gains, to attack, overcome and then take control of large swathes of territory? Have parts of Iraq and Syria been allowed to fall under its control for reasons that suit the long-term interests of distant powers and their regional allies? Behind the idea that the Islamic State is destroying Sykes-Picot, who else wants to see Sykes-Picot destroyed and has found in the Islamic State the perfect, plausibly deniable tool for achieving this end? While notionally threatening Western interests, is the Islamic State actually advancing them?
MANY THREADS: there are many threads in this, the Israeli thread being one. From the very beginning, the Zionists dreamed of setting up a puppet state in Lebanon. The separation of Egypt from the rest of the Arab world was a prime strategic goal, finally achieved through the Peace Treaty of 1979. Already in the 1980s, the Zionists were exposing their grand strategy for a Middle East cut up into warring ethno-religious principalities. This has now been achieved in Iraq, is a work-in-progress in Syria, and has been surpassed by the tribal-takfiri fighting and fragmentation creeping across North Africa.
The fog of war enabled Israel to clear the land of its people in 1948 and 1967, and now the fog of a different kind of war, this time sectarian, is the screen behind which it is rapidly consolidating its engorgement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and no doubt the occupied Golan Heights as well. The prime symbols of the Palestinian presence in the Occupied Territories, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, are under existential threat while the world looks the other way.
Does the tail wag the dog, or the dog wag the tail? It depends on time and circumstances. The US is often a large tail wagged by a very small dog, but it has interests of its own that go beyond the relentless pressure the Zionist lobby is able to bring to bear. The US refused to launch a military attack on Iran at Israel’s behest during the George W Bush presidency, and it refused to launch an open attack on Syria in 2013. Since then the US-Israel relationship has been on its own slippery slope, a sign perhaps that the US, and not just a particular president or administration, has had enough of Israel.
In any case, US interests in the Middle East are not just about protecting Israel, as much as this consumes the attention of the White House and Congress. Keeping others away from the oil of the Gulf and elsewhere has guided US policy since 1945. It may be remembered that before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Iraqi government had given contracts for the repair and redevelopment of the oil sector to Russian and Chinese companies. The war put a stop to that, and clearing Russia and China out of the Iraqi oil sector and replacing them with American or Western European companies has to be seen as a major war aim.
The massive reserves of natural gas found on the seabed of the eastern Mediterranean and rival Gulf/Iranian projects for running pipelines across Syria also help to explain the campaign launched four years ago by the US and its allies in the name of bringing democracy to the Syrian people.
That the boundaries of Sykes-Picot are no longer regarded as meeting US strategic objectives has been clear for a long time. They might have suited Britain and France in 1918, but they don’t suit the US now. They have never suited the Zionists. The central lands of the Middle East have been targeted not just since 9/11, but also since the neo-conservatives in Washington began planning the reconstruction of the entire region in the 1990s.
This was not just a question of what the neo-conservatives wanted, however: the reshaping of the Middle East went to the heart of what a great power must and will do to protect and advance its interests. The neo-conservatives gave the US what it needed as a world actor. It was not just a superpower, following the collapse of the USSR, but also a “hyperpower,” capable of launching multiple wars to get what it wanted and openly giving itself the right to ignore international law in the process. It was not a question of meeting changed circumstances but of changing circumstances to meet its needs. The dramatic anti-terrorist discourse launched by the US has been a central tool in the strategy that has been continually unfolding since then.
The actual reformulation of Sykes-Picot began in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Whether former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was lured by the US into attacking Kuwait, or whether he attacked in a fit of rage, only to regret it later, the fact is that the US then had its first opportunity to dismantle an Arab state formed in the aftermath of Sykes-Picot. It began by declaring, along with Britain, a no-fly zone in northern Iraq and a safe haven for the Kurds. The theme was humanitarian: the protection of a persecuted and massacred people. But there was nothing new in this because harnessing humanitarian concerns to strategic interests has been a tool of imperial policy ever since the 19th century.
Iraq was already being discarded as a unitary state, and the reasons behind this were clear. Israel was one. The script for breaking up Iraq (and Syria and even Egypt) had been written in the Israeli Yinon Plan of the 1980s. For the US, thinking only of itself, carving a modern-day Kurdish protectorate out of Iraq would give the US a new base of operations in the Middle East as well as privileged access to Kurdish oil.
PLANS UNFOLD: We have now seen how this unfolded. The central Iraqi government was kept out of the north, while the Kurds were given military and diplomatic assistance to stand on their own two feet. Self-government for the Kurds was a central element of the new constitutional structure laid down by the US in Iraq in 2004. Military training for Kurdish security forces was another. A weak central government was deliberately created in contrast to the authority and power granted to the Kurdish north. The fate of the city of Kirkuk was placed in suspension until the Kurds could get the numbers straight and claim it for themselves through a “democratic” referendum. But in the event, the rise of the Islamic State created the opportunity for them to seize it.
The post-invasion constitution thus marked the beginning of the end for Iraq as a unified Arab state based on a common Iraqi nationality that was neither Sunni, Shia, Christian, Kurdish or Arab but Iraqi. The constitution specifically sharpened ethno-religious differences and purported to look forward to the time when others besides the Kurds could claim their own regional governorates.
Resistance to the US occupation changed over time into resistance to the domination of the Shia-based government in Baghdad, set up with the support of the US government. The US military advised and cooperated in the field with the notorious Wolf Brigade, basically a Shia death squad operating nominally under the control of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior. Inevitably blowback arrived in the form of Sunni militias attacking the Shias. Did the US not realise this was likely to happen? Did it not know that the Gulf States were funding Sunni Islamist militias in western Iraq?
With sectarian warfare sweeping the country, it was finally decided earlier this year that former Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki had to go. He alone was blamed for what was a calamitous situation, created by many hands. The architecture of deposition was Al-Maliki’s inability to control a country that the US had made it virtually impossible for anyone to control. That the protection of the Kurdish region, and not the whole country, was a vital US interest was made clear when US President Barack Obama defined what the US was prepared to defend against the Islamic State, nominating the city of Erbil and the massive US embassy in Baghdad.
The actions of the US against the Islamic State have been less than persuasive. It has intervened to protect the Yazidis and the Kurds, but has done nothing to liberate Mosul. What has been going on in that city will only be revealed when it is free. It has done absolutely nothing to protect the Christians of Iraq and Syria against the onslaughts of the Islamic State and its takfiri soul mates. The Christian churches of the east are being destroyed and their congregations scattered far and wide without the nominally Christian leaders of the West lifting a finger to help them. The Vatican has been speaking out, but no one is doing anything on the ground. Outraged world opinion compelled the US to do more to relieve the Arab and Kurdish people of Ayn Al-Arab/Kobane, but its involvement there has been half-hearted and begrudging.
Meanwhile, the anti-Syrian alliance is persevering in its campaign to destroy Syria. The country is being pulled apart, strengthening the argument of Syrian presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban that the offensive was never about getting rid of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, but instead was about destroying Syria. Yet, against all the calculations of the anti-Syrian alliance, the Syrian government and military — in which the foot soldiers are overwhelmingly Sunni, immediately disposing of the myth of an Alawite campaign against the Sunnis — have not just held on but have been rolling back the takfiri militias in many parts of the country.
Then the Islamic State appeared on the scene, just as the so-called “rebels” were fighting each other and losing ground. It has what they lack: leadership, discipline, unity and determination. Can it be regarded as providential or coincidental that at the precise moment that the “rebels” were running out of steam the Islamic State appeared to save the game?
From its Syrian capital of Raqqa the Islamic State has been moving forward through the Kurdish region running parallel to the Turkish border. While the world has been caught up in the drama at Ayn Al-Arab/Kobane, the epicentre of the struggle in the north has been Aleppo.
Concern has been expressed in Turkey at the possibility that the Islamic State will soon be able to seize those parts of Aleppo that are held in the name of the “rebel” Free Syrian Army (FSA). In fact, the real cause of concern is more likely the successful campaign of the Syrian military around the city. Its liberation would be a devastating blow to the anti-Syrian collective. This would explain the renewal of demands by the Turkish government that no-fly zones be established across the border. One of them would be adjacent to Aleppo, where “rebel” positions have taken a battering from the Syrian air force. By blocking the advances of the Islamic State in Ayn Al-Arab/Kobane, with the help of the US air force, the Kurds have further, if inadvertently, weakened the campaign of the anti-Syrian collective.
Outside Sykes-Picot, another destroyed Arab state, Libya, has recently been described in a UN report as being just about beyond redemption as a functioning state. This other great crime of 2011 destroyed the most highly developed state in Africa, not because of oil, most probably because the global corporations were already getting that on generous terms, but most probably because of former Libyan leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi’s Pan-African commitments, including the creation of central financial institutions and a common currency.
The aim was to remove the stranglehold of the IMF and weaken the bonds of dependency. So the Libyan jamahiriyya had to go and Al-Gaddafi had to be murdered in one of the most shocking single crimes of that “year of redemption” from the grip of dictators.
BREAKING UP THE REGION: The targets of all of these attacks, going back to 1990, were not Saddam, or Al-Gaddafi or Al-Assad but the countries they ruled. There was a desire to disintegrate the Middle East at its centre and even on its flanks in North Africa. “The dictator” was no more than the key that opened the door. Democracy has not come, but that was never the aim. Destruction and the “creative chaos” that would ultimately suit the strategic and corporate interests of the US and its allies was the aim.
The Middle East as drawn up by the European diplomats Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot to serve British and French imperial designs in 1916 no longer suited their purposes. What does suit their purposes? If they really wanted they could destroy the Islamic State overnight. So why don’t they?
The writer is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey