How ISIS is tearing up the century-old map of the Middle East

People have their passports processed at a checkpoint next to a temporary displacement camp on June 13, 2014 in Kalak, Iraq. Thousands of people have fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militants.
Dan Kitwood

PARIS — Nearly 100 years ago, when the world was in the throes of war, a secret Anglo-French document called the Sykes-Picot Agreement casually and carelessly divided up the Middle East among colonial powers.

It might sound like one of those obscure historical references you’ve long forgotten from a high school history class lesson on World War I.

But venture into the dark corners of Islamic militant websites these days and you will see that the territorial lines established by Sykes-Picot are very fresh on the minds of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as its fighters tighten their grip on a swath of Syria and now Mosul, Iraq and threaten to push toward Baghdad.

What we are witnessing in the swift and brutal military assault by ISIS over the weekend and the virtual collapse of the US-trained Iraqi army is nothing less than an attempt to erase the lines of the Sykes-Picot map — lines that have held the Middle East together for over a century.

This ongoing offensive by ISIS, sometimes also referred to as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, is seen as a bold rejection of the colonial arrogance that Sykes-Picot has long embodied for so many — secular Arab nationalist and Islamists alike — who live in the Middle East.

And from the smoke rising over the oil-rich town of Mosul in northern Iraq, two daunting specters emerge. The first is the possibility of a regional conflagration in Syria and now Iraq that cuts dangerously along Sunni-Shia lines, a subject GlobalPost has keyed in on with extensive reporting for over a year in a Special Report titled “In the Land of Cain and Abel.” The second is the prospect of the US military being dragged back into the cauldron of ethnic and religious divides that are fracturing Iraq.

Intent on establishing an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria down into Iraq, this campaign by ISIS is a stunning historical event that requires anyone who cares about the Middle East to dust off the history books or get online and start studying what’s at stake here. A long-volatile region may be about to unravel in a fashion that will make the Arab Spring look like a quaint and ill-fated set of pro-democracy rallies.

The British diplomatic adviser Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart Francois Georges Picot were an odd couple when they teamed up in 1916 to craft the secret agreement that would outline how to divide up the Middle East when the Great War was finally over.

When they were drafting this agreement, it remained uncertain who would win the war. Only after 10 million lives has been claimed on the battlefields of Europe was the 1918 armistice finally reached on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

And only then was it clear that Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottomans were on the wrong side of history, that their empires would crumble, yielding a new world order and a refashioned Middle East.

But before all that, these two men, Sykes and Picot, rolled out topographical maps and huddled together to draw up the lines for how the strategic and oil-rich Middle East would be divided when the war ended. They chose biblical names like Mesopotamia and Palestine to rearrange the Ottoman Empire and its former provinces.

As both Sykes and Picot were Catholics, their understanding of the land from the desert terrain of Arabia up into the mountains of Lebanon was steeped in the history of the Crusades and the quest for the Holy Land. Sykes in particular saw the return of Jews to the land of the Bible in religious terms and was among the first Christian Zionists.

The lines were drawn in a way that would, of course, suit their respective empires and their Russian allies. That is, until the 1917 revolution in Russia which would cause the Bolsheviks to ultimately withdraw from the war. It was in fact the Bolsheviks who leaked the Sykes-Picot Agreement as a way to reveal the greedy intentions of the empires to cash in on the war.

Their map — with some slight amendments at the Paris Peace Conference treaty that followed the war in 1919 — disregarded a complex tribal culture, ignored the deep ethnic identities of Kurds and Arabs and overlooked the theological rifts between the Sunni and Shia.

It was a vast arrogance and ignorance that they brought to the table, outraging the legendary British Arabist Sir Lawrence of Arabia, who had fallen in love with the Arab tribes and come to understand them as detailed in Scott Anderson’s “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.

That the British and French powers ignored those who knew the region and relied on the likes of Sykes and Picot is a kind of original sin that brought forth grave misunderstanding and ultimately violent upheaval in the Middle East. The world and particularly the people of the Middle East have literally been paying for this ignorance for decades.

Sykes and Picot essentially provided for Lebanon and Syria to fall under French control and gave what they called Mesopotamia, which today is modern Iraq, including the prized cities of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, to the British.

Along with that, the British received a mandate over Transjordan and Palestine, which today is modern Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It was only at the last minute that the British diplomats at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference were able to work out terms that brought Mosul over to their side of the table. They were eying Mosul because they had received some geological hints that it might have oil, which was increasingly important to the British Empire to fuel its navy and its industry.

Ultimately, the Iraqis rejected colonial rule that the British implemented indirectly through the royal Hashemites. Secular Arab nationalism came along in the form of the Ba'ath Party which in Syria was headed by Hafez al Assad, Bashar's father, and in Iraq by Saddam Hussein. As Saddam consolidated his power in the 1970s and 1980s, he was an ally of the US for many years and the oil flowed freely as he imposed a cruel dictatorship over all Iraqis — Kurds, Shia and Sunnis — and essentially adhered to the lines of Sykes-Picot. Then he invaded Kuwait in pursuit of its oil.

And from there, the storyline grows more familiar of how the US fatefully entangled itself in setting out to confront Saddam in 1990 while tragically failing to protect the Kurds in the North and the Shia in the South.

Then in the aftermath of 9-11, President George W. Bush set out to confront Saddam again in 2003 under the pretense, which we now know as false, that he was building an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. The disastrous American-led invasion of Iraq turned up no WMD, and ultimately tipped the ethnic balance yet again and yielded a new form of tyranny under a predominantly Shia power structure. A fury of ethnic violence was unleashed and spiked in 2006.

Eventually, some calm was restored after the US-led surge of troops and elections were held that put in place Nouri al-Maliki who is serving his second term as prime minister and perceived as furthering Shia dominance. That dominance is again spiking ethnic hatreds along the Sunni-Shia divide and being rejected by a Sunni opposition that this time appeared in the form of the murderous militants of ISIS.

So now it is ISIS eyeing, and for now controlling, the oil of Mosul as the militant group violently redraws the boundaries once set by Skyes and Picot.

A question on this centennial anniversary of the start of World War I is how long will US and its allies be condemned to repeat the past, to favor policy built on the faulty understanding and perceived stability the flawed lines of Sykes-Picot have represented for so long? It looks now like ISIS may be answering that question for history, and redrawing lines on the map of the Middle East not with pen and ink but with blood.