The present evolutions in Iraq are increasingly analysed through the lens of possible border changes. In fact, even the jihadist organisation that is at the origin of the current crisis, named ISIS (“Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”) has in its name precisely such a modification of borders, because it is often referred to as “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant”. The conflict between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, which has bloodied this country since the fall of the Saddam Hussein (Sunni) regime in 2003, seems headed to a break-up of the state on religious and ethnic faults. What is Iraq and why its implosion can have substantial consequences for the geopolitical map of the Mideast?
The actual political geo-configuration of the Middle East is of relatively recent date, although it is the origin of the world’s most ancient civilisations.
Until World War One, almost the whole region was for many centuries under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which had substituted in the 15th Century the Roman-Byzantine Empire, which in turn was heir to empires and kingdoms of previous centuries (Egypt, Israel etc.). In the decades that preceded ‘The Great War’ of 1914-1918, the Ottoman Empire had lost a significant part of its North African possessions to the European colonial powers, while in the Balkans the fight for national freedom had engendered a series of independent states with a multi-secular tradition, including Romania. The conflagration of 1914-1918 between the Entente and the Central Powers found the Ottoman Empire in the German camp, defeated in 1918. Ever since 1915-1916, the political planners of the Entente agreed over the map of Ottoman possessions in the Middle East. Although it is repeatedly mentioned that the present conflagration is determined by the pens of British planners, it is the result of long consultations between the diplomacies of the main powers of the Entente. This was normal, given the big power’s interests of Russia, France and Great Britain in the region, practically relying on the imperial designs or economic prospects (oil) of the region.
In 1915-1916, the Sykes-Picot agreements were signed (named after their signatories, British and French diplomats) that laid the basis of the political map of the region, establishing the delimitations of the spheres of influence of involved powers. The secret document was made public in part on the occasion of the Bolshevik revolution of Russia, when it was decided to make public the confidential documents signed by Russia during war years. To give more authenticity and savour to the episode, we present here the provisions of this accord, as published for the first time on 26 November 1917 by the “Manchester Guardian”, based on documents declassified from Russian secret archives: “Russia’s claims to Constantinople, the west coast of Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles, Southern Thrace up to the Enos-Miodia line, the Asiatic Coast and the islands of the Sea of Marmara, and the islands of Imbros and Tenedos. The Allies put forward a series of claims to which the Russian government consented. According to this demand, Constantinople was to become a free port for goods neither going to, nor coming from Russia. The Allies further demanded the recognition of their rights over Asiatic Turkey, as well as the preservation of the sacred places in Arabia under Mussulman sovereignty, and the inclusion of the neutral zone in Persia within the sphere of British activity”.
In a series of subsequent arrangements, England and France shaped the new states on the Asian territories of the Ottoman Empire, some states becoming territories under mandate or colonies of these grand powers, until they gained their independence after the end of World War Two. Among these states, Iraq mainly incorporated the territories of three former Ottoman administrative units (vilayet) – Mosul, Baghdad and Basra with relative ethnic and religious homogeneity (Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites). In 1918, the famous ‘Balfour Declaration,’ initially secret, established the historic right of the Jewish people to a national home on the ancient and present territory of Israel. In 1949 the state of Israel proclaimed its independence.
Along with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and in the conditions of subsequent evolutions in this country, some experts wondered if the consequences of the US victory could not also include a reshaping of the political map of the Mideast. Jeffrey Goldberg, for instance, in an article published in 2007 in “The Atlantic,” mentioned the way in which a ‘new’ Mideast could be created in the consequence of the Iraq war, a prediction recently commented by the same magazine: “We predicted the break-up of Sudan into two countries (although we called what is today known as South Sudan ‘New Sudan’). We created a ‘Hezbollahstan’ in part of Lebanon, and this certainly exists, de facto. North of Hezbollahstan is ‘The Alawite Republic,’ along what is now Syria’s Mediterranean coast. This is a semi-plausible near-term consequence of Syria’s Assad-directed destruction. Syria also loses territory, on our map, to a ‘Druzistan’ that touches the northern border of ‘Greater Jordan.’ Iraq is, of course, divided into three states, and the Kurdish state even takes in parts of Turkish-ruled Kurdish territory. One semi-perspicacious addition to the map – the Bedouin Autonomous Zone – is what could have developed in the Sinai Peninsula before the most recent Egyptian military coup, and the Egyptian military’s re-energized plan to seize Sinai back from jihadist tribesmen.” Worth mentioning with regard to the geopolitical ‘perspicacity’ of the previous quoted paragraph is the fact that the respective analysis was made before the start of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, the withdrawal of the USA from Iraq (2011) or the escalation of the civil war in Syria that started in 2011.
Important for the analysis of the present ISIS offensive in Iraq, along with the comments made in relation to the support granted to this operation by the Sunni Arabs of the respective regions is the fact that the Sykes-Picot arrangement is very present on jihadist websites. In an analysis published on June 17 this year (the ‘Global Post’ blog) Charles M. Sennott directly warns: “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.”
What is happening today in Iraq is less than an incursion by an extremist organisation even for its kin, but, in certain opinions relying on the browsing of the jihadist virtual world, the probable enforcement of a jihad programme that aims at redefining the map of the Middle East, thus the creation of a new Mideast. If this is the case, then we must expect very grave evolutions in this region, once the jihadist programme starts being enforced in Iraq by dismembering this country. Preventing the instability, even a regional war in this context is a matter indisputably present on the table of the main regional and global actors.