Will the West's Big Plans to Remake the Mideast Set the World Up for More Disaster?
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In the aftermath of the First World War, Britain and France famously created the modern Middle East by carving up what had been the Ottoman Empire. The borders of new states such as Iraq and Syria were determined in keeping with British and French needs and interests. The wishes of local inhabitants were largely ignored.
Now, for the first time in over 90 years, the whole postwar settlement in the region is coming unstuck. External frontiers are no longer the impassable barriers they were until recently, while internal dividing lines are becoming as complicated to cross as international frontiers.
In Syria, the government no longer controls many crossing points into Turkey and Iraq. Syrian rebels advance and retreat without hindrance across their country’s international borders, while Shia and Sunni fighters from Lebanon increasingly fight on opposing sides in Syria. The Israelis bomb Syria at will. Of course, the movements of guerrilla bands in the midst of a civil war do not necessarily mean that the state is finally disintegrating. But the permeability of its borders suggests that whoever comes out as the winner of the Syrian civil war will rule a weak state scarcely capable of defending itself.
The same process is at work in Iraq. The so-called trigger line dividing Kurdish-controlled territory in the north from the rest of Iraq is more and more like a frontier defended on both sides by armed force. Baghdad infuriated the Kurds last year by setting up the Dijla (Tigris) Operations Command, which threatened to enforce central military control over areas disputed between Kurds and Arabs.
Dividing lines got more complicated in Iraq after the Hawaijah massacre on 23 April left at least 44 Sunni Arab protesters dead. This came after four months of massive but peaceful Sunni protests against discrimination and persecution. The result of this ever-deeper rift between the Sunni and the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is that Iraqi troops in Sunni-majority areas behave like an occupation army. At night, they abandon isolated outposts so they can concentrate forces in defensible positions. Iraqi government control in the northern half of the country is becoming ever more tenuous.
Does it really matter to the rest of the world who fights whom in the impoverished country towns of the Syrian interior or in the plains and mountains of Kurdistan? The lesson of the last few thousand years is that it matters a great deal. The region between Syria’s Mediterranean coast and the western frontier of Iran has traditionally been a zone where empires collide. Maps of the area are littered with the names of battlefields where Romans fought against Parthians, Ottomans against Safavids, and British against Turks.
It is interesting but chilling to see the carelessness with which the British and French divided up this area under the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. The British were to control the provinces of Baghdad and Basra and have influence further north. The French were to hold south-east Turkey and northern Syria and the province of Mosul, believed to contain oil. It turned out, however, that British generosity over Mosul was due to Britain having promised eastern Turkey to Tsarist Russia and thinking it would be useful to have a French cordon sanitaire between themselves and the Russian army.
Sykes-Picot reflected wartime priorities and was never implemented as such. The British promise to give Mosul to France became void with the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and the Bolsheviks’ unsporting publication of Russia’s secret agreements with its former French and British allies. But in negotiations in 1918-19 leading up to the Treaty of Versailles, only the most perfunctory attention was given to the long-term effect of the distribution of the spoils.