As we approach the centenary of the First World War, one of its legacies, the Sykes-Picot agreement between Great Britain and France on the future of the post-Ottoman Middle East, finally looks to be unravelling. There will, of course, be no formal interment of an imperial diktat long resented throughout the region. In practice Syria and Iraq will continue to have their flags and seats at the United Nations but not much else, aside from capital cities and sectarian support limited to their core constituencies, the Alawaites of Syria and Shia of Iraq, with residual Christian backing.
The latest attack on the imperial settlement follows the stunning assault of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) on northern Iraq, beginning with its capture of one of the Middle East’s largest and oldest cities, Mosul, close to the biblical city of Nineveh, last week. From there ISIS has fanned out south meeting little or no opposition and picking up for good measure millions of US dollars of American equipment, including dozens of Humvees and Black Hawk helicopters. What is abundantly clear is that ISIS, whose total forces may number no more than 6,000, owes much of its success less to its own military prowess, but rather to the collapse of any remaining Sunni support for the beleaguered Shiite regime of Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki. Paradoxically Maliki, who is closer to Iran than any Arab country, will rely on the US for any hope of reversing his battlefield humiliation or bolstering his fast deteriorating military position. And, in doing so, US President Barack Obama’s administration would risk further alienating traditional Sunni allies, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have never hidden their contempt for Maliki’s government.
To compound the success of ISIS in the unravelling of Iraq, Kurdish peshmerga (militia) opportunistically took advantage of last week’s mayhem to seize the long-contested city of Kirkuk from Iraq’s central government. Kurdistan, with rapidly diminishing links to Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, is a state in everything but name. It has long been an island of tranquillity in post-Saddam Iraq boasting its own armed forces, an international airport and exporting oil directly through the Turkish port of Ceyhan, bypassing any semblance of Iraqi control. It is highly unlikely that Turkey will put it under any pressure to withdraw from Kirkuk
It seems probable that President Obama under rising Congressional pressure will have few options to offer support to Iraq’s government, stretching only as far as intelligence and possibly limited air strikes. The United States will loath to go much further in involving itself again in Middle Eastern conflict. And for the White House there is the added predicament that the president rejected air strikes in Syria in 2013, even when ‘red lines’ had been crossed and civilians killed in horrific chemical weapons attacks.
But it is not only Iraq that faces the dissolution of the ancien regime of the Sykes-Picot agreement. Ever since the beginning of the war in Syria, the dissolution of that country has been, and continues to be, a threat. To say the least, the writ of President Bashar Al Assad’s government does not extend throughout the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic. Indeed, ISIS, increasingly seen by western intelligence agencies as a greater threat than Al-Qaeda, has long operated freely out of the eastern Syrian provinces of Raqaa and Deir ez Zor. In Kurdish areas in the northeast of Syria controlled by the PYD (Kurdish Democratic Unity Party), the government of President Assad has long ceded control to the Kurds.
Throughout the Middle East the presence of the state is fast weakening. While Iraq and Syria are the two most obvious examples, there is considerable worry too about Libya and even Egypt. The Arab uprisings of 2011 have led, with the exception of Tunisia, to weaker states which are unable to control either their territorial integrity or the loyalty of their peoples. President Sisi, elected in a lower turnout than the civilian former president Morsi, like all his predecessors is an army general. Mr Morsi by contrast is the only civilian to be head of state in the sixty two years of the Egyptian republic. In Sinai and elsewhere the new government struggles to keep control. But at least in North Africa the prospect of borders being redrawn is remote. In the Levant it is already happening.
The international community, including the UN, needs to wake up to this ominous development. In the immediate post-colonial order dictated by Sykes – Picot strong states prevailed in the Middle East. That era is fast disappearing.
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