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June 5, 2015

World War I, Middle East map, & ISIS / ISIL

By Arthur Kane Scott

World War 1 was the most significant event of the twentieth century as it set in motion deep political and social forces that still resonate today, especially in the Middle East ( Ironically, “The War to end wars” had the reverse effect. It was a Pandora’s Box from which nationalism/racism, imperialism/colonialism, militarism/terrorism, took form and exploded globally.

WWI saw the collapse of four multi- national empires: Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungary and Ottoman. It accelerated American and Japanese rivalry for East Asia, and it provided France and Britain with an opportunity to consolidate their hold on the Middle East made strategically valuable because of the emergence of oil as primary fuel source.

The current flawed Middle East Map, itself a product of Orientalism (Cf, Edward Said’s classic, Orientalism) in many ways accounts for the fizzle of the Arab Spring as well as the prevalence of authoritarian regimes.  The “map” originated with the diplomatic machinations of Paris and London that centered initially on Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Francois Georges Picot of France. Subsequent players were Woodrow Wilson of United States and Sir Arthur Balfour of London. Sharif Hussein bin Ali, emir of Mecca, along with Lawrence of Arabia, were reduced to pawns in these high stakes negotiations.

Reshaping the Middle East, a western term originally used to describe the Persian Gulf area, started in 1915-16 with the Sir Henry McMahon-Hussein correspondences in which London urged Hussein to lead a revolt against the Ottomans as a way to weaken Turkish hold in Mesopotamia and Arabia allowing the British to launch their Northern offensive to Damascus. In exchange for supporting the British, Hussein was promised an independent Arab state that ran from Aleppo in Syria tothe Aden Gulf. By the end of the war, Hussein controlled Jordan, most of Arabia and southern Syria. But these Arab territorial gains were lost at Versailles. (Cf, Film,Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean. Director).

For in 1916, Sykes-Picot entered into secret discussions by which the Middle East was divided up between France and England laying the basis for today’s untenable map. It was decided by the Great Powers that the Arabs were not ready for self-rule. They required western tutelage known as the mandate system. Driving this decision, besides imperialism/colonialism, was the racism of social Darwinism which proclaimed white Europeans superior. This attitude was reflected in Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination – a principle that called for creating a new world order on the basis of nationality, but a nationality which was applicable only to white European countries and not globally to peoples of color. This meant that Gandhi of India was excluded as were Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam and Mao of China. The claims of the backward Arabs, too, were easily by-passed, ignored and marginalized by the victors.

The end result was the creation of a “map” that served the imperial/colonial interest of Britain and France, but fell far short of satisfying Arab ambitions, and made no sense in terms of history, culture and ethnicity.  Multi-ethnic Empires had been the prevailing organizing reality: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonia and Ottoman. Its geopolitics was sociologically and religiously rich consisting of families, tribes and networks that often were divided. Hussein’s desire to create a pan-Arabian state was jettisoned at Versailles in favor of territorial agreements based on western principle of nationality that had no meaning in the Levant: France received Syria/Lebanon, England, Trans-Jordan, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Abdullah, Hussein’s oldest son, would be appointed emir of Jordan/Transjordan.  His other son, Faisal, appointed King of Syria and Iraq which he ruled until 1933.

Legend has it that in 1921, Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary, and Lawrence of Arabia put the finishing touches on the boundaries over cocktails and dinner in Cairo. Churchill described this meeting as one of “Forty Thieves.”  ( (1921). Major hot buttons were Palestine / Transjordan and Iraq.  The future of Palestine became uncertain because of the Sir Arthur Balfour Declaration in 1917 which declared: “that his Majesty’s government views with pleasure the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.…” This action was calculated to acquire Jewish financial support for World War I, symbolized by Lord Rothschild to whom it was addressed, to mobilize Jewish nationalist (Zionists)including Chaim Weizmann, as well as to persuade Washington and its Jewish lobby to enter the war, as the Russian front / Tsar were on the verge of collapse. Tragically, it had unforeseen “blow back” as Jews between the two World Wars began to settle in Palestine, created kibbutzim, purchased Arab land, and soon emerged as a powerful minority, threatening the property and political right of Arabs. Arabs had been there for thousands of years going back to 70 CEwhen the Jewsleft Palestine in the wake of the Second Diaspora following Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Arab Palestinians found their situation imperiled as World War II gathered, and the holocaust intensified. (Cf,

Iraq was even more geographically/culturally convoluted than Palestine. Because of European short sightedness it was still-born. It had no business being established the way it was created.  Historically called Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers, it consisted of three major geographic areas inhabited by different ethnicities and sects which were ignored. Southern Iraq was occupied by Shias Arabs who represented today about 60 percent of the population. The central region dominated by Bagdad is primarily Sunni Arab ,about 15 percent. The balance around Mosul are non-Semitic Indo-European Kurds. They claim an area called Kurdistan which cuts across eastern Turkey, Syria, northern Iraq and western Iran,rich in oil and water, the headwaters of Tigris–Euphrates.(/ the new geography was oil and Calouste Gulbenkian, who established Turkish Petroleum in 1912,became known as Mr. 5 %, and had stimulated the black gold rush led by Britain and United States.( Oil was crucial to Britain/American global naval domination.

Syria too was another fragile geopolitical entity made so by the complex ethnic diversity that comprised its core. Though primarily Sunni Muslim, it has been ruled by Alawites/Druses who are connected to Shias and dominated the military through the al-Assad family since 1971.Syria also has a sizeable Christian presence. Syria finds itself todays in the midst of a deep civil war made complicated by its support from Shia Teheran, Moscow, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the splits among its own people into Sunna-Shia, authoritarian/reformer, secular/Islamist and by restrictive US military action.

Out of this civil turmoil has risen the Islamic State of Iraq or Levant known as ISIS/ISIL headed by Abu Bakr al–Baghdadi. Their goal is to realize the dream of Sheik Hussein by correcting the geographic mistakes of European mapmakers during WWI by establishing an Islamic state or caliphate which was denied the Arabs in 1920 (Cf., Tim Arango/ Anne Barnard, With Two Victories ISIS Dispels Hope of Swift Defeat,“NYT,” May 24, 2015). ISIS has made deep inroads into Iraq, particularly in Anbar province with the fall of Ramadi, which is primarily Sunna/Baathist, and skeptical of Shia government in Bagdad. As ISIS continues to grow:  they have captured Palmyra with ruthless intimidation; they have also attracted an estimated 15,000 foreign jihadists into Syria (Cf., James Harkin, How the Islamic State Was Won, Harper’s Magazine, / Nov.2014.)Its territorial expansion makes the future of Iraq and Syria problematic. Damascus and Bagdad are tottering, on the verge of collapse-- indeed a systematic flaw traced back to Sykes-Picot, to western map makers’ ignorance about the variety of peoples, history, religious diversity, and linguistic differences characteristic of the Middle East.

The fall of both regimes would represent a seismic shift in geopolitics. It would be of enormous benefit to Teheran and devastating to Riyadh. It would mark a substantive regional shift in power away from Saudi Arabia made more significant by the Obama negotiations with Iran to limit its nuclear capacity in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. The Obama deal can be viewed as historically significant as Nixon’s trip to China; perhaps heralding the advent of a new Middle East map that embodies realities better than the one concocted in 1920 .The Kurds, for instance, have strong arguments for breaking away from Iraq and establishing their own separate state even though opposed by most stakeholders in the region.

Who says geographic decisions, even a hundred years ago, are not important?

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the Dominican University of California and Fellow of American Institute of International Studies.