In seizing Mosul, Tikrit and other northern Iraqi cities over the last 48 hours, the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham has moved closer to what some Middle East experts believe is the organization’s end goal—to create an emirate, an Islamic rump-state, encompassing large parts of Iraq and Syria. This, some fear, is a symptom of the region-wide sectarian war, from Beirut to Baghdad, threatening to jeopardize the Arab state system and crash the borders imposed by the British and French with the demise of the Ottoman Empire.
Certainly, ISIS is boasting as much. Its propaganda outlets claim the organization is in the process of restoring the caliphate, and erasing the lines secretly drawn by French diplomat François George-Picot and his British counterpart Mark Sykes before the end of World War I.
Still, it’s worth putting ISIS’s claims, and the predictions of Middle East experts, in context. The reality is that virtually every Arab political movement of the last century (or at least since London and Paris agreed on the Sykes-Picot lines in 1916) has attempted to eliminate the boundaries drawn by the Great Powers. Indeed, Arab nationalism itself is nothing more than the conviction that the Arabs constitute one great historical nation, divided only by a series of imperial overlords, from the Mongols through the Ottomans up to the Western powers, most recently the United States and Israel. The destiny of the Arabs then is to reunite and thereby overcome the divisions, and borders, forced on them by foreigners.
Accordingly, various political movements have manipulated the conceit of Arab unity largely for the purpose of empowering themselves at the expense of rivals. Consider, for instance, Gamal abdel-Nasser, the Arab nationalist hero par excellence. For a brief period, the Egyptian president “erased” Sykes-Picot when he joined his country to Syria to create the United Arab Republic. This combined entity was a formidable affair—until it crashed after only three years on the rocks of Egyptian-Syrian enmity, and Damascus withdrew from the portmanteau state.
Nasser promoted himself as a champion of Arab nationalism for no other reason than to enflame the passions of the Arab masses across the region and direct them against his Arab rivals, especially the conservative, or pro-U.S. states, like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, who, said Nasser, betrayed the Arab cause. In other words, Nasser used pan-Arabism to promote his interests and those of Egypt in particular, not of the Arabs as a whole.
Baathism, a rival of Nasserism, was a secular doctrine also arguing for the oneness of the Arabs. And yet Baathism’s two major parties in Damascus and Baghdad were perpetually at each other’s throats, from the 1960s up until the fall of Saddam Hussein, as each sought to keep the other off balance. That is, while Baathism had promised to erase the colonial borders of Sykes-Picot, both the Syrian and Iraqi branches were willing to die and kill each other for the interests of regimes ruling states whose lines were drawn by foreigners.
The same fractiousness is equally true for another Arab nationalist doctrine, albeit one with a religious coloring—Islamism. Long before ISIS planted its flag to claim a caliphate, the Muslim Brotherhood was there first, promising its adherents a political order that would unite Arabs from North Africa to the Persian Gulf under the banner of the prophet of Islam. Nonetheless, Muslim Brotherhood chapters around the region, and even sometimes within states, are in constant competition with each other. As for the likelihood of Islamists erasing Sykes-Picot, Egypt’s former president, the now-imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi, wasn’t even able to hold on to power in Cairo, never mind build a caliphate.
In short, despite all the pan-Arab ideologies, both secular and religious, that have promised to do away with the borders imposed by the Western powers and build a new pan-Arab super state, or an Islamic caliphate, nationalism is still a powerful force in the Arabic-speaking Middle East—as is Sykes-Picot.
Consider, for instance, the standard-bearers of the region’s most famous national movement: the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat didn’t settle for cantons or a rump-state, and neither will Mahmoud Abbas—they want the entirety of at least that part of Mandate Palestine stretching from the West Bank of the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, now called Israel. In 1970, King Hussein of Jordan vanquished the PLO when Arafat made a play for the eastern half of Mandate Palestine, what used to be called Transjordan, as well.
The Sykes-Picot borders are still live issues—in part because they are based on living historical traditions, as evidenced by ISIS’s name. Bilad al-Sham, or “country of the north,” is how many Arabs refer to what is now called Syria, which with its capital in Damascus was home to the Umayyad empire (661-750 CE). The Iraqi capital, Baghdad, was the home of the dynasty that followed the Umayyad caliphs, the Abassids (750-1258).
The Sykes-Picot lines were drawn in the full knowledge that Arab unity was a myth—a dangerous myth that left unchecked would inspire regional actors to ambitious feats of conquest. Instead, boxed in by borders, Arab despots from Nasser to Syria’s Assad regime had to settle for sabotage and subterfuge. Arab efforts to redraw Sykes-Picot, like Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, have been rebuffed by the Western powers.
Likewise, it’s those same Western states that are responsible for redrawing the only real new borders in the region. For instance, by establishing a no-fly zone in northern Iraq, the United States effectively drew the lines for what today has become an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. Moreover, consider that over the last sixty-plus years no regional state has redrawn its own borders, and those of its neighbors, more than Israel, the country that Arab nationalists call an outpost of Western imperialism.
Maybe ISIS will succeed where its forerunners have failed for nearly a century and really build an Arab super-state, signaling that those lines drawn after WWI are finished, that Sykes-Picot is dead. More likely is that at some point, regional as well international powers will intervene, as they did after Lebanon’s civil war from 1975-1990, and send everyone back to their corners—the states established by the Sykes-Picot lines.
In the meantime, as I wrote in April, the issue right now is not borders but rather massive population transfers. Millions of Syrians have been sent into exile in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and many millions more have been internally displaced. ISIS’s conquests have also forced people from their homes. As one Saudi commentator tweeted yesterday alongside a picture of newly made refugees, “the Sykes-Picot borders remain—it’s the people of Sykes-Picot who are being moved.” That is, the awful crisis unfolding in the Middle East isn’t about the Arab state system, but about its inhabitants.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).