ISIS and Sykes-Picot

18 June 2014



The recent military successes of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams — ad-Dawlat al-Islāmiyya fī’l-‘Irāq wa’sh-Shām — also known as ISIL, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in sweeping aside the Iraqi army and taking control of Mosul, Tikrit, and Falluja, has been a surprise. Iraq had fallen out of the news cycle, which has, of late, been dominated by Putin’s Russia and the turmoil in Ukraine. Now the cameras and reporters are heading back to Iraq to try to discover what went wrong, and in so doing they are also going back to school to try to understand why one of the rallying cries of ISIS is the effective nullification of the Sykes–Picot Agreement.

Here is one statement from an ISIS sympathizer that I managed to find, after hearing it quoted in another source (which latter I have since not been able to relocate):

“In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful, this is one of the destruction (mechanism, devices) of the Safavid Iraqi army (referring to the Shiite Safavid dynasty in Iran). This is their flag. All the prayers belong to God. And to you [God] goes all our gratitude. This is the end of Sykes-Picot borders. This is God’s grace. What remains of any borders of Muslim land. Oh God all our prayers belong to you. This is their destruction. They ran away. By God’s blessing. They are the lions of the Levant. Peace be upon you, God is great. This is their evil flag, we will remove it, God willing. For ISIL. That is God’s grace. God’s blessing on them.”

I found this text at Raw: ISIL Fighters Attack on Iraq-Syria Border, and despite the fact that I have found the line “This is the end of Sykes-Picot borders” quoted in other media sources, this is the only place that I could find the context of this quote. There is more on the role if the Sykes–Picot Agreement in the ideology of ISIS in How ISIS Is Tearing Up The Century-old Map Of The Middle East by Charles M. Sennott on the MintPress news site.

It is all very well to chant about the end of Sykes-Picot borders, but what does it mean? How are we to understand Islamist militants being pushed out of Iraq into the civil war in Syria, only to burst back over the border and take possession of Mosul, Iraq’s second city. And why was one of the symbolic actions of that crossing back into Iraq from Syria the use of a bulldozer to push through the earthen berm that defines the border in this part of the Levant?

An intelligent (but limited) article on the BBC by Fawaz A Gerges, London School of Economics, Iraq’s central government suffers mortal blow, diagnoses the problems in Iraq exclusively in terms of short term causes (since the ouster of Saddam Hussein). Gerges even invokes the Weberian concept of sovereignty to explain Iraq’s state failure: “It is doubtful if Baghdad could ever establish a monopoly on the use of force in the country, or exercise authority and centralised control over rebellious Sunni Arabs and semi-independent Kurdistan.” Gerges implies by his analysis that one can adequately understand the conflict in Iraq (and presumably also in Syria) with reference to the last ten or twenty years of political developments. This is an inadequate historical framework. We must go back a hundred years to examine the Sykes–Picot Agreement, and this agreement came to have the significance that it did only because of what preceded it.

Like the division of Europe made at the Yalta Conference before Hitler was defeated on the battlefield (though the end was in sight), the Sykes–Picot Agreement divided the Levant before the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled these lands, was decisively defeated. But we all know that the Ottoman Empire was the “sick man of Europe,” and even the Tsar, precariously perched on his own empire as he was, seemed secure in comparison to the Ottoman sultans. All had witnessed the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and it only remained to wait for (or hasten) its fall.

The Sykes–Picot Agreement was controversial even before it came into effect. Stratfor noted in The Intrigue Lying Behind Iraq’s Jihadist Uprising by Reva Bhalla that:

“When the French and British were colluding over the post-Ottoman map in 1916, czarist Russia quietly acquiesced as Paris and London divided up the territories. Just a year later, in 1917, the Soviets threw a strategic spanner into the Western agenda by publishing the Sykes-Picot agreement, planting the seeds for Arab insurrection and thus ensuring that Europe’s imperialist rule over the Middle East would be anything but easy.”

In “Isis defies repeated efforts to destroy its capability” in the Financial Times (Thursday 12 June 2014), Erika Solomon writes, “Aspiring to create an Islamic caliphate, Isis is already operating over a state-sized amount of territory of its own, stretching east of Aleppo, through desert frontiers into western Iraq.” Solomon quotes analyst Hayder al-Khoei as saying, “A few months ago, Isis was mostly doing hit and run attacks, albeit sophisticated ones. Now it’s holding territory. That’s what’s scary: they feel capable of confronting the state,” and quotes ISIS sympathizer “Shami Witness” (who may be the same individual responsible for the longer quote above) as saying, “Their aim is to expand reasonably, and the goal is definitely Baghdad now.”

The establishment of a new caliphate, the Sykes–Picot Agreement, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire are linked as differing perspectives on the same historical object. The end of the Ottoman Empire was, to be sure, an opportunity for European colonialism, but it was at the same time the end of an ancient Islamic institution that had endured for more than a thousand years: the Ottoman sultan was the last caliph to rule an Islamic territorial empire and to preside over a dynasty. The Sykes–Picot Agreement is symbolically important not only as an expression of European colonialism and imperial impunity, but also as the agreement that defined the terms by which the last caliphate came to an end (though it was the Grand National Assembly of Ankara who deposed the Ottoman sultan ‘Abd al- Majid II and abolished the caliphate in February 1924).

For many Jihadis and militant Islamists, the establishment of a new caliphate is the unwavering aim to which they are committed with a symbolic determination equal to the symbolic humiliation that they attribute to the Sykes–Picot Agreement. In The Management of Savagery, which I previously cited in The Farther Reaches of Civilization (and which we might characterize as a call for revolutionary violence on the part of Islamic militants), the author laments ineffectual Muslim efforts to secure an Islamic state:

…the Muslims and their organizations quarreled about what they had to do to establish the state of Islam according to the prophetic method. It is a dishonorable and disgraceful affair. Even though the people of Islam possess the largest resources (needed for) achieving success controlling the state, those who did not have the resources very easily became rulers of states and those who had the resources became exiles who did not possess a single meter of land on which to die peacefully.

The people built their states, laid its foundations, and buttressed them. They made its pillars firm and they secured its resources and they instructed the ummah as they saw fit. They acquired advanced positions while the people of Islam were still debating and quarreling about the ideal method for establishing the Islamic state! All of the debaters claim that their proof for what they believed regarding the establishment of the Islamic state was derived from the prophetic method.

Regrettably, some of the people still think that this method needs more investigation and research and many of the people of religion still gather the people together in order to tell them about the ideal method for causing the downfall of the Taghuts or the ideal method of reviving the State of the Caliphate.

The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass, Abu Bakr Naji, Translated by William McCants, Funding for this translation was provided by the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, and any use of this material must include a reference to the Institute. 23 May 2006

What is (or what was) the caliphate? Here is one perspective:

caliph, caliphate

The caliphate (al-khilāfa) is the term denoting the form of government that came into existence in Islamic lands after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and is considered to have survived until the first decades of the 20th century. It derives from the title caliph (khalīfa, pl. khulafā’ or khalā’if), referring to Muslim sovereigns who claimed authority over all Muslims. The caliphate refers not only to the office of the caliph but also to the period of his reign and to his dominion—in other words, the territory and peoples over whom he ruled. The office itself soon developed into a form of hereditary monarchy, although it lacked fixed rules on the order of succession and based its legitimacy on claims of political succession to Muhammad. The caliphate was constrained by neither any fixed geographical location or boundaries nor particular institutions; rather, it was coterminous with the reign of a monarch or a dynasty.

Gerhard Bowering, editor, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, Princeton University Press, 2013, p. 81

As with any historical institution, the more one reads the history of the caliphate, the more complex the story becomes, and the more difficult it is to extract any one historical lesson from the tangle of particular instances that constituted the institution while it was viable. Whatever the historical ambiguities of the caliphate, the ISIS militants are among those Islamist groups for which the establishment of a new caliphate is a central imperative. It is, because of its historical complexity, an imperative that comes with strings attached, but ISIS may yet prove itself to be the organization that can realize this now century-old dream. I do not think that this is likely, but it is at least possible.

Despite the strong ideological orientation of ISIS, the militant group apparently has no scruples about profiting from its activities. An article in The Guardian by Martin Chulov in Baghdad, How an arrest in Iraq revealed Isis’s $2bn jihadist network, claims that a recent intelligence coup revealed ISIS to have amassed a fortune worth 875 million dollars, all meticulously documented. Try to imagine a group of radical militants with nearly a billion dollars in their control — it is a wonder that they only took Mosul and didn’t go all the way to Baghdad while they were on a roll. (As with the quote above, this story in the Guardian in the only source I could find for this information.)

In a further demonstration of pragmatism, the radicalized and ideologically-motivated militant Islamists of ISIS are not blind to the fact that they cannot merely proclaim a new caliphate, but that any new caliphate must be credible — militarily, politically, ideologically, and religiously. For a caliphate to be credible, it must be established across the divisions of the Sykes–Picot Agreement, and it must hold and administer this territory according to the contemporary paradigm of the nation-state, because this is the recognizable form of political power in our time. (It does not matter that the Islamic conception of the Ummah has more in common with the personal principle in law and the nation-state is the territorial principle in law made manifest.) A caliphate must furthermore be able to defend itself, and command the approbation of at least some Islamic scholars, preferably the most eminent among them. This will be difficult. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has already said, “Defense of Iraq and its people and holy sites is a duty on every citizen who can carry arms and fight terrorists.”

A new caliphate must be existentially viable in order to be credible. To establish a caliphate only to see it ignominiously go down in defeat would probably be a political disaster much greater than failing to re-establish a caliphate. In this, Islamist militants of many different loyalties who in common look toward a new caliphate seem to be as one, and ISIS seems to understand this as well. Whether or not they can make it a reality, only time will tell.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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