It is a strange coincidence that at the very time when the western powers remember and reconsider a war 100 years ago, the Middle East is testing the borders and consequences of the 1919 peace. Both Syria and Iraq, creatures of the war to throw off Turkish imperial rule, are being sorely tested in brutal civil and religious wars a century later.
On May 16 1916 France and the UK signed the secret Asia Minor Agreement – or Sykes-Picot deal. They had the private consent of Russia as well, though the Bolsheviks took a different view when they overthrew the Czar. The infamous Sykes-Picot line gave to the UK influence over Jordan, South Iraq, Haifa and Acre, and to France North Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon. It became a matter of deep controversy when it was made public later. This agreement jostled with the wish of the UK to offer Palestine as a homeland for a small neutral Jewish state, and with the pledges of Lawrence of Arabia and others to the Arabs that the Arab nation would also have a free and independent Arab state.
The results of these varied wishes can be seen today. The Arabs did get free territory and states of their own, but not all of the land and cities that they wanted. Lawrence saw Damascus as a capital for the Arab state, but France did not share this view when it took possession in 1920. The borders of Syria and Iraq did not reflect the patterns of tribal and religious allegiance, posing problems for their rulers to find ways to keep the different groups together in harmony. Israel became the Jewish homeland, attracting many settlers. It caused tensions with the Palestinian Arabs which the allied powers had not thought through well.
On 29th June Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared the Caliphate and announced his intention to overthrow Sykes-Picot. I did not write about it at the time, as I had no idea how serious it might become. Today reports from the region tell us that the new state has taken territory from both Syria and Iraq, has defeated regular armies, captured oil fields and Mosul and claims to control an area from Aleppo to Diyala. Some say it now has a population of 6 million in an area larger in size than the UK.
Official sources from Shia governments say that the Caliphate hard liners have attracted Sunni support, but this will melt away once, for example, Iraq deals better with the Sunni minority. One side wants the world to think that the Islamic state is a temporary rebellion which will be defeated by splits in its own ranks and by a stronger military response is due course from Iraq and Syria. The other side says that the IS is gathering strength all the time. As it gets more revenue from oil and other assets, so it can arm itself better. As it expands its territory it attracts those who dislike Shia government, and can control those who have to live under its jurisdiction. It can , they say, change the map of the Middle East fundamentally.
What is true is the brutal civil war of Syria continues, with the main opponents of Assad turning out to be IS, the militant advocates of the new Caliphate. The democratic and more moderate opposition that the west wanted to back and believe in is being squeezed between the forces of Assad and the forces of the Caliphate. Iraq remains in deep trouble, with Kurds, Sunnis and Shias battling against each other. The state now faces a serious challenge from the IS.
It is difficult to see how the west can make things better. As I have written before, we should be neither pro Sunni nor pro Shia. Being against Assad, an unpleasant dictator, could help IS, which is not a great place to be either. The UK should concentrate on energy self sufficiency in these uncertain times. It should keep our military out of the Middle East as our troops cannot easily intervene to help force a better outcome.
The USA has the force which could stop IS. President Obama has been wrestling with the military, political and moral issues over intervention yet again in this area. His current announcement that he might both bomb IS forces to prevent more Christian/Kurdish places being taken and drop humanitarian relief supplies to those already displaced shows the difficulty of his and the west’s position.
Intruding a western army into Iraq or Syria would not be a good idea. Eventual victory would make the west an occupying power, left with the formidable problem of how you then mend the local politics so they can become self governing again. Eventual withdrawal or defeat would cause more death and misery for no good purpose.
Bombing runs the risk of killing those you do not wish to kill, and also fails to tackle the explosive politics and religious conflicts on the ground.