Europe, Iraq and the end of Sykes-Picot

Posted in Wednesday, 18th June 2014 – by Jolyon Howorth

Iraq as a polity never made sense. Its current disintegration was predictable ever since March 1921 when Winston Churchill, at a conference in the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo, stitched together three disparate regions of the dying Ottoman Empire and gave the new country a name.

As the Ottoman Empire imploded during and after World War One, the British went to extraordinary lengths to help finish off the job. Offering large tracts of Arabia to the Arabs, and Palestine to the Jews, London also entered into a secret agreement with Paris (Sykes-Picot) to carve up the same territories for themselves. What we are witnessing today is the final collapse of the Sykes-Picot arrangements, which covered the entire area from the Gulf to the Mediterranean and from the Red Sea to the Turkish-Persian border. At stake are present-day Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and potentially other parts of the Middle East. The

kaleidoscope has been shaken and it will be a long time before the pieces settle down.

The current debate in the United States (US) (and, less stridently, in Europe) over ‘who lost Iraq’ is largely irrelevant. Although the 2003 US-United Kingdom (UK) invasion was in some ways a starting gun for the present scramble, and although the failure of the Obama administration to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement in 2010 resulted in Iraq being left to the tender mercies of Nouri al-Maliki, the seeds of the current chaos were sown much earlier.

Iraq, in its many guises, was largely a European creation, only impacted by the US from the 1980s onwards. Run, on a shoestring, as a British mandate throughout the 1920s and subjected to massive British influence until 1958, the country veered towards Soviet Russia in the 1960s before coming under French influence in the 1970s after the UK pulled back from ‘east of Suez’. ‘Governance’ was engineered by empowering the Sunni Arab minority to keep both the Shi’a majority and the Sunni Kurds in check. France and Germany armed Saddam Hussein to the teeth and the entire world (including the two superpowers) backed him as the lesser of two evils during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Saddam grew overconfident, massively overstepped his mark by invading Kuwait in August 1990, and the rest is history.

The key factors in the current crisis derive from the centuries-old clash between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, which Sykes-Picot merely aggravated by creating artificial borders, the Iranian Revolution, whose ripple effect has convulsed the Middle East and North Africa, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, followed by the US invasion, which (together) created a global network of jihadis, and globalisation itself, which has exacerbated the grievances of the world’s many self-

perceived losers. This heady cocktail is now destabilising huge swathes of the Islamic world, from Equatorial Africa to the Himalayas and more or less everywhere in between.

Should the ‘West’ intervene? The record is not encouraging. In 1991, Operation Provide Comfort offered protection to Iraqi Kurds from the wrath of Saddam Hussein. Nobody imagined that it might help contribute, twenty-three years later, to the break-up of Iraq. In 1999, NATO intervened in Kosovo to protect Muslims from the wrath of Slobodan Milosevic. Nobody, at the time, supported an independent Kosovo, yet that has been the unintended consequence, an own goal that is now regularly used as a pretext, by a resurgent Russia, for Kremlin land-grabs in Georgia and Ukraine. In 2011, NATO intervened to protect Libyans from the wrath of Muammar Gaddafi. Nobody imagined that Operation Unified Protector would help destabilise the entire Sahel, or that Gaddafi’s weapons caches would find their way to insurgents from Nigeria to Sinai and Syria – still less that Libya today would be awash with militias.

The impact on Europe of these monumental geopolitical changes in the neighbourhood will likely be huge. But the idea that intervention would make things better rather than worse is fanciful.