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Why Islamic State Militants Care So Much About Sykes-Picot

  • James Miller

IS's English-language propaganda outlet, Al-Hayat, released a video called The End Of Sykes-Picot, which showed the destruction of the border between Iraq and Syria. An IS fighter provided a video tour, in clear English, of the border crossing that Iraqi soldiers had abandoned.

IS's English-language propaganda outlet, Al-Hayat, released a video called The End Of Sykes-Picot, which showed the destruction of the border between Iraq and Syria. An IS fighter provided a video tour, in clear English, of the border crossing that Iraqi soldiers had abandoned.

One hundred years ago, on May 16, 1916, representatives from the United Kingdom and France (with the agreement of Russia) met in secret and signed what has come to be known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement. The pact, signed amid World War I, divided the Ottoman Empire into spheres of imperial control, and is often held responsible for establishing the current borders of the Middle East.

The agreement has been widely criticized in recent years, particularly after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, because to many its borders are not just a symbol of foreign imperialism but also reflect what they see as the lack of understanding of the Middle East -- then and now -- demonstrated by world leaders. Ethnic groups were split across borders and when sectarian violence erupted in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, many blamed Sykes-Picot for pitting ethnic groups against each other.

Understanding Sykes-Picot is also central to understanding the ideology (or at least the propaganda) of the Islamic State (IS) militant group. In the summer of 2014, the terrorist organization had seized large amounts of territory in both Iraq and Syria. The group had recently pronounced that it was changing its name from Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Greater Syria) to just "Islamic State."

According to IS's well-crafted message, it was no longer an organization operating within two countries: It was its own state, and by establishing an Islamic caliphate in the region, it was actively destroying the vestiges of foreign imperialism. IS's English-language propaganda outlet, the Al-Hayat Media Center, released a video called The End Of Sykes-Picot, which showed the destruction of the border between Iraq and Syria. An IS fighter provided a video tour, in clear English, of the border crossing that Iraqi soldiers had abandoned. The "so-called border," according to the IS fighter, was established by Arab leaders and Western imperialists. There is no border, he said, the world belongs to Allah, "we are all one country," and IS-held territory should not be divided. He quoted IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as saying he was "the breaker of barriers."

In the propaganda video, IS was echoing and amplifying the sentiment that Sykes-Picot is a symbol of foreign meddling, but the militant group was also modifying this message for their own purposes, and crucially accusing Muslim leaders of complicity in these crimes, a key theme of IS propaganda.

The reality, however, is much more complicated. There's an argument to be made that the agreements made at the 1920 San Remo conference -- attended by leaders from Britain, France, Italy, and Japan -- rather than the Sykes-Picot deal, are ultimately responsible for the internal borders we know today. Regardless, those agreements didn't actually establish the internal borders -- only the larger imperial ones. As such, Sara Pursley, a historian who works on the modern Middle East, has pointed out that the map drawn by Sykes-Picot actually more closely resembles the map used by IS than the current geopolitical borders we're familiar with. The internal borders were established over a long period of time and the process had a great deal to do with local power struggles, rather than simply foreign imperial meddling.

There's another major flaw in IS's logic: Sykes-Picot actually placed Deir-ez-Zour -- the regional capital in eastern Syria and an IS stronghold -- outside of the territory that we now know as Syria. Pursley points out that it was actually an internal conflict that eventually landed Deir-ez-Zour in Syria. Pursley writes that the then-Ottoman province was placed on the French side of the border, but after a conflict with the Arab army in Syria local leaders appealed to the British to annex the region, which they did, but locals soon petitioned Damascus to reincorporate the region in Syria.

"Ironically, it was the Iraqi nationalist officers of al-Ahd al-Iraqi who were ultimately responsible for the inclusion of Dayr al-Zur within Syria. They hoped to use the region as a base for launching attacks from Syria on British occupation forces in Iraq -- and that is what they did, thereby helping to spark the 1920 revolt. In 1923, Baghdad-based Iraqi nationalist Muhammad Mahdi al-Basir explained the Dayr al-Zur decision: 'Iraqis [in Syria] were working for the liberation of Iraq, even if that required annexing much of its land for the Syrian government.' Leading British officials, including Acting Civil Commissioner in Iraq at the time, A.T. Wilson, later asserted that Britain's acquiescence at Dayr al-Zur -- i.e., the evacuation of its troops and relinquishing of the province to the Arab army in Syria -- helped precipitate the entire 1920 revolt, not only by providing the Iraqi nationalist officers in Syria a base for cross-border military operations but also by giving other opponents of the British Mandate within Iraq a sense of Britain's vulnerability."

In other words, discord between Muslims living in the heart of what is now IS territory led to the border being established where it is now. Western imperialism played a key role, but only in so much as they were reacting to political realities on the ground.

Crucially, however, IS's message is not working. If the militant group's goal is to inspire others to break down these borders and unify under a single Islamic state, there does not seem to be any sign IS is tapping into a wider collective desire.

Anthropology professor Jon W. Anderson of the Catholic University of America says that the borders established after World War I are widely accepted by those in the Middle East, and with each passing generation they become more firmly established.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Anderson said that, save for the wishes of Islamic State militants, "there doesn't seem to be much sentiment for revision" of the borders. He points out that "the longest-running internecine conflict, the Lebanese civil war, was over dominance within those boundaries and resulted in a settlement affirming them." Jordan and Israel are not going anywhere, either. Neither is Syria -- in fact, the Syrian opposition that opposes IS has also vocally opposed the breaking up of Syria, as has Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Despite IS's propaganda, and 100 years after Sykes-Picot, it seems there is little appetite to rewrite the map of the Middle East.

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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