Toby Dodge writes: On 10 June, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), the group whose dramatic advances have startled the world over the past 72 hours, posted a photograph of their fighters demolishing barriers marking the dividing line between Syria and Iraq. They were, they claimed, “smashing the Sykes-Picot border”. This was a reference to the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot who, in May 1916, concluded secret negotiations to divide the Middle East into French and British zones of imperial influence.
Isis’s symbolic destruction of the border was an attempt to give credence to its claim to be sweeping away the false states created by the nefarious European powers, uniting all Muslims in one pious community. Somewhat more surprisingly, this radical attempt at political engineering has also found sympathy among policy pundits in Europe and the United States who are looking for instant solutions to the long-term problems that are destabilising the countries of the region. Iraq and Syria, they argue, are prefabricated states that have never gained the loyalty of their populations. Popular political legitimacy will only be found in smaller, more religiously and ethnically homogenous units that mirror the provinces used by the Ottoman empire to administer the region before 1914.
This assertion, made by both Isis and western commentators, is historically and sociologically illiterate. This week Isis, an organisation whose active membership is numbered in the low thousands, has not only asserted its control over Mosul, Iraq’s second city, but routed an Iraqi army garrison many times larger, stealing advanced weaponry and Iraqi dinars worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The worrying speed with which it then moved its forces towards Baghdad has been used as evidence of Iraq’s artificiality and the divided nature of its population. The truth, however, is more complex but less pessimistic. [Continue reading…]