Chaos. Most would use this word to describe the current situation in the Middle East. Who is guilty? Blame the British and the French. Or if you wish, blame the United States and Britain. But then again, blame religious sectarianism. In all cases you would probably be correct. Why?

Let’s go back to 1916, although there were many problems in the region centuries before then. The war in Europe was still in deadlock. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, which had allied with Germany in the hope of recovering territory lost in the Balkans and elsewhere, was beginning to collapse after nearly 500 years, with the loss of great swathes of territory which were then divided between Britain and France. Enter two characters who would be evermore linked to the region: the Englishman Mark Sykes and the Frenchman Georges-Picot. The famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, Sykes/Picot “Line in the Sand”, crudely drawn by Sykes on a map between Haifa and Kirkuk, became the basis of a secret agreement defining the spheres of influence of control after the war. Britain would control the Ottoman area to the south, France to the north. Suddenly, former administrative areas of the Ottomans, through which for centuries tribes could wander at will, became nation states with the now familiar names such as Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and so on. Borders were drawn with little understanding, if any, of the religions, ethnicities or tribal customs of the inhabitants. Borders which had to be defended and fought over. Borders which the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) is causing bloodshed to remove in order to create their caliphate. Sykes/Picot was a failure on a grand scale, so you would be right to blame the British and the French.

Fast forward to 2003 and the Iraq War. Few would agree that Saddam Hussein was a humane and enlightened leader, even though he was both supported and armed by the West during the earlier Iran-Iraq war. This support extended to the sale of key technology for its chemical, missile and nuclear programmes, ironically the very so-called weapons of mass destruction which led to the 2003 war, a war which most consider to have been illegal. The arrogance of the Bush regime, eagerly supported by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the belief that they could impose western concepts of democracy in a region where religion plays a fundamental part in governance, has played a profound part in today’s problems. This failure in foreign policy was multiplied by the catastrophic errors of the Bush administration, in the form of Paul Bremer as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, when his first executive order excluded any member of the Baathist Party from the new Iraqi administration. This led to massive unemployment and subsequent outrage of hundreds of thousands of administrators, policeman, soldiers and teachers. As a result, an enormous vacuum was created which led to sectarianism and terrorism in the region, the genesis of today’s problems. So you would be right to blame the US and Britain.

But what about sectarianism? The brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein (a Sunni), was fully aware of the centuries-old sectarianism between Sunnis and Shias and established the secular Iraqi Ba’ath Party, combining Arab nationalism and socialism, in government. Using a mix of massive repression with improving living standards he tried to stabilise a country created by Sykes/Picot and driven by social, ethnic, religious and economic fault lines. Sounds familiar? These fault lines were only suppressed by Saddam, not removed, so with his demise after the war, and with the disastrous decisions taken by Bremer, all the divisions erupted again and exist to the present day. With a post-war Shia dominated government in a country where the minority are Sunnis, it is not surprising that the Sunnis initially supported ISIS, although many lived (and died) to regret this once they were subjected to the brutal, authoritarian regime. Large elements of the Iraqi army were routed by a relatively tiny ISIS (Sunni) force. Today’s massive offensive to re-take Mosul in Iraq, is being conducted mainly by Shia forces, many from neighbouring Shia Iran, strongly supported by the Peshmerga forces of Iraqi Kurdistan. When re-taken, as it surely will be, the Sunni majority of Mosul will again be subject to the rule of a non-Sunni administration, unless the Shia central government becomes suddenly enlightened to the fault lines, and there is little confidence that this will happen. Can this lead to any lasting peace?

Move north to Syria where we meet chaos on steroids. If the Sykes/Picot borders of 1916 had not been re-drawn following the discovery of oil in the region of Mosul in 1918, the battle for the liberation of Mosul in Iraq would be part of the even more confusing scenario in Syria. Again this is a sectarian situation, with the ruling minority Alawites (off-shoot of Shia) ruling a largely Sunni majority, although Syria is more religiously diverse than Iraq. Currently, there are more than 100 groups loosely under the flag of the “opposition” fighting President Assad’s government forces, which in turn are supported by Russia. Add to this confusion the forces of ISIS which are fighting both the government and opposition forces, plus the “special forces” of Britain and the US, not to mention Turkey, and it is impossible to see how any effective military command and control can be exercised. The most likely outcome might be a Pyrrhic victory of Assad supported by Russia, particularly if President-elect Donald Trump reverses the current American position on Iraq. A devastated country, full of armed disillusioned fighters is not a scenario for peace. 

Former government employee John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently a consultant in the private sector.

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