What a carve up!
An image posted by ISIS of a bulldozer destroying a section of the Iraq-Syria border, June 2014. See 2nd item. Photo tweeted by @albaraka news.
By Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom
July 05, 2014
THE ARAB world is in turmoil. Syria and Iraq are breaking apart, the thousand-year old conflict between Muslim Sunnis and Muslim Shiites is reaching a new climax. A historic drama is unfolding around us.
And what is the reaction of our government?Binyamin Netanyahu put it succinctly: “We must defend Israel on the Jordan River, before they reach Tel Aviv.” Simple, concise, idiotic.
DEFEND ISRAEL against whom? Against ISIS, of course. ISIS is the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham – a new force in the Arab world. Sham is Greater Syria – the traditional Arab name for the territory that comprises the present countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. Together with Iraq, it forms what historians call the Fertile Crescent, the green region around the top of the desolate Arab desert.
For most of history, the Fertile Crescent was one country, part of successive empires. Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans and many others kept them united, until two foreign gentlemen, Sir Mark Sykes and M. Francois Georges- Picot, set about cutting them up according to their own imperial interests. This happened during World War I, which was set in motion by an assassination that happened 100 years ago last week.
With sublime disregard for the peoples, ethnic origins and religious identities, Sykes and Picot created national states where no nations existed. They and their successors, notably Gertrude Bell, T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill, put together three quite different communities and created “Iraq”, importing a foreign king from Mecca.
“Syria” was allotted to the French. An imperial commissioner took a map and a pencil and drew a border in the middle of the desert between Damascus and Baghdad. The French then cut Syria up into several small statelets for the Sunnis, Alawites, Druze, Maronites etc.. Later they created Greater Lebanon, where they set up a system that installed Maronite Christians on top of the despised Shiites.
The Kurds, a real nation, were cut up into four parts, each of which was allotted to a different country. In Palestine, a Zionist “national home” was planned in the middle of a hostile Arab population. The country beyond the Jordan was cut off to provide a principality for another Emir from Mecca. This is the world in which we grew up, and which is crumbling now.
WHAT ISIS is trying to do now is simply to eradicate all these borders. In the process, they are laying bare the basic Sunni-Shiite divide. They want to create a unified Sunni-Muslim Caliphate.
They are up against huge entrenched interests, and will probably fail. But they are sowing something much more lasting: an idea that may take hold in the minds of many millions. It may come to fruition in 25, 50 or a hundred years. It may be the wave of the future.
Seeing this picture developing, what should we do?
For me, the answer is quite clear: make peace, quickly, as long as the Arab world is as it is now. “Peace” means not only peace with the Palestinian people, but with the entire Arab world. The Arab peace initiative – based on the initiative of the Saudi (then) Crown Prince – is still lying on the table. It offers full and unconditional peace with the State of Israel in return for the end of the occupation and the creation of the independent State of Palestine. Hamas has officially agreed to this, provided it is ratified by a Palestinian plebiscite.
It will not be easy. A lot of obstacles will have to be overcome. But it is possible. And it is sheer lunacy not to try. NOW!
The response of our leadership is the exact opposite. The historic events and their background interest them “like the skin of the garlic”, as we say in Hebrew.
Their interest is totally focused on the effort to keep hold of the West Bank, which means to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state. Which means to prevent peace. The surest way to do so is to hold on to the Jordan valley. No Palestinian negotiator will ever agree to the loss of the Jordan valley – either by direct annexation to Israel or by the “temporary” stationing of Israeli troops in the valley for any length of time.
This would mean not only the loss of 25% of the West Bank (which altogether constitutes 22% of historical Palestine) and its most fertile part but also the cutting-off of the putative Palestinian state from the rest of the world. The State of Palestine would become an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory. Much like the South African Bantustans.
When Ehud Barak proposed this at the Camp David conference, the negotiations broke down. The most Palestinians could agree to was the temporary stationing of UN or American troops there.
This week, suddenly, the Jordan Valley demand popped up again. The picture was simple. ISIS is storming south from its Syrian-Iraqi base. It will overrun all of Iraq. From there, it will invade Jordan and pop up on the other side of the Jordan river.
As Netanyahu said: if they are not stopped by the permanent Israeli garrison there, they will appear at the gates of Tel Aviv (except that Tel Aviv has no gates).
Logical? Self-evident? Inescapable? Utter nonsense! Militarily, ISIS is a negligible force. It has no air force, tanks or artillery. They are opposed by Iran and the US. Compared to them, even the Iraqi army is still a potent force. Next, the Jordanian army is far from a pushover.
Moreover, if ISIS came even near to threatening the Jordanian kingdom, the Israeli army would not wait for them on the Jordan River. They would be requested by the Jordanians to come to the rescue – as happened during the Black September of 1970, when Golda Meir, acting under the orders of Henry Kissinger, warned an approaching Syrian army column that Israel would invade to forestall them. That was enough.
The very idea of Israeli soldiers manning the ramparts in the Jordan valley to defend Israel from ISIS (or anyone else) is sheer idiocy. Even more idiotic than the famous Bar Lev line, which was supposed to stop the Egyptians along the Suez Canal in 1973. It fell within hours. Yet the Bar Lev “line” – reminiscent of the (futile) French Maginot Line and the (futile) German Siegfried Line of World War II – was far away from the center of Israel.
The Israel army has missiles, drones and other weapons that would stop an enemy in his tracks long, long before he could possibly reach the Jordan. The bulk of the Israeli army could move from the sea shore and cross the river within a few hours.
This whole way of thinking shows that our Right politicians – like most of their persuasion around the world, I suspect – still live in the 19th century. If I were in a less charitable mood, I would say in the Middle Ages. They might as well be equipped with bows and arrows.
(The whole thing reminds me, somehow, of a 19th century German army song: “To the Rhine! To the Rhine! To the German Rhine! / Who wants to be the watchman of the River! / Dear Fatherland, don’t worry / Steady and true stands the watch on the Rhine! / The German youngster, pious and strong / Protects the German borderland!”)
BACK TO the future.
The Crusaders established their kingdom in Palestine when the Arab world was splintered. Their great adversary, the Kurd Salah-al-Din al-Ayubi (Saladin), devoted decades to unifying the Arab world around them before vanquishing them on the battlefield of Hittin.
Today, the Arab world seems more splintered than ever. But a new Arab world is taking shape, the contours of which can be conceived only dimly. Our place is within the new reality, not outside, looking on.
Alas, our leaders are quite unable to see that. They are still living in the world of Sykes and Picot, a world of foreign potentates (now American). For them, the turmoil around us is – well, just turmoil.
The founder of modern Zionism wrote 118 years ago that we shall serve in Palestine as pioneers of European culture and constitute “a wall against Asiatic barbarism.”
Our leaders still live in this imagined reality, re-phrased as “a villa in the jungle”.
So what to do when the predators in the jungle are approaching and roaring? Build higher walls, of course. What else?
1916 map of the then Ottoman empire as divided by Colonel Sykes and Georges-Picot. French = A, British = B
By Malise Ruthven, New York Review of Books
June 25, 2014
When the jihadists of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) tweeted pictures of a bulldozer crashing through the earthen barrier that forms part of the frontier between Syria and Iraq, they announced—triumphantly—that they were destroying the “Sykes-Picot” border. The reference to a 1916 Franco-British agreement about the Middle East may seem puzzling, coming from a radical group fighting a brutal ethnic and religious insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq. But jihadist groups have long drawn on a fertile historical imagination, and old grievances about the West in particular.
This symbolic action by ISIS fighters against a century-old imperial carve-up shows the extent to which one of the most radical groups fighting in the Middle East today is nurtured by the myth of precolonial innocence, when the Ottoman Empire and Sunni Islam ruled over an unbroken realm from North Africa to the Persian Gulf and the Shias knew their place. (Indeed, the Arabic name of ISIS—al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham—refers to a historic idea of the greater Levant (al-Sham) that transcends the region’s modern, Western-imposed state borders.)
But why is Sykes-Picot so important? One reason is that it stands near the beginning of what many Arabs view as a sequence of Western betrayals spanning from the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in World War I to the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Sykes-Picot agreement—named after the British and French diplomats who signed it—was entered in secret, with Russia’s assent, in May 1916 to divide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire into British and French “spheres of influence.” It designated each power’s areas of future control in the event of victory by the Triple Entente over Germany, Austria, and their Ottoman ally. Under the agreement Britain was allocated the coastal strip between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan, Transjordan and southern Iraq, with enclaves including the ports of Haifa and Acre, while France was allocated south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, all of Syria and Lebanon. Russia was to get Istanbul, the Dardanelles, and the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian districts.
Under the 1920 San Remo agreement, which built on Sykes-Picot, the Western powers were free to decide on state boundaries within these areas. The international frontiers—with Iraq’s framed by the merging of the three Ottoman vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra—were consolidated by the separate mandates granted by the League of Nations to France in Lebanon and Syria, and to Britain in Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq. The frontier between French-controlled Syria and British-controlled Iraq included the desert of Anbar province that was bulldozed by ISIS this month.
Kept hidden for more than a year, the Anglo-French pact caused a furor when it was first revealed by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian Revolution—with the Syrian Congress, convened in July 1919, demanding “the full freedom and independence that had been promised to us.” Not only did the agreement map out—unbeknownst to the Arab leaders of the time—a new system of Western control of local populations. It also directly contradicted the promise that Britain’s man in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, had made to the ruler of Mecca, the Sharif Hussein, that he would have an Arab kingdom in the event of Ottoman defeat. In fact, that promise itself, which had been conveyed in McMahon’s correspondence with the Sharif between July 1915 and January 1916, left ambiguous the borders of the future Arab state, and was later used to deny Arab control of Palestine. McMahon had excluded from the proposed Arab kingdom “portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo [that] cannot be said to be purely Arab.” This clause led to lengthy and bitter debates as to whether Palestine—which Britain meanwhile promised as a homeland for Jews under the terms of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration—could be defined as lying “west” of the vilayet, or district, of Damascus.
In his 1922 white paper, Winston Churchill insisted that “the whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was excluded from Sir Henry McMahon’s pledge,” but Arab writers, including George Antonius, argued with forensic precision that Palestine was not among the exclusions specified and agreed to in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence. Antonius’s argument was strengthened by the fact that successive British governments refused to publish the correspondence, on public-interest grounds. The poorly drafted and geographically imprecise commitment McMahon had made to the Arab leader was too embarrassing to be exposed to public scrutiny until 1939, after Antonius had produced his version of it (translated from Arabic sources) in his 1938 book The Arab Awakening.
Pardoxically, even as the Sykes-Picot agreement was reached, a different vein of British policy was unfolding that aimed at liberating the Arab Middle East, though under British guidance. The British had been installed in Egypt since 1882, and had long pursued a dream of Arab unity—hence their interest in encouraging the Sharif of Mecca, whose sons Faisal and Abdullah led the Arab revolt against the Turks. In fact, the British “Arabists,” including McMahon and Sir Gilbert Clayton, head of Military Intelligence in Cairo, and the redoubtable T.E. Lawrence, took a commanding role in the liberation of the Arab provinces, encouraging the establishment of local governance in ways that contradicted the Anglo-French agreement. As the British army swept up from Egypt through Syria, it refrained from entering the larger towns, allowing Faisal and his forces to occupy them to maintain the momentum, and legitimacy, of the Arab national movement. The conquest of Damascus by the British in October 1918 was the outstanding example. As the Israeli scholar Eyal Zisser points out: “The aim was to create a situation in which these towns and areas could be characterized as liberated by the Arabs, who would then have a rightful claim.”
Sir Mark Sykes, the Middle East advisor to the secretary of state for war, Lord Kitchener, who signed the Sykes-Picot agreement with the French diplomat François-Georges Picot, was somewhat Francophile in comparison with the “Arabists,” who he thought were in danger of alienating the French. In view of the devastation the French were suffering on the Western Front (with the loss of a million men more than the British), compounded by the failure of the Gallipoli campaign, Britain, he felt, had a compelling need to humor its French ally. France could claim historical interests in Greater Syria stretching back to the sixteenth century and point to the protection that it had granted Lebanon’s Maronites in 1649. This protection was activated in 1860, when the French sent 6,000 troops to defend the Maronites when large numbers of them were being slaughtered in a civil war with the Druzes.
In the event, the Arabists’ hope for an independent Arab kingdom under British tutelage was trumped by French ambitions. It may be particularly telling that Mosul, the Iraqi city that has just been captured by ISIS and like-minded Sunnis from the US-backed Maliki government, was also a pawn in this earlier colonial struggle between France and Britain. In the course of the murderous and costly Mesopotamian campaign against the Ottoman army (1915–1918) the British had installed themselves in Iraq, and on a visit to London the French leader George Clemenceau conceded that the British should have Mosul, and a free hand in Palestine (which was supposed to be international under the Sykes-Picot terms), with the French acquiring the German stake in what became the Iraqi Petroleum Company.
Faisal with his delegation to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference (T.E. Lawrence is second from right, middle row)
Though Lawrence took Faisal to the Paris peace conference in 1919, and arranged for him to meet British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, his plan for an Arab kingdom based in Damascus was doomed. In July, 1920, four months after Faisal was made King of Syria in March, the French took over Damascus, expelled him, and imposed a form of direct rule that lasted till the British arm—with token Free French forces—removed the colonial Vichy government in 1941. British claims that French control in Syria violated that Sykes-Picot concept of “spheres of influence” in the Arab areas were undermined by the degree of control the British were exercising in Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq (where Faisal from 1921 was able to rule as king under British Mandate rule).
By formally abolishing the Syrian-Iraqi border ISIS doubtless hopes to evoke memories of the Ottoman era before supposedly artificial states were constructed for the convenience of European powers—a time when frontiers were porous and the ways of Islam were universally observed. The fatal flaw in this utopian vision—apart from its obvious historical inaccuracy—is its failure to recognize the division between Sunnism and Shiism that long predated Western interventions in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, Iraqi tribes, traditionally hostile to government, began adopting Shiism in large numbers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However much the leaders of ISIS seek to draw on the imagery of an international Arab jihad rolling back a century of Western imperialism, the growth of ISIS feeds on these sectarian tensions that have been reanimated across the region. Politically, the jihadists have gained support from the widespread hatred of the Shiite cronyism of the Maliki regime, which replaced the cronyism of Saddam Hussein’s, as well as from the brutality of its counterpart in Damascus. And to the extent that foreign powers are driving the situation, the underlying dynamic flows less from the West than from the rivalry between the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf on one side and Shiite Iran on the other.
Notes and links
Colonel Sir Mark Sykes, 6th Baronet (born Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes) was an English traveller, Conservative Party politician and diplomatic advisor on the Levant. Francois Georges-Picot was a French diplomat. The agreement between the British, French and Russians on to whose sphere of influences sectors of the failing Ottoman Empire should be allotted was drawn up in secret between November 1915 and March 1916. It was made public by the Bolsheviks in November 1917 after the Russian Revolution and then published by the Manchester Guardian. The British and French governments implemented their mandates over the agreed areas in 1920.