It is obvious to anybody following the news coming out of the Middle East that Iraq is falling apart very quickly. Confronted by the determined push of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters, the Iraqi army simply melted away, in some instances without a fight, abandoning all kinds of weapons and equipment to the advancing insurgents. This is the same army that the US trained and equipped at a cost of some 20 billion dollars. True to form, the White House expressed “surprise”, both at the rapidity of the ISIS advance and the decidedly lack of fighting spirit of the Iraqi army.
If anyone noticed, some of the ISIS fighters, while parading through the streets of the newly conquered cities, carried signs that read #NO SYKES-PICOT and there is even a recruiting video titled “The End of Sykes-Picot” which makes interesting watching, if you can stomach the annoying Arabic martial music. It is purportedly narrated by a man calling himself Abu Safiyya, originally from Chile (something that should make us pause hard) vowing to erase all borders and reach Jerusalem.
Prior to WW I, all of the Middle East, including the Arabian Peninsula, was part and parcel of the Ottoman Empire, also known as the Ottoman Caliphate. Because the Turks had thrown their lot with the Central Powers, the British sent T.E. Lawrence to encourage the Arabs to rebel and fight the Turks. He carried official documents and promises of a creation of an independent Arab kingdom under the Sharif of Mecca. At this point, a word of caution to those raised watching Lawrence of Arabia: whatever the cinematographic merits of the film, its historical contents are nonsense. While Lawrence and the Arabs were happily fighting the Turks, Mark Sykes of Britain and Francois Picot of France, anticipating the defeat of the Ottomans, in 1916 made a secret agreement to divide the spoils between them. England received Trans Jordan and Mesopotamia, France got Syria and Russia, though not a signatory, would have received Istanbul and the Turkish Straits. Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks toppled the Czar, nullifying their part of the agreement. The Bolsheviks were only too happy to make the agreement public, causing much embarrassment to the Allies and much consternation among the Arabs.
The real damage caused by Sykes-Picot was the obliteration of the Sunni-Shiite divide that the Caliphate had wisely instituted in addition to carving Iraq out of Mesopotamia and handing it over to Sharif Hussein-bin-Ali’s son, Faisal to rule as king. Iraq was a monarchy until 1958 when a brutal and bloody army coup carried out by Baath Party officers murdered the royal family and proclaimed a republic. After a succession of coups and counter coups, each one bloodier than the previous, Sadaam Hussein eventually came out on top. The Baath Party (socialist and secular in nature) ruled in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, the Hashemite dynasty, descendants of Mohammed, ruled in Jordan and in Lebanon, which had been carved out of Syria by the French, a precarious arrangement between Christians and Muslims formed an uneasy government.
Which brings us back full circle to the present situation in Iraq. It is apparent that Humpty Dumpty had a great fall and that all the king’s men and all the king’s horses will not be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again, which means that Iraq will probably fragment into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish sections after much bloodshed. Recently, ISIS announced the formation of a new Caliphate under their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph, claiming authority over all Muslims. Already ISIS has changed its name and now calls itself the Islamic State; whether this will become a reality or not, should not blind us to the fact that we in the West have no real understanding of the psychology and dynamics operating in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq was called Operation Iraqi Freedom and we went in full force, much as Don Quijote charging windmills, filled with good intentions but full of wrong assumptions.
One assumption was that we could teach a class on “Democracy 101” and expect to create a model for the whole of the Middle East. It worked for a while, but the soil was not really fertile enough. We spent billions to train and equip an army without paying too much attention as to what thoughts were in their heads. In a region where religious sectarian violence is endemic and where Sunni and Shiite go at each other with a fanaticism that makes the European religious wars pale in comparison, we expected that the democratically elected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite representing the country’s Shiite majority, would magically extend the hand of friendship and brotherhood to his fellow Sunni countrymen when those same Sunnis had ruled Iraq under the brutal and bloody tyranny of Sadaam Hussein.
The price of trying to save people who do not want to be saved has been very high, with 4,500 American soldiers dead, ten times as many wounded or crippled and a trillion dollars spent. The underlying lesson here is that no matter which side wins in the Middle East, we lose.