Once again, Iraq is tearing itself apart. The country’s existence as a cohesive whole is now in more danger than it was at the height of the civil war in 2006/07, when the yearly civilian death count was over 20,000. Now, with a disintegrating Syria providing an ideal base for terrorism, Iraq is being threatened by ISIS, a group aiming to establish an Islamic caliphate across much of the Middle East.
Much of the debate swirls around the controversies of Western intervention. Two apparently contradictory questions are being asked again and again: did the 2003 invasion set up the conditions for ISIS’s emergence (namely, the severe weakening of the Iraqi state, and the dominance of Nuori al-Maliki’s Shia government over minority Sunnis)? And, even so, should the West act again, to save the Iraq it spent so much blood to create?
But there is one Western act neglected in the endless news articles and opinion pieces, and it is the one perhaps most crucial in understanding ISIS’s determination to redraw the map (and, as it happens, sheds a lot of light on the recent history of both Iraq and Syria): the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1917. As WWI put strain on the empires of France and Britain, the countries’ diplomats drew up a plan for a quasi-independent Middle East; dividing their territory into countries with arbitrary strokes of a pen. Thus, the region’s countries never lined up with its nations, and the stage was set for the next 100 years of bloody strife.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement failed, crucially, to distinguish between Sunni and Shia Arab areas, resulting in the formation of countries with sizeable minorities and powerful majorities. Sometimes, as was the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it is the minority group which wields power – often by force. It is hard to overstate the feelings of animosity between Sunnis and Shias, especially in the most polarised countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon); there hasn’t been peace between the two groups since the great schism after Muhammad’s death.
Al-Maliki’s divisive style of government has not helped matters, but it is naïve to blame the Prime Minister for all of is his country’s woes. Iraq is a product of Western imperialism – and in many ways should never have existed in its current form. ISIS is abhorrent for many reasons, but its rejection of arbitrary borders isn’t one of them; it is based, instead, on an embedded historical narrative.
So we have to ask ourselves, is Iraq’s integrity really our paramount priority? In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the West advocated self-determination for ethnic minorities, and now many countries exist where once stood just one. Surely the same right cannot be denied to the peoples of the Middle East. And yet, the consequences of the dissolution of Iraq are hard to fathom, both within its current borders and worldwide. Having misguidedly brought the country into being, the West is bound to defend it. There is no righting the mistakes of history.