Robert Fisk: The old partition of the Middle East is dead. I dread to think what will follow

Analysis

“Sykes-Picot is dead,” Walid Jumblatt roared at me last night – and he may well be right.

The Lebanese Druze leader – who fought in a 15-year civil war that redrew the map of Lebanon – believes that the new battles for Sunni Muslim jihadi control of northern and eastern Syria and western Iraq have finally destroyed the post-World War Anglo-French conspiracy, hatched by Mark Sykes and François Picot, which divided up the old Ottoman Middle East into Arab statelets controlled by the West.

The Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and Syria has been fought into existence – however temporarily – by al-Qa’ida-affiliated Sunni fighters who pay no attention to the artificial borders of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Jordan, or even mandate Palestine, created by the British and French. Their capture of the city of Mosul only emphasises the collapse of the secret partition plan which the Allies drew up in the First World War – for Mosul was sought after for its oil wealth by both Britain and France.

 

The entire Middle East has been haunted by the Sykes-Picot agreement, which also allowed Britain to implement Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour’s 1917 promise to give British support to the creation of a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine. Perhaps only today’s Arabs (and Israelis) fully understand the profound historical changes – and deep political significance – that the extraordinary battles of this past week have wrought on the old colonial map of the Middle East.

The collapsing Ottoman Empire of 1918 was to be split into two on a north-east, south-west axis which would run roughly from near Kirkuk – today under Kurdish control – across from Mosul in northern Iraq and the Syrian desert and through what is now the West Bank to Gaza. Mosul was initially given to the French – its oil surrendered by the British in return for what would become a French buffer zone between Britain and the Russian Caucasus, Baghdad and Basra being safe in British hands below the French lines. But growing British commercial desires for oil took over from imperial agreements. Mosul was configured into the British zone inside the new state of Iraq (previously Mesopotamia), its oil supplies safely in the hands of London. Iraq, Trans- jordan and Palestine were under British mandatory control, Syria and Lebanon under the French mandate.

But the new geographical map created by al-Qa’ida and its Nusra and Isis allies runs not north-east to south-west but east to west, taking in the cities of Fallujah, Tikrit and Mosul, and Raqqa and large areas of eastern Syria. Jihadi tactics strongly suggest that the line was intended to run from west of Baghdad right across the Iraqi and Syrian deserts to include Homs, Hama and Aleppo in Iraq. But the Syrian government army – successfully fighting a near-identical battle to that now involving a demoralised Iraqi army – has recaptured Homs, held on to Hama and relieved the siege of Aleppo.

By chance, economist Ian Rutledge has just published an account of the battle for Mosul and oil during and after the First World War, and of the betrayal of the Sunni Muslim Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who was promised an independent Arab land by the British in return for his help in overthrowing the Ottoman Empire. Rutledge has researched Britain’s concern about Shia power in southern Iraq – where Basra’s oil lies – material with acute relevance to the crisis now tearing Iraq to pieces.

Volunteers join the Iraqi army in Baghdad Volunteers join the Iraqi army in Baghdad (AP)

For the successor power to Sharif Hussein in Arabia is the Saudi royal family, which has been channelling billions of dollars to the very same jihadi groups that have taken over eastern Syria and western Iraq and now Mosul and Tikrit. The Saudis set themselves up as the foundational Sunni power in the region, controlling Arab Gulf oil wealth – until America’s overthrow of the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein led inexorably to a majority Shia government in Baghdad allied to Shia Iran.

Thus the new Middle Eastern map substantially increases Saudi power over the region’s oil, lowering Iraq’s exports, raising the cost of oil (including, of course, Saudi oil) and at the expense of a frightened and still sanctioned Iran, which must defend its co-religionists in the collapsing Baghdad government. Mosul’s oil is now Sunni oil. And the vast and unexplored reserves believed to lie beneath the jihadi-held deserts west of Baghdad are now also firmly in Sunni rather than in national, Shia-controlled Baghdad government hands.

Rebels parade through Mosul Rebels parade through Mosul (Reuters)

This break-up may also, of course, engender a new version of the terrifying Iran-Iraq war – a conflict that killed 1.5 million Sunni and Shia Muslims, both sides armed by outside powers while the Arab Gulf states funded the Sunni leadership of Saddam. The West was happy to see these great Muslim powers fighting each other. Israel sent weapons to Iran and watched its principal Muslim enemies destroy each other. Which is why Walid Jumblatt now also believes that the current tragedy – while it has killed off Mr Sykes and Mr Picot – will have Arthur Balfour smiling in his grave.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn