Isis: In a borderless world, the days when we could fight foreign wars and be safe at home may be long gone

Isis was quick to understand a truth the West must now confront: that the national borders imposed by colonial powers 100 years go are becoming meaningless, says Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk
Thursday 19 November 2015 21:34 GMT
A Kurdish fighter surveys the border between Turkey and Iraq in early 2015
A Kurdish fighter surveys the border between Turkey and Iraq in early 2015 (AFP/Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Early in 2014, Isis released one of its first videos. Largely unseen in Europe, it had neither the slick, cutting-edge professionalism of its later execution tapes nor the haunting “nasheed” music that accompanies most of its propaganda. Instead, a hand-held camera showed a bulldozer pushing down a rampart of sand that had marked the border between Iraq and Syria. As the machine destroyed the dirt revetment, the camera panned down to a handwritten poster lying in the sand. “End of Sykes-Picot”, it said.

Like many hundreds of thousands of Arabs in the Middle East, for whom Sykes-Picot was an almost cancerous expression, I watched this early Isis video in Beirut. The bloody repercussions of the borders that the British and French diplomats, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, drew in secret during the First World War – originally giving Syria, Mount Lebanon and northern Iraq to the French, and Palestine, Transjordan and the rest of Iraq to the British – are known to every Arab, Christian and Muslim and, indeed, every Jew in the region. They eviscerated the governorates of the old dying Ottoman empire and created artificial nations in which borders, watchtowers and hills of sand separated tribes, families and peoples. They were an Anglo-French colonial production.

The same night that I saw the early Isis video, I happened to be visiting the Lebanese Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt. “The end of Sykes-Picot!” he roared at me. “Rubbish,” I snorted. But of course, I was wrong and Jumblatt was right. He had spotted at once how Isis captured symbolically – but with almost breathtaking speed – what so many Arabs had sought for almost exactly 100 years: the unravelling of the fake borders with which the victors of the First World War – largely the British and the French – had divided the Arab people. It was our colonial construction – not just the frontiers we imposed upon them, but the administrations and the false democracies that we fraudulently thrust upon them, the mandates and trusteeships which allowed us to rule them – that poisoned their lives. Colin Powell claimed just such a trusteeship for Iraq's oil prior to the illegal Anglo-American invasion of 2003.

We foisted kings upon the Arabs – we engineered a 96 per cent referendum in favour of the Hashemite King Faisal in Iraq in 1922 – and then provided them with generals and dictators. The people of Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt – which had been invaded by the British in the 19th century – were subsequently blessed with mendacious governments, brutal policemen, lying newspapers and fake elections. Mubarak even scored Faisal's epic 96 per cent election victory all over again. For the Arabs, “democracy” did not mean freedom of speech and freedom to elect their own leaders; it referred to the “democratic” Western nations that continued to support the cruel dictators who oppressed them.

Thus the Arab revolutions that consumed the Middle East in 2011 – forget the “Arab Spring”, a creature of Hollywood origin – did not demand democracy. The posters on the streets of Cairo and Tunis and Damascus and Yemen called for dignity and justice, two commodities that we had definitely not sought for the Arabs. Justice for the Palestinians – or for the Kurds, or for that matter for the destroyed Armenians of 1915, or for all the suffering Arab peoples – was not something that commended itself to us. But I think we should have gone much further in our investigation of the titanic changes of 2011.

In my own reporting of the uprisings, I attributed them to increased education and travel by the Arab communities throughout the Middle East. While acknowledging the power of social media and the internet, something deeper was at work. The Arabs had woken from a deep sleep. They had refused any longer to be the “children” of the patriarchal father figure – the Nassers and the Sadats and the Mubaraks and the Assads and the Gaddafis and, in earlier years, the Saddams. They awoke to find that it was their own governments that were composed of children, one of whom – Mubarak – was 83 years old. The Arabs wanted to own their towns and cities. They wanted to own the place in which they lived, which comprised much of the Middle East.

But I think now that I was wrong. In retrospect, I woefully misunderstood what these revolutions represented. One clue, perhaps, lay in the importance of trade union movements. Where trade unions, with their transnational socialism and anti-colonial credentials, were strong – in Egypt and Tunisia – the revolutionary bloodshed was far less than in the nations that had either banned trade unionism altogether – Libya, for example – or concretised the trade union movement into the regime, which had long ago happened in Syria and Yemen. Socialism crossed borders. Yet even this does not account for the events of 2011.

What really manifested itself that year, I now believe, was a much more deeply held Arab conviction; that the very institutions that we in the West had built for these people 100 years ago were worthless, that the statehood which we had later awarded to artificial nations within equally artificial borders was meaningless. They were rejecting the whole construct that we had foisted upon them. That Egypt regressed back into military patriarchy – and the subsequent and utterly predictable Western acqiescence in this – after a brief period of elected Muslim Brotherhood government, does not change this equation. While the revolutions largely stayed within national boundaries – at least at the start – the borders began to lose their meaning.

Lines in the sand: The Sykes-Picot Plan, 1916
Lines in the sand: The Sykes-Picot Plan, 1916

Hamas in Gaza and the Brotherhood became one, the Sinai-Gaza frontier began to crumble. Then the collapse of Libya rendered Gaddafi's former borders open – and thus non-existent. His weapons – including chemical shells – were sold to rebels in Egypt and Syria. Tunisia, which is now supposed to be the darling of our Western hearts for its adhesion to “democracy”, is now in danger of implosion because its own borders with Libya and Algeria are open to arms transhipments to Islamist groups. Isis's grasp of these frontierless entities means that its own transnational existence is assured, from Fallujah in Iraq to the edge of Syrian Aleppo, from Nigeria to Niger and Chad.

It can thus degrade the economy of each country it moves through, blowing up a Russian airliner leaving Sharm el-Sheikh, attacking the Bardo museum in Tunis or the beaches of Sousse. There was a time – when Islamists attacked the Jewish synagogue on Djerba island in Tunisia in 2002, for example, killing 19 people – when tourism could continue. But that was when Libya still existed. In those days, Ben Ali's security police were able to control the internal security of Tunisia; the army was left weak so that it could not stage a coup. So today, of course, the near-impotent army of Tunisia cannot defend its frontiers.

Isis's understanding of this new phenomenon preceded our own. But Isis's realisation that frontiers were essentially defenceless in the modern age coincided with the popular Arab disillusion with their own invented nations. Most of the millions of Syrian and Afghan refugees who have flooded into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and then north into Europe do not intend to return – ever – to states that have failed them as surely as they no longer – in the minds of the refugees – exist. These are not “failed states” so much as imaginary nations that no longer have any purpose.

I only began to understand this when, back in July, covering the Greek economic crisis, I travelled to the Greek-Macedonian border with Médecins Sans Frontières. This was long before the story of Arab refugees entering Europe had seized the attention of the EU or the media, although the Mediterranean drownings had long been a regular tragedy on television screens. Aylan Kurdi, the little boy who would be washed up on a Turkish beach, still had another two months to live. But in the fields along the Macedonian border were thousands of Syrians and Afghans. They were coming in their hundreds through the cornfields, an army of tramping paupers who might have been fleeing the Hundred Years War, women with their feet burned by exploded gas cookers, men with bruises over their bodies from the blows of frontier guards. Two of them I even knew, brothers from Aleppo whom I had met two years earlier in Syria. And when they spoke, I suddenly realised they were talking of Syria in the past tense. They talked about “back there” and “what was home”. They didn't believe in Syria any more. They didn't believe in frontiers.

Far more important for the West, they clearly didn't believe in our frontiers either. They just walked across European frontiers with the same indifference as they crossed from Syria to Turkey or Lebanon. We, the creators of the Middle East's borders, found that our own historically created national borders also had no meaning to these people. They wanted to go to Germany or Sweden and intended to walk there, however many policemen were sent to beat them or smother them with tear gas in a vain attempt to guard the national sovereignty of the frontiers of the EU.

Our own shock – indeed, our indignation – that our own precious borders were not respected by these largely Muslim armies of the poor was in sharp contrast to our own blithe non-observance of Arab frontiers. Saddam was among the first to show his own detestation of such lines in the sand. He cared nothing about international law when he invaded Iran in 1980 – with intelligence help from the Americans – or Kuwait in 1990, when he tore up the old frontier of the emirate and claimed it as an Iraqi province. But the West has now launched so many air strikes across the Middle East's borders since the 1991 liberation of Kuwait that we scarcely need to search for precedents now that Arab air forces are regularly criss-crossing the Middle East's national boundaries – along with our own fighter-bombers.

Quite apart from our mournful Afghan adventure and our utterly illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, our aircraft have been bombing Libya, Iraq and Syria along with the aircraft of various local pseudo-democracies for so long that this state of affairs has become routine, almost normal, scarcely worthy of a front-page headline. The Saudis are bombing Iraq and Syria and Yemen. The Jordanians are bombing Syria. The Emiratis are bombing Yemen. And now the French are bombing the Syrian city of Raqqa even more than they bombed the Syrian city of Raqqa two months ago – when President François Hollande did not tell us that France was “at war”. The point, of course, is that we had grown so used to attacking Arab lands – France had become so inured to sending its soldiers and air crews to Africa and the Middle East to shoot and bomb those whom it regarded as its enemies – that only when Muslims began attacking our capital cities did we suddenly announce that we were “at war”.

A bulldozer cuts through a sand rampart at the Syrian border in the early Isis video
A bulldozer cuts through a sand rampart at the Syrian border in the early Isis video (AFP)

There were no code reds or code oranges in Arab capitals. They existed in a permanent state of code red, their people cringing beneath “emergency laws” imposed by dictators supported by the West, legislation even more iniquitous than those our European political masters now wish to impose on us. Of course, since the Iraqi catastrophe, we like to use local militia forces to do the dying for us. So the Kurds become our foot soldiers against Isis, or the Iraqi Shia militias or the Iranians or – though we must not admit this – the Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Isis has weirdly replicated this gruesome policy. However many atrocities in Europe have been committed by men who have supposedly been “radicalised” in Syria, the killers have usually been local proxies; British Muslims in the UK, French Muslims who were citizens of France or residents of Belgium. The significance of this – that Isis clearly intends to provoke a civil war within Europe, especially between France's huge Algerian-origin Muslims and the police and political elite of France – has been spoken of in whispers. Indeed, much of the media coverage of the Paris massacres has often avoided the very word Muslim.

Just as any incomprehension we express about the borderless world into which the Arabs think they are moving carries no reference to that most borderless of Middle East nations, Israel. Arthur Balfour's declaration, which gave the UK's support to a Jewish homeland in Palestine during the same war that Mr Sykes and M. Georges-Picot were plotting to divide up the Arab world, anticipated new frontiers within Palestine itself, borders which, to this day, are largely undefined. Israel's internationally recognised frontiers are ignored by the Israeli government itself because it will not even say where its eastern border lies. Is it along the old Jerusalem frontline? Is it along the grotesque Israeli wall that has effectively stolen West Bank Palestinian land? Does the state of Israel include every Jewish colony built on land thieved from the Palestinians of the West Bank? Or does it run along the entire length of the Jordan river, thus destroying any Palestinian state that might ever exist? When Israelis ask their critics to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, they should be requested to state which particular Israel they are talking about: the legal one recognised by the UN – or “Israel proper” as we call it – or an Israel that includes the entire West Bank, or “Israel improper” as we assuredly do not call it?

Syria: Russian jets pound ISIS oil refinery in Syria

Our support for an Israel that has not told us the location of its eastern border runs logically alongside our own refusal to recognise – unless it suits us – the frontiers of the Arab world. It is, after all, we who are allowed to draw “lines in the sand” or “red lines”. It is we Europeans who decide where civilisations begin and end. It is the Prime Minister of Hungary who decides exactly where he will draw up his forces to defend “Christian civilisation”. It is we Westerners who have the moral probity to decide whether national sovereignty in the Middle East should be obeyed or abused.

But when the Arabs themselves decide to dispense with the whole fandango and seek their future in “our” lands rather than “their” lands, this policy breaks down. Indeed, it is extraordinary how easily we forget that the greatest frontier-breaker of modern times was himself a European, who wanted to destroy the Jews of Europe but who might well – given his racist remark about Muslims in Mein Kampf – have continued his holocaust to include the Arabs. We even have the nerve to call the murderers of Paris “fascislamists”, as the great French pseudo-philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has just written in the press. Nazis Isis undoubtedly are – but the moment we utilise the word “Islam” in this context, we are painting the swastika across the Middle East. Levy demands more assistance to “our Kurdish allies” because the alternative is that “no boots on their ground means more blood on ours”.

But that's what George W Bush and Tony Blair told us before marching into the graveyard of Iraq in 2003. We are always declaring ourselves “at war”. We are told to be merciless. We must invade “their” territory to stop them invading ours. But the days are long gone when we can have foreign adventures and expect to be safe at home. New York, Washington, Madrid, London, Paris all tell us that. Perhaps if we spoke more of “justice” – courts, legal process for killers, however morally repugnant they may be, sentences, prisons, redemption for those who may retrieve their lost souls from the Isis midden – we would be a little safer in our sceptered continent. There should be justice not just for ourselves or our enemies, but for the peoples of the Middle East who have suffered this past century from the theatre of dictatorships and cardboard institutions we created for them – and which have helped Isis to thrive.

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