Middle Eastern History You Need to Know: ISIS and Sykes-Picot


by John Velisek, USN (Ret.)

Without direct intervention on the part of the U.S. and the Allies we still have left, the Middle East as we have known it may become a thing of the past. Isis changed its name to the Islamic State (IS) and removed any references to Iraq and Syria as separate entities. Its original name ISIL includes the “Levant” which covers a great deal of the Mediterranean coast and Jordan. The change to Islamic State signifies a decision to eradicate all other entities, Arab and otherwise, and bring them under IS control.

The Islamic State wants to return to a time before the lines were drawn for the modern day Middle East, wanting a borderless desert where they can come and go at will and rule it in the name of Islam. There will be no borders, but rather a compelled unity under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi created by a past made of whole cloth.

There was no great unity in the seventh century nor is there a great deal of unity now. They are taking the opportunity to move forward with a caliphate that has no historical equal and they have singularly erased borders of countries that are independent nations.

Iraq and Syria are historically different, in all aspects of religion, type of government, and culture. IS is looking forward to a new caliphate, a new Ottoman Empire.

When we look at what the Ottoman Empire aspired to, the Western world was concerned that the Ottoman Empire could close down shipping routes, which is the same problem we have today. T.E. Lawrence (later known as Lawrence of Arabia) was sent to convince the Arabs to fight against the Ottoman Empire. They were promised a new united Arab kingdom within Syria, which at the time was much larger than now, and included parts of Iraq and present day Jordan.

This is the root of most of the problems of today. ISIS has looked to obliterate the Sykes-Picot agreement made before the fall of the Ottoman Empire and implemented when the Empire was dissolved. There are a great many, both in the Arab world and the Western World, who declare it is time to dissolve some of Sykes-Picot. But to make a judgment, one needs to understand what Sykes-Picot was and what it did to the Middle East.

The Sykes-Picot agreement, also known as the Asia Minor Agreement, was an agreement by England, France and Russia designating proposed “spheres of Influence” within the Middle East. Concluded on 16 May, 1916, it was first made public in the English speaking world on November 26, 1917.

Effectively dividing the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and negotiated by Francois Georges Picot and Sir Mark Sykes, it was kept secret until the Bolshevik revolution. When it was shown to the world and put into full effect with Russia as a consenting partner, it left the Arabs who were promised independence by T.E. Lawrence without a nation.

The British, following the start of hostilities of WWI, also discussed the challenges of Zionism. Lloyd George, after a cabinet meeting of November 9, 1914, assured Herbert Samuel, an avid Zionist, that he was looking forward to a Jewish State established in Palestine. In January 1915, Samuel submitted a memorandum to the cabinet after discussion with Lloyd George. This memorandum “ The Future of Palestine” was an attempt to find international guarantees for an Israeli homeland.

More conflict arose over the “Balfour Declaration” of 1917. It stated that the Allies were committed to Zionism and had no intention of honoring promises made to the Arabs.

But what of Palestine? In a promise to Hussein made in 1915, Britain promised it would be an independent Arab nation, which was subsequently changed with the Balfour Declaration.

The Ottoman Empire

And now? Sykes-Picot is fast becoming a relic of the past. Syria, in essence, is three different countries. The Alawites in the west are the central opposition forces, and the Kurds are the eastern opposition. In Iraq, the Kurds, after completion of the pipeline they have developed in their area, will stake a claim for independence encompassing areas of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The Shi’ites in southern Iraq are now clamoring for independence and have secured assistance from Iran. Jordan – the original Palestinian homeland – is facing a challenge from the ruling Bedouin tribes.

IS is working thorugh terrorism and intimidation to change the map and to take back what they were promised 100 years ago. They want an end to the West who they feel deserted the Arabs and destroyed the caliphate.

Who are the scapegoats since the time of Sykes-Picot?

The Jews and Palestinians have been used to foment terror and violence against each other and their neighbors. IS will use them both to achieve the goals they have set. That being said, there will never be a two-state solution as long as IS is powerful enough to stop it.

1948 map

1948 map

Is Israel strong enough to stop it? In the War of 1948, when Israel had five Arab armies amassed against it, Israel managed to survive and actually go against the armies and win.

But there was more to the story. Before the war Jordan and Israel discussed the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel agreed to Jordan annexing both. During the war, Jordan actually attacked Palestinian Arabs to secure that land. Egypt wanted Southern Palestine, Iraq wanted the agricultural heart of Palestine under their control. Syria and Lebanon wanted northern Palestine, effectively ending the Palestinian state.

After the defeat, the Arab nations needed a new rallying cry. They had devoured what should have been Palestine and Jordan would no longer accept refugees. TransJordan, and Israel, both included in the Balfour Declaration, were left to take care of the problem. The new homeland of Israel accepted the plan, The Arabs and Palestinians did not. If that had happened, the two-state solution would have caused any animosity to dissolve. But if they had, the Arabs would have the destruction of Israel to use as an answer to all their problems.

Present Day Israel

today's map

ISIS map 2015

2015 ISI


John Velisek USN (Ret.)
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