The end of Sykes-Picot? - Redrawing the Middle East borders

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 240 August/September 2014

In mid-July IS launched a major offensive in Syria capturing most of the oil-rich Deir ez-Zor province which borders Iraq.

At the end of June and the beginning of Ramadan, the Sunni group then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced the establishment of the Islamic State across the lands it had captured, from the outskirts of Aleppo in eastern Syria to Suleiman Beg in the Diyala province of Iraq. ISIS (now renamed The Islamic State – IS) proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi as Caliph of all Muslims. IS propaganda proclaimed the ‘End of Sykes-Picot’ referring to the 1916 agreement when British and French imperialists drew new borders for the region, in order to secure resources and power. The historic region of Al Sham, which IS intends to capture, extends over all the lands carved up by this agreement, including Jordan, Lebanon and beyond. Jim Craven and Toby Harbertson report.

Today, the imperialist powers are militarily stretched and economically weakened. They are less able to summon up the forces to invade directly as in 1916 or in the 2003 occupation of Iraq. Instead they must make do with the use of proxy forces in the region, made more unpredictable by the competing interests of regional powers. Despite declaring IS as a major new ‘terrorist’ threat, the imperialist powers through their actions and regional allies – notably Saudi Arabia – have shaped and nurtured it. They have no principles other than pursuit of profit and dominance, and no qualms about using those they declare ‘terrorists’. They will support IS to the extent that it furthers their wider objectives – destroying Iran and its allies Syria and Hezbollah, and the Palestinian resistance, protecting Israel and Saudi Arabia, and securing control of the region’s resources.

The Islamic State

The Islamic State would have been impossible without the support of the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Arms, money and other equipment have been poured into the region for more than three years, in an attempt to overthrow the Syrian government. Special forces operatives have been active in training and co-ordinating ‘rebel’ groups in Jordan and Turkey. Loyalties, affiliations, and equipment are fluid, with militants proclaimed ‘moderate’ by the imperialists quickly joining IS once they have received arms. President Obama wants to send $500 million to ‘moderate’ rebels in Syria, some of whom have since pledged allegiance to IS. Former British Foreign Secretary William Hague has admitted that ISIS was among the rebel groups in Syria that received support from the US and Britain. to former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove, ISIS was established by Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, who was tasked with destroying the Syrian government (The Independent, 16 July 2014). A powerful Sunni force destabilising Iraq and Syria would undermine Iran’s power – a major goal of both Saudi Arabia and Israel. The free passage for ‘rebel’ fighters across the borders of Turkey and Jordan has also allowed IS to build its strength.

The declaration of the Islamic State has underlined the artificial nature of the existing borders in the central Middle East. For the imperialists and major regional powers, the Sykes-Picot consensus has run its useful course, and new de facto borders are being drawn. With Syria and Hezbollah bogged down in a relentless war, Israel has taken the opportunity to try and destroy Hamas in Gaza. Different actors are pushing for influence and control as new Kurdish states and a new Sunni state are emerging. This is having huge impacts across the region, with Syria and Iraq the most directly affected.

Syria – Islamic State on the offensive

The declaration of the Islamic State came as the Syrian army and government were accelerating their reconquest of rebel-held areas. Rebel areas of Aleppo were becoming increasingly isolated, and after more than three years of destruction, many who had sided with the rebels were uniting behind the government. These military gains are now being threatened by a renewed IS offensive in Syria. Their conquests in Iraq have meant a huge growth in funds, and heavy weaponry. After the fall of Mosul in Iraq, video was released of IS fighters speeding back to eastern Syria with their spoils. Captured US Humvees and tanks were shown breaching the Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria. The BBC explains: ‘1,500 Humvees, some armed with TOW [guided anti-tank] missiles, howitzers, and precision-guided weaponry were taken from the Iraqi army’ (18 July 2014). Iraqi militias who had been fighting alongside Syria and Hezbollah have begun to return to Iraq to oppose the new IS offensive there, leaving the crucial Syria-Lebanon border region more vulnerable. Along with this, the success of IS has led to new recruits, particularly from dwindling rebel groups.

IS offensive

Raqqa in eastern Syria has been declared the capital of the Islamic State. This is the area in which IS has managed to build its base in order to launch its offensive into central Iraq. The large part of eastern Syria administered by IS – including the crucial resource of the Euphrates river – had not been the primary concern of the Syrian government, fighting as they have been for heavily populated areas and major transport routes in the west. Now, IS has become the main threat. In mid-July IS launched a major offensive in Syria capturing most of the oil-rich Deir-ez-Zor province which borders Iraq. The significant Shaar gas field was seized on 19 July, where 270 people were executed (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 19 July 2014). This has sparked the largest battle so far between the Syrian army and IS. The autonomous Kurdish areas of north-east Syria have also come under increased attack from IS. The Kobane region has been targeted, which has been under control of the Kurdish militia the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) for more than a year. Salih Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party, Syrian Kurdistan’s ruling party, has accused IS of using chemical weapons in its assault (BBC, 19 July). Others have accused Turkey of providing logistical support to IS, in order to crush a principled and independent Kurdish region on its borders. (Counterpunch, 16 July 2014).

Britain’s brutal plans

As IS has gained ground, a new report has confirmed that only splits in the British ruling class and among its allies, prevented Britain from a murderous Libya-style intervention. In 2012 plans were developed in the heart of the British military establishment to arm and train 100,000 rebels. These were to be the ground troops necessary for an assault on Damascus, with massive British and US air support. The plan was put forward by Britain’s then chief of Defence Staff, General David Richards (now Baron Richards of Herstmonceux), and was named operation ‘Extract, Equip, Train’. Military bases in Jordan and Turkey were to be used to vet, train and arm fighters (BBC, 3 July 2014). Instead, this process has operated on a smaller scale with IS ending up as the main beneficiary.

The forces of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran are being stretched and spread thinly across the region renewing the threat to the Syrian state. Unless these forces can continue to make military gains, IS will continue to service the imperialists’ objectives in Syria, leaving chaos and reaction in its wake. However, the imperialists have had to acknowledge that their much-hyped ‘revolutionaries’ are now ‘terrorists’. Assad’s claims to be fighting terrorism can no longer be rubbished as just the delusions of a dictator. The contradictions arising from imperialist actions in the Middle East are getting harder to hide, exposing their hypocrisy and brutality to a wider audience.

Iraq divided

The success of IS in Iraq has depended on the sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia engineered by the US and its allies to divert opposition to their occupation, and the subsequent installation of a predominantly Shia government, which has systematically oppressed the Sunni population. The land captured by IS stretches over 1,000 kilometres but the extent of IS control over this territory is uncertain. The population is predominantly Sunni. Fighting alongside IS have been other Sunni groups opposed to the Iraqi government, such as Jaish Naqshbandi, led by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri; and former Iraqi officers in the General Military Council of the Iraqi Revolutionaries. The alliance is fragile, as most in the latter groups do not share IS’s fundamentalist ideology. Indeed, some of them were part of the so-called Awakening movement that opposed the excesses of IS’s predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq, in 2006. Some were quick to criticise the creation of The Islamic State. IS called on all the other Sunni groups to hand over their weapons and pledge allegiance.

US prepares intervention

The US response to the Sunni advance was to mobilise its forces to react if IS overstepped its mandate. Several ships were sent to the Gulf, armed with Patriot missiles capable of reaching all of Iraq. They include the ‘quick reaction’ vessel USS Mesa Verde with 500 marines and attack helicopters and the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush. The US has also supplemented the special forces and mercenaries protecting the US embassy in Baghdad and the airport, bringing the total to 800. In addition, 300 military advisers, air force ground support and extra CIA intelligence staff have been sent to Iraq. They will be based in Baghdad, the Kurdish region and at Balad air base. The ‘advisers’ will, no doubt, also be special forces officers directing operations on the front line alongside the Iraqi army. US drones, which have been flying around 35 intelligence gathering missions a day, have now been armed with Hellfire missiles. US Joint Chiefs of Staff chair General Martin Dempsey refused to rule out large scale troop involvement.

However, by late July, the US had not needed to take military action in Iraq, with the IS expansion working nicely to its agenda. President Obama insisted that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki must ‘begin accommodating Sunni participation in his government’ before the US will lend a hand. Without a hint of irony, the leader of one of the two nations most responsible for the deaths of a million Iraqis, sectarian civil war, the destruction of the country and upheaval throughout the Middle East, vowed not to be ‘dragged back into a situation in which, while we’re there keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, as soon as we’re not there, people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country ... In the past decade American forces and taxpayers have made extraordinary sacrifices to give Iraqis a better choice and future. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been met by the same commitment from Iraq’s leaders who can’t seem to get past their sectarian differences’.

Against Iran

Obama’s concern for the long-suffering US taxpayer, hides an ulterior motive. Al Maliki was originally chosen as the imperialists’ preferred puppet and came to power in a deal brokered by Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in 2006. However, Al Maliki and his Shia dominated government came increasingly to represent the interests of Iran: denying the US a long-term military presence. Forcing Al Maliki or his successor to create a more inclusive government will weaken Iran’s influence and may allow the US to establish permanent military bases. Then there is the question of Iraq’s massive oil reserves. All the major oil multinationals, including Exxon-Mobil and BP, have invested in Iraqi oil but presently operate under production-sharing agreements imposed by the Iraqi government, which limit profits. China, more concerned with supply than profit, has, since US forces left, cornered the bulk of Iraqi exports, a situation which the US would no doubt wish to control.

Al Maliki has so far resisted US pressure, insisting that the precedent of a parliament with a Sunni speaker, Kurdish president and Shia prime minister should be maintained and on his right to try and form a coalition government following his election victory in April. A Sunni speaker was finally elected at the second attempt in mid-July but there was no sign of any consensus on government. In 2010 the process took nine months. Kurdish MPs have withdrawn from the outgoing government following accusations by Al Maliki that the Kurds were sheltering jihadists.

Divide and rule

Despite the calumny heaped on the Sunni forces, there is every reason to believe the US initially turned a blind eye to their advance. It is inconceivable that US intelligence was unaware of the impending Sunni attack on Mosul and yet they chose to do nothing to prevent it. It was left to Kurdish intelligence to warn Al Maliki and he refused their offer of help. Nor did Iraqi troops flee out of fear of IS, as was first reported. They did so because their commanders simply left the city and went to the Kurdish region following a deal with the Sunni attackers. Whether this was for personal gain or from sympathy with the Sunni cause is not clear, but among them were ex-Ba’athists and one commander, General Mehdi Sabih Al Gharawi, had worked closely with the US and was no doubt still in contact with US intelligence.

Attempts to regain lost territory by the Iraqi military will involve great destruction and loss of life, as the ‘indiscriminate and continuous’ bombing of Tikrit by the Iraqi air force and the counter-offensives there and on Tel Hafar demonstrated. This can only alienate the Sunni population still further. In effect, a de facto Sunni block is coming into existence in northern Iraq. Whether this survives as part of the IS caliphate or as an autonomous region within the country remains to be seen, but it would clearly weaken the reach of the Shia government and with it the influence of Iran. The knock-on effect could be to isolate further the Assad government in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, thus advancing US/Israeli interests in the region.

While Sunni fighters advanced towards Baghdad, Peshmerga fighters from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which is already semi-autonomous, seized Kirkuk and other land in Diyala and the Nineveh plateau. They now occupy nearly all that they regard as ‘traditional’ Kurdish lands. The KRG has long-standing differences with the Iraqi government, which at times have erupted into armed conflict. They have been much more conducive to investment by western multinationals and have opened political negotiations and forged economic links with Turkey. The day after ISIS announced the formation of the Islamic State, KRG President Mahmoud Barzani announced plans for a referendum on Kurdish independence, saying, ‘The time has come for us to determine our own fate’. The Kurdish Foreign Minister described Iraq as ‘a failed state’ and called for assistance from the US and EU to defend its new borders. Israel has supported the Kurdish Peshmerga and recently imported oil from the KRG. The Israeli Foreign Minister said that KRG separation from Iraq is ‘a foregone conclusion’ and that Israel would recognise any declaration of independence. With Kurdish populations in Iran and Syria, an independent Kurdistan would help to weaken the two countries – both regarded as hostile by Israel. In the 1980s the Israelis devised just such a strategy to weaken Iraq. The proposal said ‘Every kind of inter-Arab confrontation will ... shorten the way to the more important aim of breaking up Iraq into denominations as in Syria and Lebanon.’

A similar plan to divide Iraq into three highly centralised blocks was approved 75 to 23 by the US Senate in a ‘sense of the Senate’ vote in 2006. Hillary Clinton voted in favour, though Obama did not. Among those who devised the plan was Anthony Blinken, who is now Obama’s deputy national security adviser. It was proposed by Joe Biden, who is now vice-president. Neither the Zionists nor the US would, however, wish to see a free Kurdistan governed by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Some areas in Syria are already under the control of the Democratic Union Party, a Syrian ally of the PKK, and PKK fighters reportedly moved into Iraq last year.

Shia response

Following the rapid advance of the Sunni fighters, there were calls for the US and Iran to collaborate in the defence of Baghdad and southern Iraq. However, the Iranians are well aware that the US would use any offensive by Iran as an excuse for taking further action against them. The Iranians were therefore careful to stress that they were ready to help Iraq, but only within international law. Iran’s deputy foreign minister Amir Abdollahian later said, ‘We do not see any need to co-operate with the US.’ Instead, Iran sent Major General Qassem Suleimani, head of the elite Quds Force in the Revolutionary Guard, together with several hundred of its members, to organise a Baghdad defence force from Shia militias and trustworthy elements of the Iraq army. Thousands of Shia men have rushed to join up. Most of the Shia militias regard themselves as autonomous units. There have been clashes between militias and with the Iraqi army. The fear is that some will take revenge against Sunnis in areas still under government control. Shia militia in Diyala and Iskandariya were reported to have adopted a ‘scorched earth policy’. There were unconfirmed reports that Iraqi police or Shia militia had killed 63 Sunni prisoners in Tikrit, while IS claimed to have executed 1,700 Shia servicemen in Baquba.

Whole region threatened

Having been denied US air support, the Iraqi government made an urgent purchase of Su-25 strike aircraft from Russia and Belarus, which may have been flown by Russian or Iranian pilots. Russian President Vladimir Putin offered Al Maliki total backing. Russia is a close ally of the Assad government in Syria. The Syrian air force bombed the border town of Qaim in an attempt to destroy an airstrip it claimed was used by Saudi Arabia to supply IS. Saudi Arabia has moved 30,000 troops to its border with Iraq. They have been augmented by Egyptian special forces. Saudi Arabia has also sought military support from Pakistan. Jordanian army units have been sent to defend its border. IS claims to have captured Syria’s largest oilfield at Al Omar and made advances in Lebanon. In Iraq the Sunni fighters are contesting control of the Haditha Dam and its hydroelectric power station. They claim to have sleeper cells in Baghdad ready to disrupt the city and support an attack.

As always, it is the people of Iraq who suffer. The UN reported that at least 2,500 Iraqis were killed during June, compared with 800 in May and tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes. The rich are able to escape abroad. Among them, according to Al Mashriq newspaper, were 42 Iraqi MPs and seven government ministers. The crisis has not, however, disturbed the rich capitalists of Europe and Asia. Investment companies have reported a resurgence of interest in Iraq. A spokesman said, ‘Our larger investors are looking at this as a potential buying opportunity. The volatility [sic] does not bother them much!’


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