How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Just as hysteria about the demise of Sykes-Picot was starting to die down, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has revived it by declaring its intention to revive the caliphate at least over what is now Iraqi and Syrian territory. The news arrived in two separate ISIS videos, one featuring a Chechen militant presiding over the dismantling of an outpost on the Syrian-Iraqi border and the other showcasing an English-speaking Chilean jihadist.
Amid the post–Arab Spring everything-has-changed anxiety, fears that Syria’s dismemberment would lead to the unraveling of all the hard work that Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot did back in 1916–17 have loomed large. The civil war in Syria seemed to presage the breakup of the state and the rejiggering of its borders to serve Iraqi Sunni, Israeli, Lebanese, Kurdish, and Turkish purposes. Ankara, for example, had threatened to seize the Syrian city of Idlib if refugee flows out of the country exceeded a very low threshold, which has long since been crossed. Syria’s Kurds, meanwhile, were expected to cordon off their part of Syria from the rest of the country and then join Iraqi Kurdistan in declaring independence. Along the Lebanese-Syrian border, Hezbollah was expected to expand its territory at Syria’s expense to preserve lines of communication to a coastal Alawite enclave if Assad lost control of the rest of the country. And, if Israel felt threatened by radical Sunnis in Syria, the thinking went, it might want to push its existing boundaries in the Golan Heights eastward to establish a kind of buffer zone between the interior and Israeli towns on the escarpment. Above all, there was a fear that the Iraqi-Syrian border would crumble, as it eventually did. Indeed, anxiety about Sykes-Picot seemed to raise the stakes of the civil war in Syria, intensifying dread about a broader Middle East meltdown.
Thus far, however, the parade of horrors emanating from Syria has not included the demise of Sykes-Picot borders. The Turks have not taken a bite out of Syria, although they have helped undermine its eventual reconstitution by incubating ISIS. Syrian Kurds have not proposed -- or implemented -- new borders, and their Iraqi counterparts have refrained from secession or the formalization of their de facto autonomy. Hezbollah has not picked up any new territory, even as the Syrian regime’s disintegration has threatened Hezbollah’s lifeline to Iran. Israel has certainly taken advantage of anarchic conditions in Syria to strike targets of opportunity, but it hasn’t made any decisive attempt to carve out a cordon sanitaire. And, before it was breached by ISIS, the Iraqi-Syrian border had been permeable for generations, owing to the nature of the terrain and the large tribal confederations on either side whose economic interests require that the border not impede their movements.
In short, despite the regional pandemonium, Sykes-Picot seems to be alive and well.
That shouldn’t be surprising. Land borders settled via negotiation, especially when sealed by treaty, tend to be stable, even where relations between the neighboring states remain volatile or even hostile. The reason? Questioning settled boundaries inevitably invites nettlesome counterclaims, especially in regions where ethnic or tribal groups straddle borders and minority populations have ended up behind the lines when the maps were finalized.
Fortunately for the Middle East, most of its borders were settled by treaty. Admittedly, there are a couple of major exceptions. Israel’s borders remain in flux. There isn’t a Palestinian state or a final status accord, so a border between Israel and the West Bank isn’t possible to determine, even if many observers are fairly sure of what shape that border will eventually take. On the Lebanese side, Israel had been content to occupy a swath of southern Lebanon for long periods without ever proposing border alterations, even when Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had contemplated them in the 1950, according to his foreign minister Moshe Sharett. (Syria likewise occupied large parts of Lebanon until April 2005 without tampering with the de facto border set by the French mandate in 1920.) Israel’s formal annexation of the Golan Heights in December 1981 did not result in the establishment of a new international border, nor did it foreclose future Israeli attempts to negotiate Golan’s return to Syria in exchange for a variety of concessions, apparently including, most recently, an end to Syria’s strategic relationship with Iran. By contrast, Israel’s borders with both Egypt and Jordan were settled by treaty and there is nothing to suggest that the parties regard them as anything but inviolable.
There are, of course, other major exceptions that prove the general rule of border stability. The border between the Yemen Arab Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen was erased upon the unification of the country in 1990. But this merely corrected a historical anomaly in which one part of the country was granted independence after World War I while the other remained a British colony until 1967. A more dramatic exception was Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran, which aimed to seize Iranian territory. But even that was the culmination of a series of border disputes and, therefore, less than surprising. Likewise, Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait in 1990 was premised in part on the allegedly inimical role Great Britain had played in setting the boundary between Kuwait and Iraq in the 1920s. Until the British arrived on the scene, the line had been ill-defined because the Ottoman government was not overly concerned with where Basra ended and Kuwait began.
Evidently, it takes more than a devastating civil war in Syria -- or, even before that, the liberation of the Kurds as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- to chip away at the granite base of the Sykes-Picot monument. Pessimists, however, have now identified a new threat to the old map: jihadism, as embodied by ISIS.
It is undeniable that transnational jihadism is the most dynamic political movement in the Middle East and North Africa, and it is the one form of durable political self-expression that can be said to have emerged from the Arab uprisings of 2010–11. It is not a monolithic force, of course, but ISIS’ terrifying return to Iraq from the battlefields of Syria does recall the newly Islamicized Arab tribes from the Arabian desert that flowed into the Levant in the mid-seventh century and scattered the Byzantine armies before them as they redrew the regional map. But the notion that even ISIS could erase all regional borders is just not very plausible, in part because the group is confined to the box built by Sykes-Picot.
Although the border between Iraq and Syria might be near the vanishing point, there are boundaries that still mean something. After all, where is ISIS supposed to go next? Ankara, by whose kindness ISIS has thus far thrived, is perfectly capable of keeping the group out of Anatolia. In fact, it seems to have already begun closing those border gates. Kurdistan, too, is out of bounds thanks to the help that the United States, France, and possibly others have provided Kurdish forces. The Saudis, with U.S. help, can certainly keep ISIS out of the Kingdom. Kuwait, which remains a staging base for the U.S. military, is likewise a hard target. To even get to either destination, ISIS would have to fight through Baghdad and the Shia heartland. That, too, seems implausible. ISIS could try to invade Jordan, but the Jordanian army is more capable than most in the Middle East and can depend on both U.S. support (in December, the United States deployed 6,000 troops to the country for a major combined exercise with Jordanian forces) and, in a pinch, Israeli military help to counter an ISIS Barbarossa. Lebanon, given its perpetually volatile politics, is vulnerable to ISIS-inspired subversion and attack. But it is a small place and its internal security service is pervasive -- two conditions that constrain potential attackers. Looking eastward, the notion that Iran, which took hundreds of thousands of casualties in repelling an Iraqi juggernaut in the 1980s, is going to melt in terror in the face of several thousand ISIS brigands is absurd. As a geopolitical reality, it is hard to imagine ISIS flooding across the region the way Nazi armies did across Europe during the opening credits of Casablanca.
There is also the matter of capabilities. Granted, ISIS has accumulated battlefield experience, which shows in its operations. After a fashion, it can manage to operate and maintain the heavy weapons it captured from Syrian stocks. But the group probably won’t be able to do the same for the more complicated U.S. gear captured from Iraqi forces. Its barbarism has been effective at terrorizing civilians and shattering the morale of poorly led, inexperienced, and exhausted Iraq troops. But they cannot mass without exposing themselves to air attack, and ISIS air defenses are minimal. As the rapid retreat of ISIS from the Mosul Dam indicated, U.S. aircraft can lacerate ISIS when its fighters come out in numbers on the offensive, or stop to set up mortar or artillery positions.
From the perspective of ISIS’ adversaries, air power isn’t a perfect military solution, since it delivers outright victory only when combined with ground operations that the United States has ruled out and at this stage, Iraqi forces aren’t ready to carry out. In military terms, then, ISIS still has some maneuvering room within the larger geopolitical limits that confine it. The group’s advances in Raqqa, Syria demonstrate this all too clearly. Nevertheless, capabilities are also a question of numbers. In Syria, ISIS has an advantage because of the preponderance of Sunnis in the overall population, but the regime has proven itself capable in counterinsurgency. In Iraq, ISIS is at an ethnic disadvantage, which over the long haul will offset the Iraqi military’s current inadequacies.
Furthermore, ISIS’ tactical skill exceeds its strategic savvy. The militants’ battlefield gains notwithstanding, their self-confidence, sense of mission, and jihadist ardor have led them to overreach. ISIS has heightened anxieties in Ankara, Baghdad, Erbil, Riyadh, and Tehran, which have forged a tacit anti-ISIS alliance. Saudi and Iranian concurrence to select a replacement for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is one example. A recent Iranian overture to Kurdistan is another. None of this is meant to suggest that ISIS’ days are numbered -- only that its prospects are limited.
ISIS does have a potent cross-border ideological appeal. It is, after all, fighting the Assad regime in Syria and has chalked up some striking victories against Iraqi Shia. The swift viral spread of the video of James Foley’s beheading will no doubt burnish this reputation. A successful, popular Arab army, especially one seen to be humiliating the United States, must be a galvanizing sight for a young population with meager resources and a bleak future. Unrest precipitated in regional cities by ISIS exploits can really only be dealt with by good governance that generates jobs and improves living conditions in teeming, filthy cities undergirded by overwhelmed and deteriorating infrastructures. State capacity to do this is obviously limited, but regional governments, having faced al Qaeda’s challenge for years, are aware of the political dynamics and the need to respond as effectively as possible. In vulnerable countries, particularly in Jordan, religious parties -- including Salafists and Muslim Brothers -- are trying to counter the appeal of ISIS-style activism by disparaging the group as heretical, invoking patriotism, portraying ISIS as anti-Islamic, and casting it as an existential threat.
The rise of ISIS is also clearly exciting for the thousands of European, American, and other foreign fighters that have flocked to its banner. Upon their return to their countries of origin, some may mount terrorist operations in ISIS’ name. But in this vein ISIS constitutes a counterterrorism and homeland security problem, and not even as formidable a threat as al Qaeda vintage 9/11, which unlike ISIS had trained and prepared for covert operations. In any case, ISIS’ out-of-area threat is no more likely to affect borders within the region than al Qaeda’s has done for the past twenty years.
The advent of ISIS as a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East is immensely regrettable, and there is relatively little the United States alone can do about it. Even so, the group is unlikely to determine the legacy of Sykes and Picot, much less the longer term future of the Middle East.