By Roger Owen
The surprising and in many ways shocking emergence of ISIS as one of the best trained, best financed, and most highly motivated and militarily effective fighting forces in the Arab east has led to much talk of an erasure of the old colonial-period Sykes-Picot boundary that artificially divided Syria and Iraq. But though there is an element of truth in this, the issue is much more complex and best viewed by looking at the origins of the modern state of Iraq from a more detailed historical perspective.
Note first that while there was some administrative logic to the division—Iraq consisting largely of the three former Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul—this was by no means a tidy process, with its western boundary unclear and a large number of tribal, ethnic, and racial groups dissatisfied with the new more centralized regime.
To make matters worse the British, for whom the Basra region was the only one of the three in which they had serous long-term imperial interest, handed over government to the newly independent state of Iraq in 1932 without having provided it with the institutions that would have allowed it to carry out its basic duty to police all of its territory as well as to protect and control its borders.
And so began a process in which rule from Baghdad was challenged at regular intervals by one group or another whenever the government and its army was perceived as weak. Most obviously by the Kurds, but often by other groups in the south and west as well.
Whether this process was determined solely by sectarian identity is a more complex matter. True there was a general perception that the country was divided into three layers, Kurds in the North, Sunnis in the middle, and Shiites in the south. But this seems to have been as much a foreign ideological imposition as a local political reality, with sect being just one of a number of facets of identity, and often by no means the most significant. For example, and until the land reforms of the mid-twentieth century, “peasant” was a much important social category, setting the agricultural populations who lived between the two great rivers against the land-owners who controlled the political center.
Then, too, the price paid for the erasure of sectarian difference was often a period of dictatorial rule by a series of strong-men, from Nuri-al-Said to Saddam Hussein, whose enforced removal, in 1958 by the army and in 2003 by foreign invasion respectively, produced all kinds of unintended consequences as far as Iraqi society was concerned. Certainly the most paradoxical was the so-called liberation of Iraq by Anglo-American forces. While proclaiming that they had no intention of creating a new Lebanon in terms of creating a system in which sect was the basis of political representation, they ended up by doing just that, but with few of the special factors which allowed the Lebanese to maintain their own particular balance between three communities of more or less equal size.
For one thing, the ratio of Shiites to Sunnis was not more or less equal as in Lebanon, but something of the order of three to one. For another, Iraq required a much, much larger army than Lebanon, both for self-defense and for internal security, an army at once less sectarian and much more open to manipulation by the sectarian forces which existed in the wider society.
And then, for all the recent success at holding national elections throughout most of country and so of creating a parliament which was roughly representative of the society at large, this was not enough to remove the impression that yet another dictatorial Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was running a largely Shiite and increasingly corrupt administration in which the Sunnis were largely excluded from its systems of distributing power and patronage.
So to the possible future of an Iraq in which the sectarianisation of armed conflict looks not only likely to divide the country back into three political and quasi-administrative units again but also to draw in neighboring powers, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, also along sectarian lines. Indeed, for the time being this seems to be in the interests of all concerned. Certainly the Kurds. But also, I suspect, ISIS itself. For all its tough talk of taking over Baghdad, the City of Umayyad Caliphs, ISIS may decide that trying to conquer and then to rule such a large and important urban agglomeration is beyond its present military and administrative capacity.
None of this looks like it makes for an easy future, with hard and fast internal boundaries, maximum distrust between rival groups, and Iraq itself a focus for armed intervention from outside, including, who knows, members of those other proven and highly effective fighting forces, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
It is interesting to compare and contrast this with the roughly similar historical process in Syria where after World War I the French took two Ottoman provinces, plus the mutasarrifiyah of Mount Lebanon, and split them up into still more political units before they were re-united in 1946. Then came the long reign of the Asads, father and son, in which Damascus was able to establish its rule over the rest of the country for several decades before an increasing consciousness of the sectarian divide led, after 2011, to a challenge by restive Sunni groups. As in Iraq, the prospect of one sect being able to dominate the others from the center now seems remote.