Is Paddy Ashdown right? Is it time for an end to Sykes-Picot?

ISIS blows up a border post on the Syria-Iraq border. From the ISIS propaganda video 'The End of Sykes-Picot'.

ISIS blows up a border post on the Syria-Iraq border. From the ISIS propaganda video The End of Sykes-Picot.

Paddy Ashdown had an unusually courageous article in the Guardian on Thursday calling for the West to accept that the 1920s-era boundaries of Middle Eastern countries should be redrawn. Courageous doesn’t mean sensible. How does his argument stack up?

“This is the start of a long conflict which could cross the entire Muslim world”, says The Guardian subheader, correctly, “The west’s strategy must accept the end of the old imperial borders.”

There’s much that’s sensible here, including the admission that the West neither has the men nor the money to think about remaking the Middle East through force of arms, even if that were possible. So Paddy is essentially calling for Iraq to be allowed to fall apart, for Southern Iraq to be allowed to fall into Tehran’s sphere of influence, for the West to arm the Kurds and for an end to Sykes-Picot.

This is might well happen whether or not “the West”, with its vaunted idea of its capacity to shape events, likes it. Iraq, as an entity, is currently in the last chance saloon. We should not forget that collapsing countries always leave some mess behind. In this case, it will be particularly bad as there is no agreement as to what the boundaries between the various successor entities might be. On off fighting over legitimate ownership of Kirkuk, for example, could last for generations in that context. In fact, I think Paddy knows this so maybe he’s just calling for us to accept that the Syrian Civil War is turning into the War of Syro-Iraqi Succession?

He’s also calling a Western rapprochement with Iran and “greater pressure on those Gulf states that fund jihad”. Lots of problems here. The US is currently leading the rest of the West in executing a 180-degree diplomatic pivot from the “Sunnis are nice moderates/Shias are scary radicals” paradigm that has prevailed since the Iranian revolution. While I’ve long been a supporter of sensible rapprochement with Iran, and agree that our old sectarian paradigm of the Middle East was stupid and fostered extremism on either side of the divide, replacing it with the equal and opposite paradigm is just as stupid.

Also, none of the Gulf States is directly and deliberately funding jihad, although some of their citizens undoubtedly have done. The Gulf States were directly arming bits of the Syrian opposition that have shed a lot of equipment to ISIS; the West was arming the same people just with lighter equipment. More and better equipment which the US had supplied to the Iraqi Army before it ran away at Mosul has ended up in ISIS hands too.

I have never been a fan of the allegedly ‘moderate’ Sunni Gulf régimes but turning away from them now, especially when coupled with an ISIS state possibly bedding down in the Levant, might be the precursor to their overthrow. 

It’s important to remember that ISIS’s game plan comes straight from the first years of Islamic history. They really believe they are remaking the world of Mohammed. So they’ll try and made the core of their current state work as an actual state, based on what the Quran and Hadith tell of the original Islamic polity in Mecca and Medina. And they’ll seek bay’ah from ‘tribes’ across the Islamic world. And no doubt they’ll seek it from groups in the Arabian Peninsula with whom they are already engaging, and before too many years are out, but probably not sooner than that, they’ll attempt to take over the Holy Cities. The theological logical of their plan demands it.

Paddy also calls for deeper engagement with Turkey, which I’d agree with, but that means members of the policymaking élite and commentariat, like himself, engaging with what is actually happening in Turkey, which is not pretty. Erdoğan isn’t just authoritarian, but a continuous peddler of sectarian rhetoric against the 15-20% or so of Turks who are followers of the Alevi sect of Twelver Shi’ism. In the current Middle Eastern context, this is very dangerous talk.

Peddling sectarian prejudice is a key part of Erdoğan’s electoral strategy. Firstly, it wedges pious Sunni Kurdish voters away from the historically secular Kurdish nationalist HDP, which has a high proportion of religious minority members and leaders. Secondly, it helps prevent a link up between the democratic end of Turkish secularism, whose main party is currently led by an Alevi, and the militarist-nationalist end of secularism, whose working class provincial base has long been suspicious of Turkey’s sectarian and ethnic minorities.

Turkey has been much more directly involved in arming and giving quarter to ISIS than the Gulf States; although there is some evidence that the recent course of events has given Erdoğan a bit of buyers remorse, no Western re-engagement with Turkey can proceed on the basis that the ruling AKP’s pluralistic rhetoric of the 2000s has much currency any longer.

As Paddy quite rightly notes, though, there aren’t any good options any more. In fact, there probably haven’t been since the Invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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