The decisions made a century ago are affecting us today. Are events in Iraq only a foreshadowing of a greater Islamic Caliphate?
The stunning recent military successes by the Islamic militant group ISIS have signaled a sea-change in the region and is causing a fragmentation of the Iraqi and Syrian nations into a Somali-like anarchy. Lebanon and Suez are becoming no-man’s lands, and Jordan is on the brink of revolution. Behind all this tumult is Iran, supporting various rebel factions with the dream of forming a Shia Caliphate in the region, and they are using the Ottoman Empire as a template.
Many were surprised at how quickly sovereign nations fell into chaos, but a look into history would show this realignment of power was inevitable.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement
The recent developments in Iraq have at their root a secret, century-old agreement between two men: one man a British colonel, Mark Sykes, and the other a French consul, George Picot. In what became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, these two men agreed upon the division of Ottoman Empire territories in 1916 and changed the face of the region for decades to come.
These agreements, formalized at the end of World War I, carved up the Middle East for the sole purpose of benefitting the victors of that war and gave little thought to the people who had lived there for generations. Since the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany in the war, Great Britain and France carved up the empire to suit their geopolitical needs. (Russia was dealt out of the negotiations and the United States renounced any territorial claims in the region.)
At the time of the agreement’s implementation, the Ottoman Empire still existed. The empire was led by a series of caliphs (religious-political leaders), with the last one being Sultan Mehmed VI (1918–1922). The political element of the Ottoman caliphate ended with the founding of Turkey in November 1922, led by Kemal Ataturk. Its spiritual component lingered on until March 1924, when Turkey’s parliament (at Ataturk’s urging) formally abolished it.
In late 1915 and early 1916, before the end of World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented. For four centuries, Iraq had been part of the Ottoman Empire. That empire, which had once stretched from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf, was now over, a casualty of war. A host of independent and semi-independent nations would eventually take its place in the Middle East.
An Agreement Based on Oil
World War I was the first war fueled by oil. No longer were armies moving around by animal power. They were moving by gasoline-powered internal combustion engines and oil-fired steam turbines. Ordinary citizens were also starting to drive cars, and oil became a commodity people and nations soon realized they could not do without.
Prospects for any oil development within the British Empire to fill this growing need were bleak, which made supplies from the Middle East of vital importance. Sir Maurice Hankey, the powerful secretary of the British War Cabinet, wrote to Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour that, “oil in the next war will occupy the place of coal in the present war, or at least a parallel place to coal. The only big potential supply that we can get under British control is the Persian and Mesopotamian (Iraqi) supply.” Therefore, Hankey said, “control over these oil supplies becomes a first-class British war aim.”
The French, on the other hand, had emerging business relationships with the large Mediterranean port cities of Beirut, Sidon and Tyrus. Paris wanted to use Sykes-Picot to secure access to these cities.
The agreement redrew the region with a dividing line starting at Kirkuk, Iraq and extending to Haifa, Israel, with the territories north of the line going to France and the territories south of the dividing line falling under the control of the British.
The area that was divided is part of what is called the Levant. The term “Levant” (coming from the French lever, “to rise” [i.e., the sun]), encompasses the lands of the eastern Mediterranean—primarily Asia Minor and Syria-Israel. Syria and Lebanon comprise the northern sections of the Levant while Egypt anchored the southern end. The Levant served as a land bridge, connecting the great cultural centers located in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
The historical importance of the makeup of the Levant and the composition of its people were largely ignored by Europe when the great powers, primarily Great Britain and France, met to determine their fate.
At the beginning of World War I, the Ottoman Empire had already begun its decline, with modern-day Turkey being the most significant component. To keep the Ottoman Turks pinned down in the region and to keep them from assisting the Germans, the Arabs living in the region were told that if they sided with the Allies against their Ottoman masters they would gain independence.
Dividing the Land
Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement most of Mesopotamia was to be British, while the Syrian coast from Tyre to Alexandretta was to be French, along with Armenian and Asia Minor (primarily Turkey) regions to the north. “Palestine” (the Land of Israel) was to be “international,” but its chief seaport, Haifa, was to be British. The French sphere of influence was also to encompass the rest of Syria from Aleppo to Damascus and the English sphere would embrace all the rest of Mesopotamia, primarily the region around Mosul.
There was also a general understanding that “Palestine” fell within the English sphere of influence. It was also agreed that the land lying between Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the Syrian coast was to be “independent Arab under two spheres of influence.”
The Goal of ISIS: Erase the Borders
Sykes-Picot resulted in a region with states composed of a variety of ethnic groups and religions. ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) would like to erase those borders, calling for an all-Islamic state in the form of a greater caliphate. The group’s name makes it clear that they hope to undo the boundaries they view as being imposed on them by the Western-dhimmis powers.
Many analysts also see the upheaval in the Levant as a realignment of the region to a configuration of national boundaries that existed before Sykes-Picot went into effect.
“The artificiality of state formation has caused numerous conflicts over the last few decades,” said Henner Fürtig, director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at GIGA research institute in Hamburg. “These questions haven’t been solved for a century and burst open again and again, in a cycle, like now with the ISIS advance in northern Iraq.”
In the face of the ISIS onslaught, it is becoming evident that the collapse of political order in Iraq is just a first step toward the new caliphate.
ISIS’s Effect on Israel
Do the events in Iraq and Syria have an impact on Israel?
Obviously, the chaos on Israel’s northern border threatens the security of the Jewish nation, but there may be more, farther-reaching consequences. The current Mideast bedlam has many taking a fresh look at a prophetic psalm vastly overlooked. This is Psalm 83, which discusses the formation of a ten member, predominately Arab, confederacy destined to seek the total destruction of the nation of Israel.
Psalm 83 has recently been invoked because Israel’s enemies, many of whom fall within the hoped-for Islamic caliphate, appear to be among the prophesied ten-member coalition.
It would be wise to take another look at Psalm 83 and pray for a greater understanding of the psalm and its timeline.
- International Standard Version, Psalm 38 and Ezekiel 38. (2011). Yorba Linda, CA: ISV Foundation.
- Manchester, W. (1983). The Last Lion: Volume 1: Winston Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874–1932. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.
- Missler, Ph.D., C. (2002, July 1). Roots of War: Profiling the Middle East. Coeur d’Alene, ID, USA. Retrieved from https://resources.khouse.org/middle_east/cda11/
- Yergin, D. (2008). Yergin, Daniel (2011–04–05). The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power. New York: Free Press (Reissue edition).
- Lawrence was so disgusted by this betrayal that he refused the Victoria Cross and a knighthood (KBE), leaving a shocked George V, in the King’s own words, “holding the box in my hand.” ↩