Of Lawrence, Sykes-Picot and al-Baghdadi
10 Nov, 2014 · 4732
Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar draws from history to explain the current imbroglio in Syria and Iraq
Vijay ShankarVice Admiral (Retd.)
Islamic State's Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a July 2014 speech at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul vowed that "this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy."
At the start of the First World War a curious informal group took shape in Egypt. It called itself the ‘Intrusive Group’ comprising surveyors and archaeologists; it was headed by the Director of Civilian and Military Intelligence, Cairo. Sensing the rot in the Ottoman Empire, the Group saw in the vitality of the Arab desert tribes a latent power that could upend the Turks in the Hejaz, Syria, Mesopotamia and Kurdistan; if they banded together, were motivated by the belief in a Pan-Arabic State and led by the British. Amongst the adherents was a diminutive British archaeologist Lt Col TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence-of-Arabia. Patrons of the idea included Kitchener, Wingate and McMahon.
The British foreign office would have none of it as the campaign against the Ottoman Empire was being waged vigorously and very successfully, till the Dardanelles Campaign came along and by end-1915 the British were facing a wretched defeat. The idea of raising the Arabs in revolt Northward from the Hejaz became more palatable.
By early 1916 the Arab bureau was created in Cairo to foster and whip up the revolt. The remarkable guerrilla campaign against the Turks led by Lawrence brought victories to the Arab Army and conquest of Syria and Palestine. At the peace conference Lawrence pleaded the Arab cause, but unbeknownst to him and the Arab Bureau was the machination of Foreign Office which had other plans for war termination. This took the form of the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, an Anglo-French Pact hatched as early as May 1916 to carve the Middle East into British and French spheres of control and influence (Czarist Russia played an undermined part in the Pact). The rest is history as the League of Nations awarded the Palestine mandate to the British and French and ratified their spheres of control.
Lawrence was the first to recognise the difficulties of the Arab estate on the one hand while on the other, their readiness to follow to the ends. One could never answer, with any conviction, a fundamental civilisational question: “Who were the Arabs if not ‘manufactured’ people whose names were ever changing in sense year-by-year?” (Seven Pillars of Wisdom). He further noted that the harshness of both climate and terrain made the tribes desert wanderers circulating them between the Hejaz, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia with neither attachment to lands nor systems that inspired settlement; what established fanatic bonds was their character that despised doubts and the disbeliever; found ease in the extremes, and pursued the logic of several incompatible opinions to absurd ends carrying their beliefs from “asymptote to asymptote.” They were people to whom convictions were by instinct and activities intuitional so they required a prophet to lead and set them forth; and Arabs believed there had been forty thousand of them. To sum their mystique Lawrence notes most prophetically: “they were a people of spasms for whom the abstract was the strongest motive and were as unstable as water, and like water would perhaps finally prevail.”
Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish town on the border with Turkey, is today under siege and under partial occupation by Baghdadi’s Islamic State (IS). Already this lethal spasm which fuses 21st century American technology and equipment with Arab fanaticism has rolled across parts of Syria, Iraq and through dozens of Kurdish villages and towns in the region sending over 200,000 refugees fleeing for their lives across the border.
Predictably, the lightly armed Kurdish militias desperately holding out in Kobani are fighting and losing to the IS. So why has the American grand coalition not been able to relieve the town or why has air power not been able to destroy the rampaging forces of the Islamic State? And why, the question begs to be asked, has Turkey, not done anything substantial to relieve the hapless Kobani?
In what is a historically awkward irony, the very destruction of Saddam’s Iraq has paved the way for fragmentation of the Sykes-Picot borders and the tri-furcation of Iraq into a Kurdish enclave in the northeast, a Shia enclave in the south and the IS running riot in the centre. The US delusion that it was building a new Iraq flies in the face of the current situation which tragically is more reminiscent of Lawrence’s Arabia.
In the meantime Turkey’s President Erdogan stated his nations position in unequivocal terms - “For us, IS and the (Kurdish) PKK are the same” - the crisis in Kobani is a case of terrorist fighting terrorist. The Kurdish fighters in Kobani are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK which has long been considered Turkey’s top security threat and has been officially classified as a ‘terrorist’ group by the US.
Further South, the Saudis want to destroy the Assad regime in Syria because it is allied with their Shiite enemy, Iran. Consequently, they see the fight against IS as essentially a pretext for escalating their war against Syria and show little interest in militarily engaging the Islamic State. The Emirates appear content to show token participation in the ‘Grand Coalition’ while at the same time seeking economic opportunities that Islamic State may offer.
Indeed it would appear that neither does the US have the resolve to confront and neutralise the Islamic State that is having a free run in the Levant, Syria and Iraq; nor does the coalition share common purpose. The situation in the region is evocative of the appreciation made by the “Intrusive Group,” a fading imperial power waging a strategically irrelevant war amidst the rise of the IS led by one more prophet driven by a fanatic belief. Lawrence, in the circumstance, would have suggested, demolish the belief, dry up the water and attack the prophet.
All the while, the esoteric call for Jihad and the establishment of a Pan-Islamic Caliphate under al-Bakr Baghdadi that the IS has put out has not fallen on deaf ears particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.