By: Anton La Guardia
A hundred years after the Sykes-Picot agreement carved up the Ottoman empire, a new Arab history is being written in blood. Anton La Guardia examines the failures of the region’s states
CLEAVING TO A barren mountainside above the plain of Nineveh, the Syriac Orthodox monastery of Mar Mattai (pictured above) offers a bleak view of the cataclysm that grips the Arab world. Established in the fourth century near the city of Mosul, it stands on a natural boundary. Here, the Mesopotamian plain begins to crease into the Zagros mountains, and Arab farmers come up against Kurdish tribes. Beneath, the folded rocks stretching southward to Oman hold some of the richest stores of oil.
Mar Mattai has seen the passage of many armies: Sassanian, Arab, Seljuk, Mongol, Safavid and Ottoman. The British incorporated Mosul into a new entity called Iraq, which they ruled when the Europeans dismembered the defeated Ottoman empire after the first world war. Their creation, though, would always prove violently restless.
Now Mar Mattai stands witness to the disintegration of Iraq, and of much of the modern Arab order. On the ridge of a nearby hill a line of crude black banners, proclaiming “La illaha illa allah” (there is no God but God), delineates the frontier between two of the new worlds that are emerging from the wreckage. To the west the bloodthirsty jihadist group that calls itself Islamic State (IS)—known as Daesh to most Arabs—controls Mosul and long stretches of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, out to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in Syria. To the east Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga (“those who confront death”), hold the cities of Erbil, Sulaimani and Kirkuk, and the mountain fastness beyond. On one side Daesh claims to have restored the pure law of God and the ancient Islamic caliphate; on the other the Kurds live by modern man-made democracy (of sorts) and nationalism, hoping soon to win their own state.
An American drone buzzes overhead. Explosions rumble in the distance. Mosul, the prize of the war, lies in the haze. The detritus of improvised ordnance fired by the jihadists, including a cooking-gas canister welded on a rocket, suggests they may be short of material. But their readiness to die in suicide missions remains a powerful weapon. “The Peshmerga have limited capacity, but we are defending the whole of humanity and the democratic world,” says General Bahram Yassin, the local Kurdish commander.
A century ago on May 16th, European powers secretly concluded the Sykes-Picot agreement that led to the modern Arab states (see article). The colonisers would leave behind a dystopian system, prone to wars and coups, held together by secret policemen, torturers and petrodollars, and supported by cold-war sponsors and foreign soldiers. Arabs suffered poverty in a region of plentiful oil, and oppression in the name of Arab greatness. A land of great monotheistic religions has brought forth many who kill in the name of God.