During World War I, two men met to draw lines in the sand. Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, representing their respective countries of England and France, were to determine the partitioning of the dissolving Ottoman Empire. The lines were not drawn based on former provinces or on the preferences of the people living there. Rather, the lines were drawn based on access to the Mediterranean and natural resources, as well as to establish a balance of power in the Middle East for the British and French empires. Lastly, and most importantly, the lines were some in the long colonial tradition of divide and conquer. “I should like to draw a line from the “e” in Acre to the last “k” in Kirkuk,” said Sykes. For about 100 years, that line served as the border between Syria and Iraq. Today, that line no longer exists; it has been bulldozed by ISIS. However, the legacy of the Sykes-Picot line lives on to this day, with its most acute manifestation being the Syrian civil war and subsequent migrant crisis.
One of the strategies used by the old European powers to control vast swaths of land was to separate indigenous majorities and amalgamate them with other minority groups. Many of these borders across the world have remained from this bygone age of empire. In the Middle East, Viceroys and colonial governors were replaced with autocratic strongmen who maintained their power by preying on the separation of ethnic and religious groups. When the Syrian and Iraqi states were established, their religious distributions looked like this:
These religious fault lines came to the foreground after the countries’ respective dictators lost power. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad and most members of his government are of the Alawite sect of Shi’a Islam. Syria is comprised of a Sunni majority, with large minorities of Kurds, Christians, and Druze. The Syrian civil war is fought between these groups, with Assad’s Alawite minority battling against Sunni and Kurdish militias. In Iraq, there is a stark, three-way divide between the Shi’as, Sunnis, and Kurds. Sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’as scared the country for years following the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Hussein’s government was then replaced by a Shi’a majority government set up by the US. Like Syria, the fighting in Iraq has been between the Sunnis in ISIS and the Shi’a and Kurds of the fledgling Iraqi state.
The discrepancies between the religious divides and the geographic divides set the stage for ISIS to come to power. Despite the group’s appalling atrocities and barbaric behavior, it has accomplished one very important geopolitical and religious feat: it has politically unified the Sunni land of northwest Iraq with the Sunni land of southeast Syria. It has done so through conquest, and therefore in many towns, villages, and cities, its rule lacks legitimacy.
This rearrangement is the long overdue border reconstruction process the Middle East must endure. The borders of these states reflect the political considerations of the European powers that drew them, and now they must be rewritten by the people that live there. As history has shown, especially since the 1990s, when old powers fade away, and people are left to determine their own geopolitical futures, there is almost always conflict. But this conflict ends with new borders that better represent actual political and cultural divisions. South Sudan separated from Sudan after a 22-year civil war. The Yugoslav republics gained autonomy after a horrific inter-ethnic war. And now it is time for the Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, and the other religious minorities to determine their political futures. One would hope that the future does not include ISIS, but the borders that it has drawn and erased will serve as an important starting point for future self-determination by the peoples of the Fertile Crescent.