Samuel M. Edelman
Professor Emeritus and Lecturer

The Fall of Mosul and the End of the Sykes Picot Map

Today CNN and the BBC reported that Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul has fallen to ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). Like it or not we are in the midst of a geographic paradigm shift in the Middle East. In 1919, almost 100 years ago, a war weary public joined by an antagonistic Congress chose to reject President Woodrow Wilson’s far sighted and prophetic global initiatives achieved at a high cost in the Paris negotiations at the end of WWI and do nothing for the Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and Jews of the Middle East. These rejections set in place all of the horrors we see happening today in the Middle East.

Because Congress said no to Woodrow Wilson the Sykes Picot Agreement became a fact on the ground and Britain and France divided the Middle East without regard to ethnicity, tribal and clan considerations, language and cultural-religious factors. Kurdistan was not created as an American protectorate and today’s Syria and Iraq and Turkey came into existence. Armenia was absorbed into the Soviet Union and hundreds of thousands more Armenians died or were exiled after WWI. Jordan was created and the Arab world generally became more antagonistic toward the west.

Today’s conflict in Syria and the continued conflict in Iraq are extensions of the damage done after WWI by colonial powers who knew little about the people they were subjugating. To stick Kurds, Sunnis and Shia together and call the place Iraq was not very smart. To stick Kurds, Druze, Sunni and Shia together by force and call it Syria was equally problematic. And today we are seeing these selfsame groups now in a struggle to finally realize what was promised them during WWI, their own autonomously self-governed national entities. To a certain extent the Kurds of Iraq have achieved this. To a lesser extent the Kurds of Syria are striving to achieve autonomy. The Sunni’s of Iraq and Syria are rapidly awakening to this potential as seen by their taking of the city of Mosul today. Unfortunately, this Sunni awakening is being brought forward by one of the most extreme of extreme Muslim fundamentalist groups, ISIS. Clearly Assad understands this as he prepares for an Alawite enclave in Western Syria.

The natural order of the Middle East was severely damaged by the Sykes Picot agreement and all of the conflicts taking place today can be considered similar to the trauma caused by a displaced river trying to return to its original course. Not that the Ottoman empire was better than any other empire in its imperialistic intent, they simply were more or less inept at this imperialism and left these various ethnic-religious and tribal communities with a great deal of autonomy. That autonomy was destroyed by Sykes Pico and its draconian and intrusive slicing dicing and mixing of peoples for the sake of easy map drawing and border setting; oh yes and oil too. Woodrow Wilson’s proposals and agreements were supposed to counteract the evil of Sykes Picot. Unfortunately, Congress and a war weary American public abdicated their responsibilities and a kind of mass stupidity took over that is today playing out in what’s left of Syria and Iraq.

What are we to do? It may be too late for central Syria and west central Iraq as ISIS seems to be taking control. It is not too late to give the Kurds of Syria massive support and training to secure that critical area against ISIS and support them further by helping them join together with their Iraqi brothers and sisters. It is not too late for massive support for the Free Syrian Army to enable them to take on both Assad and ISIS and provide a moderate and semi-secular Sunni alternative to ISIS.

Yet, the most important thing we can do immediately is to stop making policy decisions based on the old Sykes Picot map and begin to make decisions based on the new map of the Middle East unfolding in front of our faces.

I fully endorse Marshal McCluen’s aphorism to not walk into the future looking through a rearview mirror. That future is becoming clearer and clearer as we come closer to the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI and the advent of the end of the Sykes Picot map of the Middle East and the beginning of a geographic paradigm shift in the Middle East.

About the Author
Samuel Edelman, PhD, is an emeritus professor, former co-director of the State of California Center of Excellence for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance, former dean at the American Jewish University, former executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and currently a lecturer on world affairs, Israel, and the Holocaust.