ISIS Offensive

Islamists are Redrawing the Middle East’s Borders

Militants or mapmakers? Source: DPA
Militants or mapmakers?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Allied powers in the wake of the First World War, led by Great Britain and France, created artificial countries in the Middle East, with little knowledge of or regard for the rival religious, ethnic and tribal issues within their borders.

  • Facts


    • The Islamic State has a vision of creating an Islamic emirate that would encompass much of the region and portions of Europe and ignores borders established by the Western nations almost 100 years ago.
    • So far, the U.S. is committed only to airstrikes against the jihadists, but history has shown wars cannot be won from the air.
    • The Middle East needs a new political map, but the region will remain in turmoil for many years to come.
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Islamists are destroying the traditional maps of the Middle East.

The return of U.S warplanes to Iraq doesn’t sit easily with President Barack Obama, who would prefer to refrain from military interventions, but the fact the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner has decided to attack the militia of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant underscores the threat posed by the jihadists.

In addition to helping resolve the humanitarian plight of the Yazidi, a Kurdish-speaking ethnic-religious group, who have fled in the face of the Islamist offensive, the U.S. military is also being asked to prevent a further advance by the extremist militias. The Islamic State has enjoyed significant success against government troops in Syria and Iraq as it seeks to create a new Islamist caliphate. The group, which claims to include thousands of fighters from all over the world and its noted for its brutality, conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, throwing into question the Iraqi government’s ability to maintain control in the country.

The only real solution to the Islamic State onslaught is ground troops, but Mr. Obama has ruled out that option, even though Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq have proven that wars cannot be won from the air.

The Islamists have ambitious plans to bring sharia rule to a broad swath of the Middle East and Europe. This is clear from the Arabic name of the Islamist State, “Ad-Dawlah al-ʾIslāmiyyah fil-Irak wa al-Sham,” which translates to “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” The term “Levant” refers to an area that includes, in addition to Syria and Iraq, also Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Turkey.

Most of these states are relatively new, artificial constructs, created a hundred years ago when the British and French divided the Middle East into spheres of interest following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the First World War. Other states came into being in the middle of the 20th century.

Carving nations from the remnants of the Ottoman holdings, the Westerners created countries where none had existed and crowned kings who had never before been kings. The existence of tightly knit tribes, the interests of the religious communities and the concerns of ethnic groups were largely ignored or suppressed. The so-called Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 – named for the diplomats who hammered it out –marked a turning point in relations between the West and the Arab world and would break a promise made by the Western nations through the legendary Col. T.E. Lawrence of an Arab homeland in greater Syria in exchange for allying with Britain against the Ottoman Empire, then an ally of Imperial Germany.

Now, the world drawn up after the First World War is breaking apart. Former world powers Britain and France have been unable to hold together the heterogeneous states they helped create while the new superpower America seeks a lower profile in the Middle East.

The jihadists of the Islamic State want to abolish the old borders and campaign on the Internet and other social media for an end to the present order. When a bulldozer destroyed the border wall between Syria and Iraq, the jihadists put a picture on Twitter and wrote they were annulling the “Sykes-Picot” pact.

Military action is always accompanied by uncertainty. Those who know how to start a war are often unable to end it. And armed intervention in the Middle East is particularly dangerous at this moment with much of the region in great turmoil. One thing is clear: whoever wants to take action in this region needs new political maps. The old ones are now outdated as the Islamic State renders current borders obsolete.

Given the fluid environment of shifting alliances and interests, it is particularly risky to send weapons into this unstable region.

The new maps must reflect the actual powers possessed by the individual protagonists. It is no longer a matter of central governments, where one either cooperates or competes. The micro-structures of respective countries just come into clearer focus: what is the relationship between Sunnis and Shiites, how strong are the radicals in relation to the moderates, what are the positions of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, which tribes have influence and who is allied with whom?

These maps don’t exist yet. No one can claim to know how the relevant political map will look in a few years. The only thing that is certain is that the Middle East will remain unstable for the foreseeable future. The struggle for influence will lead to shifting alliances, but will also create new enemies. Unlike 100 years ago, there are no external political powers that can determine the fate of the region. In this delicate situation, characterized by the desperate search for a new equilibrium, whoever takes up the cause of this or that group is groping in the dark.

Given the fluid environment of shifting alliances and interests, it is particularly risky to send weapons into this unstable region. No one knows who will gain control of the armaments or who will use them at the end of the day. As long as no new political compass exists in the Middle East, there is significant danger the weapons will not wind up in the hands of those for whom they were intended.

Pierre Heumann is Handelsblatt’s Middle East correspondent. He may be contacted at

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