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ISIS and the End of the Old, Old Order

June 26, 2014

By Jonathan Ruhe, Associate Director – JINSA Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy

Source: UK National Archives

Source: UK National Archives

Thumb through any of the recent articles on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and almost inevitably you’ll read something describing “the end of Sykes-Picot” and “the new Middle East order” interchangeably. To illustrate this point, detailed graphics will show you how the growth of ISIS is “redrawing the regional map” by sweeping over the lines arbitrarily penciled in nearly a century ago.

The word “order” is thrown around quite casually in most of these pieces. Though the academic debates are quite contentious, it is probably simplest to understand it as the ways in which states and other actors interact with one another regionally or globally. This is a function of many things, including the degree of economic interdependence and development between states, the ideologies their government adhere to, and the balance of military power between them. These various elements determine the stability of a regional order. For example, the interwar European order was highly unstable, in large part because it was split between states with sharply competing ideologies and economies, and because those least satisfied with the existing order were the most determined and able to amass the military might to overthrow it. Compare this to postwar stability in Western Europe, as erstwhile enemies became an economically-interdependent community of liberal democracies protected from each other and from the Soviet bloc by unchallengeable U.S. military power. These shifts were reflected in a new map of Europe after 1945, but explaining their causes goes far deeper than the lines drawn at Versailles, Saint-Germain and Trianon.

Similarly, change and instability in the Middle East is primarily about orders, not borders. At first glance, the current Middle East map largely resembles the contours sculpted by the Sykes-Picot Treaty and ensuing events around the end of World War I. The former French sphere of influence remains in the shape of Lebanon and Syria, and the British in the form of Iraq and Jordan. Moreover, like a century ago, the future status of Palestine remains unresolved.

However, the actual Sykes-Picot order was replaced decades ago. Anglo-French military and economic supremacy – which that treaty was designed to ensure, and which was also evident in British influence in the Persian Gulf – were discredited by World War II and destroyed by the Suez Crisis in 1956. This was replaced by a Cold War order centered on new actors, new ideologies and new conflicts. It loosely grouped U.S.-aligned conservative, oil-producing monarchies (and Israel, in parallel) against Soviet-backed pan-Arab socialist republics (including at times the PLO). Most major conflicts erupted along this fault line, rather than over the Sykes-Picot borders, including: the 1958 crises in Iraq and Lebanon, civil wars in North (1962-70) and South Yemen (1963-7), Israel’s wars with Egypt (1967-70, 1973) and Syria (1967, 1973, 1982), and Black September in Jordan (1970-1). The bloodiest conflict – the Iran-Iraq War (1980-8) – did not fit this pattern, yet neither was its outbreak or perpetuation symptomatic of the lines drawn by Sykes-Picot. (One casus belli – demarcating the Shatt al-Arab waterway – was a result of agreements signed both long before, and long after, Sykes-Picot.)

The precipitous collapse of the Soviet Union and rapid demolition of Iraq’s offensive military capabilities (at the time of the Gulf War, one of the largest and most battle-tested forces in the world) ushered in the current Middle East order. It is characterized first and foremost by U.S. military predominance. The United States has not hesitated to use force when it so chooses, whether for containment (Iraq in the 1990s), regime change (Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s), some gray area in between (Libya in 2011) or counterterrorism (Afghanistan, Sudan and Yemen). The mere presence of such forces in the Persian Gulf helps also maintain the free flow of energy. Moreover, Washington has sought to translate this power into diplomatic and economic spheres – to resolve many of the lingering divisions from previous orders – be it brokering peace or trying to promote reform.

The shift between these three orders cannot be understood by looking at maps. (The best counterexample is the unification of Yemen in 1990, as South Yemen had little choice but to be absorbed by the anti-Soviet North once the former’s Soviet lifeline expired.) Three successive generations of cartographers could teach their children the same basic map of the Middle East – a luxury utterly foreign to three contemporaneous generations of historians. The ongoing cantonization of Syria and its spillover to Iraq may finally give the youngest cartographer gainful employment, but the historians have been busy for several years already.

This is because ISIS is not the one credibly threatening to change the Middle East order. The shift to a new Middle East, whatever it may be, would not be in the hands of them, Iran, or anyone else alone. Almost single-handedly, the United States created and maintained the existing order, and it remains the only country capable of sustaining it – or letting it unravel. Therefore, “the new Middle East order” is not an issue of whether the Syria-Iraq border dissolves. It is an issue of whether the United States maintains the core of its decades-old mission in the region: the mutually-reinforcing assets of a credible military presence, a commitment to the security of its allies and the promotion of a stable transition to genuine democratic reform. To call the chaos in Iraq and Syria “the end of Sykes-Picot” misses the mark. Their pencil lines may at last be erased, but what’s currently at stake has very little to do with the order they established. It has everything to do with the one we established.

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