In 1916, two men sat in front of a map and set out to carve up the Ottoman empire. Using the pen as scalpel, they carried out a cartographic operation that would be key to the violent geopolitical games that would ravage the region for a century and yet show no sign of ending.
The crisis in West Asia, in fact, is a story that began with a broken promise. The British had promised the Arabs that if they rebelled against the Ottoman empire in World War I, they would be given a unified homeland. As the fallout of the convenient straight lines that the Britisher Mark Sykes and Frenchman Georges Picot drew across the map of West Asia, neatly dividing it into British- and French-administered territories, would prove in the years to follow, it was just one of the many promises meant to be broken that the colonial powers made to the people of what came to be known as the Third World.
Syria fell on the plate of the French, while Iraq was to go under the British thumb. This division of States in West Asia, keeping oil interests in mind, is the source of simmering rage in the region to this day.
A scene in the VICE News documentary The Islamic State shows the group destroying the border fences between Iraq and Syria with a bulldozer. An Islamic State commander proclaims to the camera: “We don’t accept the Sykes-Picot agreement. We have broken it.”
When Sykes and Picot were done, the Kurds, mostly Sunni Muslims with their own language and culture, were divided among four countries — Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. This created a permanent fault line between the Arabs and the Kurds.
“The boundaries between different sovereign States in the region are firm only on the maps,” says Dibyesh Anand, associate professor of International Relations at University of Westminster, London. “It has taken an incredible amount of State violence to maintain those boundaries. With national territories defined in this artificial manner, authoritarian regimes that rule with an iron hand have been the rule rather than the exception.”
On 5 September 2003, when the then US Secretary of State Colin Powell rose to speak at a session of the UN Security Council, the eyes of the world’s top leaders were firmly on him. He was making out a case for attacking Iraq. “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence,” he said. “We also have satellite photos that indicate that banned materials have recently been moved from a number of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities.”
While making that statement, Powell had brandished photographs that were duly reproduced in newspapers around the world. Those photos played no small role in building up support for the US’s war plans in West Asia. Soon, the US and its allies invaded Iraq and more than 1,50,000 civilian lives were lost in the war in which Saddam Hussein did not use any chemical or biological weapons against the invading force. And it turned out that Iraq did not even have a functioning air force.
In 2011, Powell published a book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, in which he wrote, “A failure will always be attached to me and my UN presentation… Why did no one stand up and speak out during the intense hours we worked on the speech? Some of these same analysts later wrote books claiming they were shocked that I have relied on such deeply flawed evidence.”
AK Ramakrishnan from the Centre of West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, points out that the US wanted to go to war and only had to find an excuse. “It seems the plan was made and the pretext was invented,” he says. “The objective of the war was not just to control the oil wealth but also to redefine the role of the US in West Asia prompted by the neo-conservatives supporting the government.”