The Islamic militants sweeping through Iraq and Syria, now calling themselves the Islamic State, recently declared a new caliphate, a redrawing of the map to create a Muslim empire.
Of course, there was another remapping of the region about 100 years ago, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I.
Journalist Charlie Sennott is one of those who says that the boundaries established then shape the conflicts today.
“I’ve covered the Middle East for so many years and I’ve covered so many conflicts,” he told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “I constantly find myself putting these big, fat volumes of WWI history into my backpack when I’m going to cover these stories.”
Sennott is the co-founder of the news outlet GlobalPost, where he heads The GroundTruth Project, which produces special reports, including one on how World War I is shaping conflicts around the world. As the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI approached, he and his colleagues began to consider the effects of the nearly century-old events on the current situation in Iraq.
Sennott explained that the boundaries used today in the Middle East are the result of a secret document drawn up before the parties involved knew that they would win WWI.
According to Sennott, “The Sykes-Picot Agreement essentially shaped the modern Middle East in a post-Ottoman era, in which there would be British, French, and American control of different regions.”
This re-definition was shaped by the western empire’s colonial interests in the area, but Sennott said that the agreement has been criticized for its lack of consideration for regional tribes.
“How they divided the world paid some attention to those tribes,” he said, “but it gave great preference to some over others … It asked them to function together, and for a long time it has been about holding that together through strong men and dictators.”
The French took control over the Levant, Lebanon, and parts of Syria, and Britain took Iraq, looking towards oil-rich land and the city of Mosel. Sennott says that Iraq’s modern boundaries are still carved out of that same agreement.
He’s not the only one looking to the past — while the GroundTruth team was reporting from Sarajevo, Sennott was receiving live tweets from ISIS that used the hashtag #sykespicotover.
“The idea that ISIS knows its history is so alive that you can look it up online,” he explained.
“You can see how they have often in their videos burning maps of the colonial divides created in WWI. They show the Sykes-Picot Agreement as this corrupt colonial enterprise that was as arrogant as it was ignorant … They look at the maps and they say, ‘We are going to re-draw them.’ And they’re saying this very consciously and very openly online.”
- See the GlobalPost project, “The 11th Hour: Unlearned Lessons from World War I”
- Read Sennott’s piece, “How ISIS is tearing up the century-old map of the Middle East”