It is with deceptive ease that some ideological pundits lay blame for the current threats emanating in and from radical religious terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria at the feet of the current president. In the course of doing so, not only do they walk the well-worn path of disagreeing with virtually anything this president says or does, but their entire hypothesis rests on an assumed well of Western credibility that has long been dry. Set your watch when complex issues find easy targets for blame, since it won't be long until a disservice to history is bathed in full sunlight.
I offer three chapters for consideration, all from the crucible of the Great War that was sprinting towards a full boil 100 years ago this month. Taken together, they illuminate how that war continues to shape not only our world in a lofty, conceptual way, but in headlines like "Crisis in Iraq," and "Bloodshed in Syria," and how we interpret the disproportionate amount of violence and civil war that stagnates human progress in the region.
The 1915 correspondence between British High Commissioner in Egypt Henry McMahon and the Sharif of Mecca laid out the British promise of Arab independence if the region would rise up against the Ottoman Empire, thus pulling precious German and Austria-Hungary resources from the eastern and western theater that was turning Western Europe into a No Man's Land. The promise of Arab independence would be delayed and denied, dithered and debated, then finally rotted on the vine as credibility expired, with no small impact on World War Two. The result was lingering, ultimately instinctual bitterness and distrust towards Western powers that dangle promises of sovereignty and aid.
First drafted in the secret, the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 was the initial framework between the French and British for dividing the post-Empire Middle East and it directly contradicted what became known as the McMahon-Sharif correspondence. It was unfathomably simple and imperialist by birth; a line was drawn east to west across the Middle East with France getting the north and Britain the south. They were considerate enough to divide their divisions into rear zones of "French Control," containing Beirut and stretching north, the softer "French Influence" below that, containing for example Damascus, which abutted "British Influence," stretching from Amman to Mosul, and finally, all the way to the south of the disputed region, "British Control" which enveloped the territory from Baghdad south to Basra and some small but crucial access to the Persian Gulf. Add to those cities more recent mile markers like Fallujah, Beirut, Kirkuk and Aleppo, all of which fall within the territory parceled in Sykes-Picot, and you are well on your way towards compiling a thorough list of cities that have seen way more than their share of civil war and religious violence.
The apologist would call the design that produced the new boundaries arbitrary and blind, since no consideration seemed to be given to how and where people were actually living in the impacted areas. The cynic could call the design manipulative and of incendiary intent, since the "children of England and France," as the countries were called, could reasonably be interpreted as designed to exacerbate cultural tensions and prevent regional cohesion. This tension-by-design would widen cultural gaps, antagonize regional feuds and stimulate rivalries between the countries, allowing aging imperial powers plenty of room for selfish mischief.
Ultimately the spoils of the Ottoman Empire would be divided in a more scattered and complex fashion, resulting in the creation of Syria and Iraq, amongst others. But in both exercises the destinies of the new countries were designed thousands of miles away from the actual geography and the human beings impacted by them.
Absent were considerations of tribal regions, religious divides, trade centers or potential impact on routes of local commerce. And any lessons about borders, tensions and bloodshed that could have been derived from the mountain of case studies at the time, starting first and foremost with Austria-Hungary and how the arbitrary stitching together of nationalities and regions into a country can set in motion conflict rather than dismantle it, went un-studied.
Rounding out the trinity is the Balfour Declaration, which in 1917 shared Britain's bold but vague assurances to the Jewish people that it supported the concept of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. To endorse the concept without reference to location added muscle and emotion to real estate rivalries thousands of years old, and here again the cynic could be well justified in regarding this as a handy tool for dividing and conquering.
Finally, the old adage of throwing gasoline onto the fire has never been more accurate than here, since the full realization of what lay under the ground across the whole region was just coming into focus as the Treaty of Versailles was punctuating World War One and quietly firing the starting gun on World War Two.
These two forces; incoherent, contradictory boundaries drawn by distant imperialist forces that exacerbated tribal and religious tensions, and every industrialized nation's growing addiction to the industrial nectar just below the desert surface, would fuel a century of war, terrorism, religious strife and barbarism.
Air strikes or humanitarian aid have no chance, or even relevance, up against a century of that momentum and the centuries that came before, nor do boots on the ground or occupation. Criticisms of the president and urgent calls for action are much more about some fleeting window for political gain today rather than charting an educated course towards a more peaceful tomorrow.
Unless selfless leaders in the region itself can set aside thousands of years of religious rivalries and overlapping claims to land, are willing to approach one another anew and incur the often deadly wrath of the purists on all sides for whom compromise is anathema, and can shrug off the violence that comes from boundaries created in and after World War One, then the headlines we see today will outlive all of us.