With the Sunni militants surging into Iraq from Syria, it may be of interest to look again at the map of the Middle East. How on earth did the borders of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia come to be drawn in such straight lines? Well, it is another of legacies of the First World War and the manipulative fingers of the British and the French. Already before the outbreak of war it was clear that the Ottoman Empire was crumbling and so, in 1915, the two governments held secret negotiations to consider how best to slice and dice the areas of the Middle East known as the Levant and Mesopotamia. France was interested in establishing control and influence in the northern parts - what is now more or less Syria and Lebanon, while the British expressed their interest in the southern areas - now Iraq and Jordan.

The negotiations were led by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot and the secret agreement, ever since bearing their names, was signed in May 1916 awaiting the success of military operations against the Turks. But, like all international negotiations, there were complications and wheeling and dealing behind the scenes. Separately, in order to satisfy Russian interests, in 1915 Britain had made an agreement for Russia to annex the Turkish capital of Constantinople and gain access to the Mediterranean Sea in exchange for Russian acceptance of British claims on the Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia and central Persia. Another complication was what to do about Palestine and Zionist pressures in London to establish a Jewish homeland.


Advertisement

In 1916 it was decided that Palestine should be put under international administration and in November 1917 this led to the Balfour Declaration stating that "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a homeland for the Jewish people." This later, in 1922, led to Britain being given a mandate by the League of Nations to administer Palestine.

While discussions were going on between in London and Paris, in the areas concerned Lawrence of Arabia was enlisting Arab guerilla aid to blow up Turkish installations and sabotage Turkish military supply lines. What today would probably be called terrorist actions, but one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter - as we see in today's advances into Iraq by the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In return for their work, Lawrence of Arabia was making promises to the Arabs that, much to his disgust, were later ignored by the government in London.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch so to speak, lines were being drawn on the map to delineate the new countries that would emerge from the Ottoman provinces.

The British Navy, having been changed from coal-fired warships to oil, was keenly anxious to secure reliable oil supplies and therefore pressed the negotiators to extend British control over Mosul, Kirkuk and oil-rich Mesopotamia. It has been said that when this was brought to the attention of French Premier Clemenceau, whose knowledge of the uses of oil was in oil lamps, he dismissed the French interest in the area by saying "Oil? - if I wanted oil I would go to the grocer." So the British acquired the three Ottoman provinces which now compose Iraq and placed on the throne in Baghdad Arab Prince Faisal who had been promised by Lawrence of Arabia the throne of Jordan, which instead the British gave to another member of the Hashemite family, Prince Abdullah.

The end result of these and other machinations was the modern map of straight lines of the borders of Syria, Iraq and Jordan. This thumbnail sketch of how the modern map of the Middle East came to exist skims over the surface of a much more complex history of tribal rivalries and internecine conflicts in the Arab world. Fast forward to 2014 and the deep enmity between the Sunni and Shia Moslems, it is little wonder that militants have little respect for lines drawn on the map by Europeans a hundred years ago.

For the United States to dip an American toe into these tricky sands is an invitation to have the toe, and probably the whole foot, being bitten off. But it has already done so in the past by guaranteeing the security of Israel, by supporting Saudi Arabia, by invading Iraq and by pursuing Al Qaeda. In the present predicament, if the United States supports the Iraqi government by launching attacks against the Sunni militants, it will seriously upset relations with Saudi Arabia. If, on the other hand, the United States fails to support the Maliki government in Baghdad, the end result may be the breakup of Iraq and perhaps also threats by ISIL to the current government of King Abdullah in Jordan.

New lines in the sand are being drawn before our eyes.

Derek Boothby is a former arms control official with the United Nations and a resident of Manchester.