The stunning victories by Islamic militants in northern Iraq have drawn attention to a militant group whose goal is an Islamic state encompassing parts of Iraq, Syria and other countries of the eastern Mediterranean.
To outsiders, the goals sound delusional. But many Arab politicians have complained for years that the current political divisions of the Middle East are artificial, drawn by European imperialists of a bygone age to keep the Arab peoples weak and divided.
Here’s a look at who’s responsible for the current borders in the Middle East that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is fighting so hard to redraw:
In the midst of World War I, two minor French and British officials, Mark Sykes and Francois-Georges Picot, held a series of secret meetings in 1915 during which they drew a blueprint to carve up the Ottoman Empire, which was fighting alongside Britain and France’s German enemy.
Sykes and Picot divided Ottoman territories in what was once called the Fertile Crescent into British and French zones of influence along an east-west axis stretching from the Mediterranean to Iran.
France was allocated Syria and Lebanon, while Britain would control what is now Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and most of Iraq.
Britain had long coveted the region to secure land and sea routes to British India. Britain offered a piece to France and to Russia as incentives to continue the war against Germany, though the Russians disavowed the deal after the Bolshevik Revolution took Russia out of the conflict in 1917.
Under pressure from President Woodrow Wilson, who insisted local populations determine their own political future, the British and the French agreed not to colonize the region outright but instead to establish “indigenous governments and administrations in Syria and Mesopotamia,” or Iraq.
After Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919, the two European powers dropped the pretense and established direct rule over the newly acquired territories.
Although there was some change in the 1915 division, including expanding Britain’s control of northern Iraq and dropping claims on what is now part of Turkey, the basic division into French and British zones, along artificial borders drawn up in secret by outsiders, was the basis for the modern borders between Syria and Iraq.
What did Arabs think?
Sykes and Picot never consulted local inhabitants or political leaders in the Middle East. In fact, the world learned of the plan only after the new, communist government in Russia published the text in party newspapers.
According to James Barr, author of the book “A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the struggle that shaped the Middle East,” many officials in Britain, France and the United States realized the flaws of the plan and that “the Arabs weren’t getting anything.”
A major flaw: Britain had encouraged local Arab leaders, including the ancestor of the Jordanian royal family, to join a revolt against the Ottoman Turks, promising them an independent Arab kingdom in the former Turkish territory. Much of what the Arabs expected ended up under French and British control.
The British then subdivided their zone into Palestine, Jordan and Iraq. Britain installed two sons of their chief Arab ally onto the thrones of new kingdoms in Jordan and Iraq, but held on to most of the power itself.
The affected territories — Lebanon and Syria in the French zone and Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Kuwait in the British zone — did not achieve full independence until after World War II.
Were Arabs satisfied?
Yes and no. Since World War II, several Arab nationalist leaders and pan-Arab movements have attempted to unite the countries established as a result of the Sykes-Picot divisions. Arab nationalists, most of them secularists, argued that the colonial-era divisions were designed to keep the Arabs weak and divided, depriving them of the glories of Medieval Islamic empires that were once far more advanced in education, science, trade and governance than their European contemporaries.
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser sought repeatedly but unsuccessfully to unite his country with the republics of Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Plans to unify Jordan and Iraq, whose kings were from branches of the same family installed by the British, fell apart after the Iraqi king was overthrown in 1958.
Saddam Hussein, who at the time was vice president, ousted the president and seized full power in 1979 to block a planned unification of Syria and Iraq, which would have sidelined him politically.
Separately from the Sykes-Picot agreement, the British government in 1917 agreed to “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” despite opposition from local Arabs who formed the vast majority of the population. Sykes and Picot had agreed that an “international administration” would be established in an area that was later to become Palestine, but London never implemented that part of the accord.
Sykes died in Paris in 1919 of flu, without seeing his plan implemented. He was 39. Picot, the great-uncle of former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, died in Paris in 1951 at the age of 80.