On 10 June, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), the group whose dramatic advances have startled the world over the past 72 hours, posted a photograph of their fighters demolishing barriers marking the dividing line between Syria and Iraq. They were, they claimed, “smashing the Sykes-Picot border”. This was a reference to the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot who, in May 1916, concluded secret negotiations to divide the Middle East into French and British zones of imperial influence.
Isis’s symbolic destruction of the border was an attempt to give credence to its claim to be sweeping away the false states created by the nefarious European powers, uniting all Muslims in one pious community. Somewhat more surprisingly, this radical attempt at political engineering has also found sympathy among policy pundits in Europe and the United States who are looking for instant solutions to the long-term problems that are destabilising the countries of the region. Iraq and Syria, they argue, are prefabricated states that have never gained the loyalty of their populations. Popular political legitimacy will only be found in smaller, more religiously and ethnically homogenous units that mirror the provinces used by the Ottoman empire to administer the region before 1914.
This assertion, made by both Isis and western commentators, is historically and sociologically illiterate. This week Isis, an organisation whose active membership is numbered in the low thousands, has not only asserted its control over Mosul, Iraq’s second city, but routed an Iraqi army garrison many times larger, stealing advanced weaponry and Iraqi dinars worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The worrying speed with which it then moved its forces towards Baghdad has been used as evidence of Iraq’s artificiality and the divided nature of its population. The truth, however, is more complex but less pessimistic.
Isis – and its forerunner, al-Qaida in Iraq – has long had a strong presence in Mosul, exploiting the chaos and lawlessness triggered by the US invasion in 2003. Early this year Isis expanded its control over Mosul, murdering local government officials and extracting an estimated $8m a month from protection rackets. However, its expansion from Mosul into other towns and cities in northern Iraq has much more to do with the profound failures of the Iraqi government and the legacy of invasion than the historical artificiality of the Iraqi state.
Iraq’s present prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, first came to power in April 2006 in a deal brokered by the then British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and the American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. Maliki’s ascendancy was an Anglo-American attempt to create a facade of democracy in the midst of a vicious post-invasion civil war. After 2006 Maliki used his power to rule in an authoritarian way, deploying a compliant judiciary and a million-strong security force to break the opposition. The national elections of 2010 put his rule in question. Iraqiyya, a nationwide coalition running on an avowedly secular and nationalist platform, won 91 seats in parliament compared with Maliki’s 89.
Ironically, both the US and Iran backed the continuation of Maliki’s rule – even though he lost the elections – in the name of predictability and order. A government of national unity was formed, with Iraqiyya being given the ministry of finance as a consolation prize. From 2010 onwards Maliki set out to break Iraqiyya’s electoral popularity. In 2013 he drove the popular and effective Iraqiyya finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, from the cabinet on trumped-up terrorism charges. This caused mass demonstrations across north-west Iraq, driven by a population who have come to see the post-2003 Iraqi state and its army as predatory, set on breaking them politically and marginalising them economically.
It is this failure to build a sustainable and inclusive political system after regime change in 2003 and the authoritarianism of Maliki, America’s candidate for prime minister, that explains the rise of Isis and current crisis, not the state’s supposedly “false” creation.
Faced with an angry and alienated population and a violent Islamist insurgency, what is the US administration proposing to do? President Obama recognised earlier this week that Iraq is “going to need more help from us, and it’s going to need more help from the international community”. He went on to say he had ruled nothing out in terms of American support for Iraq. On Friday, however, he added “The United States is not simply going involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they are prepared to work together”. It is clear that the Obama administration is focused on supplying military support to Maliki, not demanding that he leave power or radically change his approach to ruling the country.
However, simply giving even more weapons to the Iraqi army won’t solve this profound crisis. The more drastic solution of breaking up the Iraqi state – an institution that has since 1920 become the focus of a robust nationalist identity for the vast majority of ordinary Iraqis – would also not deliver stability.
Instead, the US and the international community should be encouraging Iraqis to reform their own political institutions. Political parties campaigning for financial probity, citizenship and equal rights should be encouraged – not those, like Maliki’s, pursuing overtly sectarian agendas. It was the hubristic invasion of 2003, with its failed plans for radical social engineering that has led to the present crisis – not the Iraqi state. Those who want to see a stable, democratic Iraq should support the heroic people within the country who are still there, trying to build a new country from the ground up.
Professor Toby Dodge is director of the LSE’s Middle East Centre. He is the author of Iraq: From War to a New authoritarianism.