On June 29, 2014, the militant group known as ISIS proclaimed a caliphate in the region straddling the border between Iraq and Syria. Over the previous weeks, ISIS had exploded into mainstream consciousness. Its membership and funding had grown rapidly since its initial appearance with its current name and form in March 2013. ISIS had overwhelmed the Iraqi army to take over Mosul and Tikrit, and was moving rapidly south toward Baghdad. With its proclamation of a caliphate, ISIS might have decided to showcase these impressive military gains. Instead, in a sleek propaganda video, the group’s leadership chose to highlight the destruction of the border between Iraq and Syria. Its title: The End of Sykes-Picot.
Prior to the video’s release, it was already clear to observers that ISIS was different from other militant groups active in the region: unlike its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS prioritizes conquering and governing territory. Yet the video’s subject matter revealed a less tangible but equally crucial peculiarity. The End of Sykes-Picot—which was released alongside its Arabic-language counterpart, Kaser al-Hudud (“the Breaking of the Borders”) as well as a photo campaign called “Smashing the Sykes-Picot Border” and a Twitter hashtag, #SykesPicotOver—provides a window into an ideology that is about much more that destroying Sykes-Picot, but in which Sykes-Picot is a powerful symbol.
Origins and Consequences of Sykes-Picot
Officially called the Asia Minor Agreement, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was the result of secret deliberations between British civil servant Mark Sykes and Frenchman François Georges-Picot in 1916. Rather than developing concrete terms, their discussions culminated in a general understanding of British and French spheres of influence in the Middle East. The map closely associated with their names—with its clean national borders cutting across ethnic, linguistic, and religious lines—was formalized and made official in 1920 with the San Remo Agreement.
Although it was part of a larger process of dividing and subduing the Middle East after World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement has dominated conversations about European incursions in the Middle East. Pan-Arabists and Arab nationalists have condemned the “Sykes-Picot borders” as artificial, illegitimate, and undeserving of recognition. Rejection of Sykes-Picot has, at times, moved from discourse into action: the United Arab Republic (1958-1961), the United Arab States (1958-1961), and the Federation of Arab Republics (1972-1977) were among many attempts to create a pan-Arabist alternative to post-World War I fragmentation.
Others decried the Sykes-Picot Agreement in favor of a more regionally localized agenda. Among others, the governments of Hafez and Basher al-Assad supported Lebanon’s incorporation into a Greater Syria on the basis of pre-World War I ties between the two states.
A broad spectrum of newspapers representing government mouthpieces, opposition outlets, and pan-Middle Eastern voices in the region have condemned Sykes-Picot. While media outlets have differed in their prescriptions of the appropriate geopolitical order for the region—some argue that upending existing borders would do more harm than good—many acknowledge that the Sykes-Picot borders were conceived and implemented with no regard for the local populations.
ISIS and Sykes-Picot
ISIS’s emergence has brought unprecedented attention to the Sykes-Picot Agreement beyond the Middle East. But, for ISIS, Sykes-Picot’s significance also transcends the 1916 Agreement. For this reason, analyzing the accord provides only limited insight into the group’s ideology. To really understand ISIS’s philosophy, it is more helpful to identify where and how the group invokes Sykes-Picot. As these patterns suggest, ISIS is an organization that defies popular American understandings of militant groups in the Middle East.
In the two propaganda videos referenced above, four themes emerge in ISIS’s depictions of Sykes-Picot:
1. Sykes-Picot as Fragmentation
In Kaser al-Hudud, A Chechen member of ISIS speaks extensively about the significance of the group’s actions. He states:
Alhamdulillah. Today we are happy to participate in destroying the borders placed by the tawaghit to prevent the Muslims from traveling in their lands. The tawaghit broke up the Islamic Khilafah and made it into countries like Syria and Iraq, ruled by man-made laws. Alhamdulillah, Allah blessed the mujahidin with destruction of these borders. Thereby the mujahidin were able to show their strength, by Allah’s grace. . . Alhamdulillah, today we begin the final stage after the Ummah was divided. Alhamdulillah, we’ve begun today to unite in the face of the plots of the kuffar. Their plot was to divide and conquer. That is what they had done with us.
He makes no mention of Sykes-Picot, nor any other specific agreement. Rather, the militant laments the fragmentation of the Islamic world into states, the demise of solidarity among Muslims, and the primacy of secular or non-Islamic law. Certainly, the Sykes-Picot Agreement is implicitly referenced here, but, as this reading demonstrates, there are other unnamed agreements and trends that are equally liable to condemnation by the group.
2. Sykes-Picot as Intervention
The Chechen militant refers repeatedly to the tawaghit, or “oppressors.” This invocation of an imperialist enemy is a recurring theme in ISIS propaganda, although the identity of that enemy shifts easily from medieval Crusaders to the architects of the post-World War I Middle East to the contemporary United States. As the voiceover recalls in Kaser al-Hudud, “The ember of jihad was lit, the Crusade campaign was broken, and the Islamic State was established despite the villainous. America left in humiliation, dragging behind it tails of failure, while broken and defeated. It left the map for the Islamic State to redraw the world in accordance with the methodology of the prophetic khilafah.”
Interestingly, neither video refers explicitly to Britain or France, the framers of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Instead, the West and Christian world are discussed monolithically, with particular condemnation reserved for the United States – viewed as the successor to Crusaders and imperialists.
In The End of Sykes-Picot, a Chilean militant named Abu Safiyya observes as he gestures towards a captured Ford pick-up truck, “Look how much money America spends to fight Islam, and it ends up being in our pockets.” The United States, he recalls, lost its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “They will lose in Syria as well, inshallah. We will be ready for them.”
3. Sykes-Picot as Geopolitical
As The End of Sykes-Picot opens, Abu Safiyya leads the viewer on a tour of the border region. He climbs over the demolished earthworks, witnesses the destruction of border posts and police stations and, at one point, stands atop a fallen sign that reads “Commander’s Battalion Border.”
“As you can see,” he says, “It’s under our feet now.”
The message of the fifteen-minute video is clear: a former site of division, statehood, and military might is now an unremarkable stretch of desert. By conquering this region, ISIS has triumphed over the institutions that once governed the area.
Kaser al-Hudud foregrounds the destruction of the Syria-Iraq border even more explicitly. The title graphic, in which a red line against a black background shatters to the sound of breaking glass, is repeated throughout the video. As a bulldozer passes through the earthworks, a voiceover proclaims, “We swear, we swear that we will destroy the wall, fill the ditch, and remove the barbwire. The borders will be erased from the map, and removed from the hearts.” The physical act of destroying the Syria-Iraq border is clearly crucial to ISIS’s narrative.
The aftermath of this destruction provides a powerful visualization of ISIS’s goals, yet the implications of this act transcend the border region and the agreement that divided it. As Safiyya proclaims, “[T]his is the so-called border of Sykes-Picot. Alhamdulillah, we don’t recognize it, and we will never recognize it. Inshallah, this is not the first border we will break. Inshallah, we break other borders also, but we start with this one, inshallah.”
In this way, the Syria-Iraq border foretells other acts of eliminating and destroying borders and the nation-states they define.
4. Sykes-Picot as Symbolic
In both videos, ISIS members are eager to discourage assumptions that the destruction of the Syria-Iraq border is their ultimate goal. Instead, as the Chechen militant states in Kaser al-Hudud,
Alhamdulillah, today we’ve begun to gather our strength and numbers. It is time for the sons of the Islamic State and the Ummah to defend the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, and defend our Imam who the world gathered against with all its strength, yet he did not turn back a single step. Rather he advanced and opened our path for us. It is obligatory upon us in front of Allah to complete this work and establish the khilafah. . . Our goal is clear. Everyone knows why we fight. Our path is to khilafah. We will revive the khilafah. . . Isn’t it enough that your brothers implement Allah’s law for Allah’s word to be the highest, and that they rule by the Shari’ah?
What Sykes-Picot Represents
If Sykes-Picot represents the fragmentation of the Islamic world as well as historical Western, Christian intervention in the region, then ISIS claims to stand for all that runs counter to Sykes-Picot: the gathering together of the ummah under the rule of Shari’ah and the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In short, according to ISIS’s worldview, Sykes-Picot is shorthand for the ideologies and powers the group opposes.
While Sykes-Picot is not ISIS’s only symbol, it is a particularly revealing one. It encompasses real and perceived Western interests and threats to the Middle East. For ISIS’s potential funders, recruits, and unconvinced observers in the Arab world, it appeals to a shared aversion toward foreign intervention and fragmentation of the region. As an ideological symbol, Sykes-Picot tells us much about how ISIS conceives of itself, as well as its plan for future action.