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The fall of Mosul: Al-Qaeda erases a Sykes-Picot border

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria erased the borders of the post-Ottoman empire as it added the city of Mosul to its territory

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

When Mark Sykes and Francois Picot drew the borders of the post-Ottoman empire Middle East in 1916, they probably did not foresee that a sectarian inferno and thuggish extremists would erase it a century later. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has effectively done so as it added the city of Mosul yesterday to its territory, which stretches between west Iraq and east Syria.

What is more fitting as part of a fictional episode in HBO series “Game of Thrones” has become the leading news the Middle East. ISIS, that masters decapitations, crucifixions and sword fighting to the point that al-Qaeda central disowned it, has sent its fighters from war-torn Syria into Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, this week, seizing control of its airport, government headquarters, TV stations and military checkpoints after the Iraqi security forces fled the area. The image of ISIS militants driving the U.S.-supplied Humvees with their black flags from Mosul into Syria sums up an unprecedented reality: al-Qaeda is operating at large in parts of the Middle East, and traditional borders are something of the past.

Ghost of Qaeda

“The Ghost of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi stalks the Middle East” today, says Bruce Riedel a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the center’s Intelligence Project. Zarqawi, the notorious al-Qaeda leader killed in Iraq in 2006, has had his legacy renewed, Riedel told Al Arabiya News in an interview during the U.S.-Islamic Forum in Doha, contending that “ISIS is outflanking the old al-Qaeda and showing spectacular success” as it controls today Mosul, Fallujah Ramadi (in Iraq) and Deir Zour and Raqqa in Syria. It’s a “toxic and combustible” status quo, argues the expert who spent three decades working in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Al-Qaeda’s resurgence taps into two elements, the “sectarian hatred” between Sunnis and Shiites - which surfaced following the Iraq war in 2003 and is exacerbated by the Syrian war - and “anger and humiliation” among those “invaded and droned by Americans” and disenfranchised with no economic opportunities by their societies.

Al-Qaeda is operating at large in parts of the Middle East, and traditional borders are something of the past.

Joyce Karam


Anne Patterson, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, shares Riedel’s concerns and expresses a high sense of urgency in addressing the ISIS threat. Patterson, a career diplomat who has dealt with the al-Qaeda threat firsthand as former ambassador to Pakistan (2007-2010), views ISIS as “a huge force now in eastern Syria and western Iraq,” and one that is “extremely violent and extremely well organized.” Patterson told al-Hayat Newspaper that given the high number of foreign fighters recruits in the group, the risk surpasses Syria and Iraq, to countries of origin if these fighters decide to go back.

After Mosul?

But even before they decide to go back, ISIS fighters are an urgent threat to state security and structure and the territorial integrity of the Levant. “The first border to fall is the Syrian-Iraqi border, and the next could be the Lebanese border,” says Riedel, pointing to worrisome indications of deep sectarian divides in Lebanon and the Syrian spillover. Jordan is another weak link, according to the expert, due to its long border with Syria, the refugee influx from both Syria and Iraq, elements of volatility in the system and having been targeted by al-Qaeda before in 2005 and another foiled attack in 2012.

The rise of ISIS is also very alarming for Saudi Arabia says Riedel, a country which does not have good relations with either the current Iraqi or Syrian leaderships and was targeted by ISIS just last month. Riyadh designated the group as a terrorist organization in March.

Riedel explains that ISIS exploits a weak state presence and sectarian grievances across the Middle East. It is the Iraqi government’s failure in addressing Sunni frustrations and the brutality of the Assad regime that helped ISIS fester in these areas. While outside funding to the group, especially from private donors in the Arab Gulf states, is a concern for Washington says Patterson, Riedel emphasizes more the threatening and dysfunctional political environment. “Terrorism is not an expensive business and ISIL fighters are not seeking a pension or a life insurance,” he says. Today, and besides outside funding, ISIS generates revenues from territory it has captured, oil revenues, taxes, extortions and ransoms for kidnappings.

Containing the threat and protecting regional allies define the current U.S. strategy. Riedel points to the U.S. announcing two weeks ago a five billion dollar counterterrorism fund especially for this purpose to help Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon in addressing the security challenge. Another option that the U.S. could use down the road would be the deployment of drones, says Riedel, as ISIS itself threatens the West with Mumbai-like attempts, and individual attacks from Jihadi returnees to Europe and the United States.

For now, events in Mosul and the deadlocked political stalemates in both Iraq and Syria promise a hot summer along the Sykes-Picot borders, as Abu Bakr Baghdadi and Abu Suleiman Nasr attempt to draw their own.

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.