The recent national election that brought Muqtada al-Sadr to power highlighted all the familiar truisms of Iraqi politics: endemic corruption, sectarianism, technocratic incompetence, foreign influence, and a tenuous national narrative. Barring an existential threat, it is hard to imagine what kind of sustainable narrative would unite Iraq’s major factions and serve America’s broader strategic interests in the region—and even the degree of unity engendered by fear of ISIS had its limits. Discussions of this problem tend to quickly assume a historical character, placing blame, for example, on the Sykes-Picot Agreement for carving up the Ottoman Empire and establishing national borders with “lines in the sand.” This is a simplistic caricature of the British Empire’s strategic aims, but it’s often a rare point of agreement across the Western ideological spectrum. Ironically, “The End of Sykes-Picot” was also central to the ISIS’s narrative during its 2014–2015 expansion, even as it pursued its own pseudo-imperial objectives in the region. While I do not want to re-litigate Sykes-Picot, I do want to suggest that its geographical logic offers a useful means for framing ongoing questions about America’s strategic interests, its investment in Iraqi national identity, and its relationship with tribal partners and proxies in Anbar.

The idea that modern Iraq is an “artificial” nation cobbled together from Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia heartlands was a routine complaint of British administrators, like Gertrude Bell, who were involved in Mesopotamia. However, the Ottomans had never divided the region along strict ethno-sectarian lines to begin with. It is true that after 1831, Mesopotamia consisted of three provinces—Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra—that were roughly in line with modern calls for partition. But for a much longer span (1534–1704), the same area comprised four provinces subdivided into numerous smaller districts. On the other hand, the century-plus of Mamluk autonomous rule (1704–1831) reorganized much of this land as a single pashalik. Because the Ottomans were wary of the Mamluks, the pashalik was never allowed to include Mosul, but large swaths of southern Kurdistan remained under Baghdad’s sphere of influence. Ethnographic models like T.E. Lawrence’s proposed map for dividing Ottoman territories generally follow the Mamluk pashalik in demarcating the extended alluvial plain of the Sawad, or Irāq Arabī, as a single polity. However, Lawrence omitted both present-day Kurdistan and Anbar. It is possible that Lawrence favored an independent Kurdistan, but the significance of the two “blank space” regions is as much geographical as ethno-sectarian. Kurdistan and Anbar mark where the alluvial plain of Irāq Arabī “hooks in” to the greater Middle East at the base of the Zagros Mountains and the Western Desert, or Shām.

The point is that there is no single internal ethno-historical template that forecasts set outcomes for Iraq’s national project. Nor were imperial Britain and France particularly interested in engineering one, apart from intervening with existing “Arab state[s] or confederation of Arab states” to preserve their regional strategic interests. Sykes-Picot, instead, was an outline for managing Lawrence’s “blank spaces,” the pivot points between relatively “coherent” areas like Irāq Arabī and longstanding trade routes that bisect them on an east-west axis, roughly the old Silk Road. It demarcated a French area of influence—“Zone A”—that spanned from present-day Lebanon through northern Syria and Kurdistan. The British area of influence—“Zone B”—was demarcated as a second band stretching from Palestine across the Shām to the north of Irak’s alluvial plain, and while this band might look absurd at first glance, it is coherent in terms of Sykes-Picot’s explicit focus on east-west commerce, oil shipments, railroad expansion, and the “perpetual right to transport troops” between Palestine, the Gulf, and Central Asia. Nor was this was a new idea. Ruins of ancient Greco-Roman border towns, fortifications, and commercial hubs at sites like Palmyra, which retain propagandistic value for ISIS, attest to the longue durée geographical logic of the Zones. The balancing act, of course, is that post-Westphalian nations on any scale require some modicum of control over important regional routes, even as national autonomies are constantly questioned and renegotiated in such places.

These east-west bands have special resonance for Iraq’s al-Anbar Governorate, which is a microcosm of the geographical “pivoting” encoded in Sykes-Picot. Most of the governorate’s population lives in the eastern cities of Ramadi, Fallujah, Hit, Haditha, and elsewhere throughout the Euphrates River Valley, part of the so-called “Sunni Triangle.” Historically, this swath of Anbar (from the Arabic anbâshtan meaning “to silo or store”) was the final stop on the Silk Road before crossing the Shām. Today, it links Iraq’s alluvial plain—and with it, the Sunni Triangle and Baghdad Belts—to Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia through desert routes that cross the western part of the province. One route travels northeast through Haditha to the Syrian border crossing at al-Qaim and on to Abu Kamel. Another spans the desert from Ramadi through Rutbah to the Trebil crossing with Jordan, splitting at the 160-km marker where it veers south to Nukhayb and beyond to Saudi Arabia. All three are interconnected by wadis and “old roads” that have long supported insurgencies and tribal smuggling networks. At the height of US operations in 2005, for example, the New York Times labeled the route through al-Qaim “Iraq’s Ho Chi Minh Trail.” Post-ISIS, these bands link Anbar’s tribes to radical actors in Syria and serve as conduits for a “gray economy” that transports everything from oil, livestock, medical supplies, and cigarettes to chop-shop cars, persons, weapons, and narcotics.

Anbar is thus notoriously difficult to align with centralized national policies. Nor has its commerce across the Shām—financial, ideological, and otherwise—ever been fully under Baghdad’s control in modern times. While this is in part a consequence of Anbar’s physical environment and tribal dynamics, it is also a function of the physical infrastructure set in place to utilize that environment and its regional gravitational pulls. When the Ottomans built Ramadi in 1879, it was for the express purpose of encouraging the desert tribes to adopt the more settled—and manageable—habit of life in the Euphrates River Valley. But when the British came to Anbar, their interest was in developing infrastructure that capitalized on existing routes from the Palestine Mandate. Ar-Rutbah, for example, was constructed to garrison the main Transjordan route and serve as a refueling stop for Imperial Airways flights to India. Nukhayb, which housed a detachment of Royal Air Force armored vehicles, was established for similar purposes. Other infrastructure developments included the Mosul–Haifa pipeline, which followed the angle of Zone B to Haditha and mandated the creation of pumping stations in the Western Desert. As early as 2003, US policymakers proposed resurrecting the pipeline, which fell out of use with the British evacuation of the Middle East. British initiatives also supported the Nairn Transport Company’s attempts to “up-armor” transport across the Shām’s caravan routes along what became known as the “Nairn Way.” Most significantly, perhaps, the British empowered and supported tribal hierarchies and the wasta patronage system in Anbar in order to secure the tribes’ support for unhindered transit and regional access. In a sense, Anbar was designed to counterbalance geopolitical trends that would close off Mesopotamia.

The strategic acumen of the British band-model in Anbar was demonstrated during the Anglo-Iraqi War (1941), when the British Empire’s Habforce was able to break the siege of RAF Habbaniyah by traveling across the Shām from Palestine before quickly counterattacking and seizing Ramadi. This model has much in common with operations by al-Qaeda in Iraq and later ISIS that similarly utilized Anbar bands to sustain and support advances in the Euphrates River Valley. Conversely, securing the Anbar routes through the Shām desert—and, in some cases, reversing the heavy-handed suppression of tribal wasta economies by AQI and ISIS—provided coalition and Iraqi forces with the preconditions for forming national consensus after both the “Anbar Awakening” and the collapse of ISIS. Too often, these were lost opportunities. Unfortunately, there is a pattern of disconnect between recognizing the strategic value of Anbar’s “Sykes-Picot” dynamics during major combat operations and acknowledging their continued significance in the political aftermath. It’s a holding pattern: the Shia-dominated state apparatus overreaches with Anbar’s Sunnis; it finds its existence threatened by anti-government factions with free access to “Zone B” and external support; it reverts to a British model of empowering the old desert tribal hierarchies to combat this threat; it then delegitimizes and disempowers Sunni tribal forces when their military usefulness has ended.

The present iteration of this cycle also involves large numbers of Shia militia fighters who mobilized to fight ISIS in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), or Hashd al-Shaabi (although this term is increasingly used in a nonsectarian sense). While their Sunni tribal counterparts on the “Sahwah List” are being defunded or maintained at the expense of individual Sunni sheikhs, the Hashd al-Shaabi are quickly becoming the third rail of Anbar politics and Iraqi nationalism. Post-ISIS, PMF forces have generally been careful to avoid ethno-sectarian conflict by keeping their presence in major Sunni population centers low. However, PMFs continue to control border crossings between Syria and Iraq, as well as checkpoints on the main routes that connect eastern Anbar to Saudi Arabia and the Levant. This supported operational objectives during the anti-ISIS campaign, but continued PMF presence in Anbar—and entrenchment in everyday life—represents the possibility of a significant shift in the relationship between the governorate and Iraq’s Shia-dominated ministries, as well as between US interests and the evolution of the Iraqi state.

In the first place, Anbar’s Sunnis often view the Hashd al-Shaabi as participants—and, increasingly, powerbrokers—in the gray economies that have traditionally utilized the major east-west routes. Combined with few economic opportunities, ongoing resettlement and refugee dislocation, and PMF willingness to recruit disenfranchised Sunnis, these militias thus threaten to displace Anbar’s longstanding tribal hierarchies as conduits of wasta patronage. In turn, this destabilizes the strategic importance of Sunni tribal partners that foreign powers since the British have cultivated as proxies. Finally, PMF entrenchment in Anbar amplifies the feeling of encirclement that an increasing number of Sunnis in the western Euphrates River Valley feel. As recently as last year, Anbar Sunnis tended to view Iran’s support for Hashd al-Shaabi militias in the Shām as a means of opening strategic routes to proxies such as Hezbollah and Kata’ib Hezbollah. Now, however, PMF presence risks being inflected through a broader distrust of government ministries—which are often also seen as corrupt Iranian proxies—and as part of an attempt to geographically and politically disempower the Sunni heartland along the western Euphrates. Like the strategic expansion of encircling Israeli settlements in Palestine, PMF control of Anbar’s “pivoting” desert routes raises the real possibility that the Sadr bloc might come to power inheriting the growing “Gazafication” of the Sunni Euphrates area.

In one sense, marginalizing those geographical and cultural characteristics of Sunni Anbar that have tied it both to the broader Middle East and, at turns, to Western foreign powers, might be seen as supporting the development of Iraqi nationalism. It is true, for example, that Iraq’s nationalist impulse was strongest in reaction to the British Mandate. It also is possible that Sadr’s populist rhetoric, which continues to cast the US as an “invader country,” will be able to effect the same result. But US strategic goals will nevertheless consist of underwriting a Middle East that is “not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, [and] that contributes to a stable energy market.” As a codicil, there is also every indication that US policy is increasingly oriented toward recouping the cost of the Iraq wars through developing the US foothold in the nation’s potential economic growth. These goals require continued access to the Sykes-Picot bands where they overlap with Lawrence’s “blank spots.” Moreover, US regional strategic interests are not necessarily compatible with current trajectories of Iraqi nationalism. In the case of “Zone A” Kurdistan, the United States seems to be hedging its bets against unforeseen turns in Iraq’s political process. The US government recently authorized the construction the world’s largest American consulate in Erbil to secure what Ambassador Douglas Silliman, echoing Sykes-Picot’s emphasis on the oil-rich north, termed an “important point of entry for foreign investment.”

Anbar’s “Zone B” does not have the same immediate economic significance, but relinquishing influence there is perhaps more dangerous in the long term. The United States has had few qualms about abandoning its proxies to postcolonial political settlements since Vietnam, and diplomatic rhetoric about nation-building and democratization has often masked this ugly fact. At the same time, our ideological dislike of colonial precedents makes the strategic realism of Sykes-Picot seem anathema, even when its geographical logic suggests the closest alignments between our own regional interests and the local interests of minority stakeholders such as the Anbar tribes, who feel consistently marginalized in national political discourse. For its part, Iran has no compulsions about projecting power across “Zone B,” utilizing a network of proxies that secure east-west routes in a manner that would have seemed completely familiar to the imperial architects of the modern Middle East. We might not like imagining Iraq in terms of Sykes-Picot, but the same does not hold true for our current or potential adversaries. And the more we insist on viewing Iraqi affairs exclusively in terms of a choice between national identities or internal ethno-sectarianism, the more Iran will carve our areas of influence up like the British would have.


Capt. Matt Salyer is a Civil Affairs Functional Specialist with 353 CACOM. He is presently an Assistant Professor at West Point. His book, “As we was kings”: Narrative, Intercultural Brokerage, and Britain’s Empire, is forthcoming next year.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government.