For most of the first three quarters of the twentieth century this was the failed dream of Arab nationalists like Gamal abd al-Nasser: to undraw the borders of the former Ottoman Empire that the European powers who dismantled that empire drew after the First World War. Today it might actually be happening. The militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام) have now seized the great bulk of Iraq’s border crossings with Syria (the Kurds in the north now hold one) along with Iraq’s one border crossing with Jordan along with the town of Rutbah that sits astride the highway leading from Baghdad to the Jordanian border. The Iraqi government, has now effectively lost control of its western border regions and after taking the al-Qa’im crossing yesterday and the al-Waleed crossing today the militants whose operations straddle both sides of the Iraq/Syria border have, for the moment at least, erased that border.
The Iraqi commanders in Baghdad announced that their forces had conducted a ‘tactical retreat’ from the border crossings and were regrouping for an assault to retake them. We shall see. If the ISIL can hold their gains then they will have transformed this barren stretch of wasteland (save al-Qa’im in the Euphrates valley the Iraqi/Syrian/Jordanian border runs through one of the most inhospitable deserts on earth) into the birth of a whole new Middle East and possibly a new world.
It isn’t just a matter of a few border crossings or even a few cities falling into the hands of marauding Islamic militants. There has been a progressive breakdown of central authority in Iraq since the American invasion in 2003 and a massive breakdown of central authority in Syria since the revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime started in 2011. Prolonged absences of trust in or respect for or fear of the central government followed by a sudden onslaught such as the ISIL just launched have a way of permanently changing things. It is doubtful that either of the regimes in Baghdad or Damascus possess or will possess any time soon the strength or the resources to remove the ISIL from the scene and to erase what they have done in the last two weeks. ISIL is a more formidable force than anyone seems to have realized. After their first victories in Mosul and Tikrit when the road to Baghdad seemed open they didn’t take it like everyone (myself included) thought they would. Instead they have focused on securing their flanks in Diyala and Anbar provinces and eliminating the Iraqi/Syrian border to gain them freedom of movement and to show that they could in fact destroy that border which has always been one of their goals. They will of course have to move on Baghdad at some point in order to dismantle the Iraqi state as the world has known it for the last 80 years. If there is any kind of central government in Baghdad there is always the great possibility that it will regroup and destroy them, but if that goes away then there will be very little threat anymore to the existence of ISIL. And then they could move on Damascus. Time will tell but the earth is moving under our feet here.
Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and for the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim people.