Border-watchers are the seismologists of geopolitics. And lately, we’ve begun to notice a lot of fault lines.

The boundaries that separate states are shifting and dissolving at an accelerating rate. Take, for example, the establishment of an “Islamic State” astride the Syrian-Iraqi border, which forebodes a major realignment in the Middle East. In a slick propaganda piece titled The End of Sykes-Picot, a triumphant ISIS fighter shows us a now-defunct border post between Syria and Iraq.” We do not recognize this so-called border of Sykes-Picot,” he explains. “We’ve broken borders before and insh’allah we’ll break other borders also.”

There are rumblings in other parts of the world, too. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a breathtaking piece of bravado; China is pouring sand and concrete into the South China Sea to shore up its territorial claims. The Korean DMZ could go the way of the Berlin Wall: almost impenetrable one day, completely vanished the next.

In 10 years’ time, a world map of 2014 may look terribly dated. The prospect is terrifying. Not because today’s borders are better, but because any border-quake causes chaos and misery. But that’s where the seismological simile ends: Unlike actual geological fractures, borders only really exist in the mind. They are easy to abolish  but impossible to erase.

Take that Syrian-Iraqi border crossing from the ISIS video.

To be honest, it’s difficult to disagree with the jihadi tour guide. From the video, it doesn’t look like much. The torn-down signs, the wrecked barracks, the abandoned humvees and the rusty barrier all paint a wretched picture of modern statehood, and of the transience of its trappings. A few yards on either side, the desert is indistinguishably hot and sandy. Apply a bit of TNT here and there, and it will be like the border never existed.

A hundred years ago, it didn’t. In 1916, British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and French counterpart François Georges-Picot came up with a plan to carve up the Middle East. There would be French and British spheres of influence; those  boundaries became the blueprint for the post-war Middle East.

The plan ran contrary to simultaneous promises to the local tribes: an independent and united Arab state, in exchange for helping the British and the French drive out the German-allied Ottomans from the region. The resulting division fueled ethnic and religious tension; scholars have blamed it for the region’s unrest, extremism and distrust of the west.

A large part of Sykes’s original sweep across the map still exists, most recognizably: the rectilinear stretch of about 250 miles that forms Syria’s southern border, from where it defines the northern limit of Jordan’s eastern panhandle, to just before where it crosses the Euphrates. There, the border bends faintly towards the east, as if better to pass in between the river towns of Al Bukamal (Syria) and Al Qa’im (Iraq) rather than cutting the former into two foreign halves.

On the original map, that faint redirection east carries on until the border touches the northern outskirts of Kirkuk, before abutting on the Persian border. This would have given the French (and later, the Syrians) Mosul, the Kurdish areas of what is now officially still northern Iraq, and direct access to Persia (now Iran).

Had that border persisted, today’s Iraq would have much smaller Kurdish and Sunni minorities, and perhaps be a less fractured state. Syria would have had more oil, but also more Kurds – maybe they would have ruled the roost in Damascus instead of the Assad clan’s Alawite minority.

But the actual border takes a sharp turn north: The British occupied what is now northern Iraq, with French blessing but against Turkey’s wishes. Only in 1926 did all parties involved agree on the northern part of the Syrian-Iraqi border – the one actually mocked by the holy warrior in the ISIS video.

By that time, Mark Sykes was already dead. So it’s a bit unfair to blame him for that particular stretch of border, unless of course you use “Sykes-Picot” as shorthand for all foreign-imposed borders in the region. Like the provisional Turkish-Iraqi border that was fixed by that same 1926 treaty, and which was also known, by a weirdly out-of-place name, as the Brussels Line.

Another line the Islamic State no doubt wants to abolish sooner rather than later. For by assuming the Caliphate sobriquet, the Islamic State rekindles the ancient Muslim utopia of uniting all believers under one rule. That ambition creates as many borders as it abolishes, if not more.

The emerging Caliphate is bounded by borders in their primeval state – battle lines between itself and its enemies. At present they’re still very fluid – or to put it more graphically: still bloody. But one day perhaps these will solidify, and we’ll see the emergence of new statelets along the raw edges of the Islamic State, their borders providing shelter for the Alawites, the Druze, the Iranian Arabs, the Shi’a of Iraq, and other regional minorities. Or they might not. Only one national homeland seems solid enough to survive the present storm: Kurdistan.


The emergence of the Islamic State has proved a mixed blessing for the Kurds. In Iraq, the autonomous region of Kurdistan took advantage of the power vacuum left by the retreat of central government forces before the ISIS onslaught. Kurdish forces extended “protective custody” over the disputed city of Kirkuk, took over a few oil fields and generally were able to expand their territory by 40 percent over the past few weeks.

Emboldened by their successes, Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan Region, announced a referendum on full independence in the coming months, since Iraq was already “effectively partitioned.” An overwhelming Yes is the likely outcome of such a referendum, but what’s less clear is where the border with rump Iraq will be: on the “official” border of the autonomous region, or further south, leaving the recently conquered areas inside independent Kurdistan?

In Iraq, the Islamic State has concentrated its offensive on the Shi’ite-led central government in Baghdad, generally leaving the Kurds be. But the Syrian Kurds are now feeling the brunt of a brutal Islamist attack, concentrated on the symbolic town of Kobane. Located halfway along Syria’s long northern border with Turkey, this was the first town liberated by local Kurds in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, back in 2011. For the moment, it is still part of a fledgling entity called Rojava, which is Kurdish for “west” – the locals prefer to think of themselves not as “northern Syrians” but as “western Kurds.”

But ISIS is throwing artillery, tanks and other heavy tools of war – many U.S.-made, plundered from the Iraqi army in Mosul, and moved without hindrance across the defunct border – at Kobane’s defenders. The town, formerly named Ayn al-Arab by the Assad regime, and renamed (somewhat prematurely) Ayn al-Islam by ISIS, is not just symbolic, but also strategic: Without it, Rojava is cut in two and becomes a difficult proposition. If conquered by the Islamic State, it will strengthen its hand in Syria, allowing it to redirect even more of its firepower on its Iraqi offensive.

The fight is joined not just by Kurdish fighters from within Syria, but reportedly also by peshmergas from Iraqi Kurdistan; and a few days ago, hundreds of Turkish Kurds forced their way across the border to take up the struggle – proving to Ankara that Turkey’s borders too are subject to bending, and who knows, maybe even breaking.


Is the fluidity of borders in the Middle East the precursor to global border instability? Even though recent history suggests that international borders are increasingly “violable,” the reluctance of Moscow to annex Eastern Ukrain outright, for example (ditto with Beijing and the Spratly Islands) suggests that borders still command a certain measure of grudging respect.

Within the European Union – a giant laboratory for dissolving borders, according to some – the national border is making a comeback: Public opinion across the E.U. clamors for more border checks, to keep out crime, terrorism and illegal immigration.

Borders – even artificial ones – have a strange persistence. It took East and West Germany more than a decade to get over the trauma of separation, and to stop referring to each other as Ossis and Wessis.

Just like you can’t help having pachydermal thoughts when someone urges you not to think of an elephant, an erased border stays in our history books and in our heads, stored for later use. Given enough time, even Sykes-Picot might come back into fashion. Yes, those lines may have been drawn on the map with scant regard for the area’s ethnic, religious and historical background. But perhaps one day, when people will tire again of statelets entirely based on creed or kinship, that might not seem such a bad thing after all.