This post originally ran on Juan Cole’s Web page.

With the alleged fall to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria of Qa’im on Saturday, and of Talafar a few days ago, the border between Iraq and Syria has now been effectively erased. A new country exists, stretching from the outskirts of Baghdad all the way to Aleppo. In history, it uncannily resembles the state ruled by Imad ad-Din Zangi (AD 1085 – 1146), a Turkish notable who came to power in 1128 after a Shiite Assassin killed his father. His realms lay between the Abbasid Caliphate on the one hand and the Atabegs of Damascus on the other. Like ISIS, he was not able to take and keep Homs. He also was not able to take Palestine away from the Crusaders, despite a brief alliance for that purpose with Buri of Damascus. ISIS also so far lacks Baghdad or Damascus but like Zangi does have much in between.

The historian Ibn al-`Adim wrote of `Imad al-Din Zangi:

“The atebeg was violent, powerful, awe-inspiring and liable to attack suddenly… When he rode, the troops used to walk behind him as if they were between two threads, out of fear they would trample over crops, and nobody out of fear dared to trample on a single stem (of them) nor march his horse on them… If anyone transgressed, he was crucified. He (Zengi) used to say: ‘It does not happen that there is more than oned tyrant (meaning himself) at one time.’” By Ibn al-‘Adim (Source: Ibn al-‘Adim, Zubda, vol. 2, p. 471)”

This is a notional map (don’t hold me to its exact details) of Zangi’s domain at its greatest extent.


ISIS now holds almost all of Ninevah and al-Anbar Provinces, and has a strong position in Salahuddin Province just north of Baghdad. (The Zangid state was a launching pad for Saladin Ayyubi, in Arabic Salahuddin, for whom this province is named). It also has a position in Diyala Province, which stretches between Baghdad and the Iranian border to its east. Diyala is the most mixed of the military fronts, having many Shiites and Kurds (in the north around Khaniqin).

The first thing that occurred to me on the fall of Qa’im is that Iran no longer has its land bridge to Lebanon. I suppose it could get much of the way there through Kurdish territory, but ISIS could ambush the convoys when they came into Arab Syria. Since Iran has expended a good deal of treasure and blood to keep Bashar al-Assad in power so as to maintain that land bridge, it surely will not easily accept being blocked by ISIS. Without Iranian shipments of rockets and other munitions, Lebanon’s Hizbullah would rapidly decline in importance, and south Lebanon would be open again to potential Israeli occupation. I’d say, we can expect a Shiite counter-strike to maintain the truck routes to Damascus.

The fighting in the past few days has been on the demographic fault lines between Sunni Arab communities, Kurdish ones, and Shiite ones. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government appears to have held most of Samarra just north of Baghdad, which is largely Sunni Arab but has a Shiite minority and a very important Shiite shrine. The government is trying to push back in Tikrit, just to the north of Samarra, but it hasn’t dislodged ISIS from it. The government also has a position in Ramadi to the west of Baghdad in al-Anbar province.

On Saturday, both sides reported heavy fighting in northwest Diyala Province, where government troops and police attempted to push back ISIS, which controls most of this Sunni Arab region in conjunction with tribal allies. Its control does not extend to the Kurdish villages to the east, which are in the hands of the Peshmerga Kurdish paramilitary. The army and police of the central government have some footholds in Diyala as well, given Shiite populations in the south of the province and in its capital, Baquba, all around which ISIS is fighting. Four police were killed or wounded fighting ISIS guerrillas in Hamrain, 55 km to the east of Baqubah on Sunday morning.

ReligiousEthno CompDiyala_LARGE

The Arabic press reports that things were more complicated elsewhere. ISIS was able to take al-Qa’im district, but some 3,000 Sunni tribesmen allied with government troops to try to keep them from acquiring Haditha District in al-Anbar. (There’s a movie about Western troops fighting for Haditha). In Ruwah District, government troops ran away, leaving it to ISIS, according to

Syrian jets bombed eastern positions of ISIS near the Iraqi border, perhaps signalling a likely alliance of Damascus and Baghdad to put the Sunni radical genie back in the bottle.

Also, in Hawija near Kirkuk, fighting is being reported between ISIS fundamentalists and the Sufi “Men of the Naqshbandi” order. They are apparently fighting over gasoline trucks from the contested refinery town of Baiji.

The borders of Iraq were settled by Sir Percy Cox, who had been a British diplomat in Iran before WW I and administered Basra after the British Indian Army took it in late 1914. He met with Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud of Najd at Uqair to set the southern borders. Ibn Saud claimed some of what is now southern Iraq, and the emir of Kuwait claimed what is now Saudi territory. Cox made the final decisions on behalf of the British Empire, which then ruled Iraq:

From the memoirs of Cox’s aide, Major Harold Dickson (H.R.P. Dickson, “Kuwait and Her Neighbors”, London: Allen and Unwin, 1956):

“On the sixth day Sir Percy entered the lists. He told both sides that, at the rate they were going, nothing would be settled for a year. At a private meeting at which only he, Ibn Sa’ud and I were present, he lost all patience over what he called the childish attitude of Ibn Sa’ud in his tribal boundary idea. Sir Percy’s Arabic was not too good, so I did the translating.

It was astonishing to see the Sultan of Nejd being reprimanded like a naughty schoolboy by H.M. High Commissioner, and being told sharply that he, Sir Percy Cox, would himself decide on the type and general line of the frontier. This ended the impasse. Ibn Sa’ud almost broke down, and pathetically remarked that Sir Percy was his father and brother, who had made him and raised him from nothing to the position he held, and that he would surrender half his kingdom, nay the whole, if Sir Percy ordered. Having put Ibn Sa’ud in his place, Cox was ready to hand down the law.

As far as I can remember, Ibn Sa’ud took little further part in the frontier discussions, leaving it to Sir Percy to decide for him this vexed question. At a general meeting of the conference, Sir Percy took a red pencil and very carefully drew in on the map of Arabia a boundary line from the Persian Gulf to Jabal ‘Anaizan, close to the Transjordan frontier. This gave Iraq a large area of her territory claimed by Nejd. Obviously, to placate Ibn Sa’ud, he ruthlessly deprived Kuwait of nearly two-thirds of her territory and gave it to Nejd…”

While Cox’s southern borders have stood (despite a severe challenge by Saddam Hussein in 1990-91), the northern border he drew with French Syria has now collapsed.

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