Historic map lines fading under march of violent extremists
It is almost 100 years since Sir Mark Sykes, an otherwise forgettable British politician, entered into an agreement with a French diplomat called Francois Georges-Picot to carve up the Middle East after the end of the First World War.
The arrangement was kept secret, and for understandable reasons. In the United States, President Wilson was an enthusiastic advocate of national self-determination. He would have been appalled had he known that the British and French were determined to share out the remains of the collapsed Ottoman empire between them.
Of more immediate importance, Sharif Hussein of Mecca launched the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in June 1916. In return, the British had pledged the Arabs full independence, a promise that Lloyd George casually betrayed once it was over.
Though sordid and cynical, the Sykes/Picot arrangement endured far longer than anyone had a right to expect. Out of it arose the modern states of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (followed in due course by Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan).
Ninety-eight years later, however, Sykes/Picot is finally starting to collapse. Look at a map and Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are all still theoretically present and correct. In practice, though, a series of spectacular events are steadily turning their plans into works of fiction.
Yesterday's fall of Mosul (ironically a key point of dispute between the French and the British 100 years ago, because oil had just been discovered there) shows vividly that Iraq as we have understood it for the past century or so no longer exists.
In the north, the Kurdish region has become an autonomous state, and it cannot be long before it declares itself formally independent. Kurdistan is guarded by a system of checkpoints and command posts that are impossible to penetrate. Indeed, any Arab who enters without proper credentials disappears, and so do all his friends and family. Meanwhile the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is building a sectarian state around Baghdad and the south capable of commanding the support of most Shia Muslims. The fate of the remainder of his country, however, is of extraordinary interest, because it is falling very fast into the hands of a terrifyingly violent new entity called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis).
Isis recognises none of the rules inherited from Sykes/Picot. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, says he is a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, thus claiming to be more than a mere political leader or general. According to one Arab observer, al-Baghdadi "has designated himself as a global leader of the jihad fighters in particular and Muslims in general".
Isis, by contrast, more violent than al-Qaeda, is driven by merciless hatred of all sects and minorities that fail to endorse its bigoted and narrow ideology. This has started to terrify the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, the source of so much of its cash and arms.
Isis fighters deny the legitimacy of any secular power, including the Saudi King Abdullah. And the Saudis fear one day soon, the Isis jihadists will return home with vengeance. Isis also has the range and power to strike at will in the West, as so many young Muslims have travelled from Europe to join up. Indeed, it has already started to do so. The recent murder of four people in the Jewish museum in Brussels was carried out by a young Frenchman called Mehdi Nemmouche, who had fought alongside Isis in Syria before returning home on his murderous mission.
These jihadists are able to move more freely and across a greater range than ever before. Their area of operations stretches from northern Iraq, through Syria and across north Africa to Libya and down towards Nigeria.
For the first time, they directly control huge swathes of land. As with the Bolsheviks in 1917 or the fascists in the 1930s, a merciless new force capable of deploying horrifying violence has emerged on the world stage.
In order to understand this new force, it is essential to grasp what brought it into being. Its emergence can be traced straight back to the Iraq invasion. Some of its fighters are former Ba'athist soldiers.
Others learnt their trade with the so-called "awakening fighting" groups created by the US to head off an all-out Iraqi civil war back in 2007. The Western campaign to dislodge President Assad of Syria was another contributing factor.
While our leaders were ready to call for Assad to go, they were unwilling to intervene directly to dislodge him. Instead, mainly through allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the West supported militant rebel groups which have since mutated into Isis and other al-Qaeda connected groups.
The comparison with the terrible mistakes made by Western intelligence agencies during the Afghan war against the Soviets is startling. We supported jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda, which later turned on us.
©The Daily Telegraph