Neo-Zangid State erases Syria-Iraq Border, cuts Hizbullah off from Iran

By Juan Cole

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 one 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.

22 Responses

  1. Religions with only men in the hierarchy appear to be anything but religious. Thus wars and wars and wars. Oh, apply that to governments and wars and wars and wars. I must be too naive. Men controlling corporations, banks, military……………

    I hope there’s some wise, spiritual and powerful aliens that can bring real wisdom, knowledge, love and cooperation to the idiots on Earth.

    • It’s humans, not just men. Not even worth listing all the vicious, violent, grandiose, grasping female rulers in our human story. Maybe less inclined, by small degrees of sorts, to screw over and dominate their fellows, but how interesting that the feminist notions of my youth, how the double-x-chromosome would do such a better job of running things for the general welfare, has given way to the demand for “equality,” one that has been granted in part, for women to have the same opportunities to f_-k up their fellow humans, blow stuff up, pilot drones and hotshot combat aircraft, all that stuff: link to And on the corporate side, the club is still pretty closed, but how does one rise to at least the height of the glass ceiling? Not by the gentler arts…

      Catherine the Great, Elizabeth I, the female Borgias and any number of female actors in the Roman imperial plays, Imelda Marcos, Margaret Thatcher, various Chinese Empresses, Indira Ghandi, Golda Meir, how about those Nazi camp guards, hey? Pelosi and Feinstein?

      Hey, it’s a human set of traits, only somewhat sex-linked. What can be done to steer us into gentler paths? If you track what’s shaking in so many places in the world, it sure looks like as in 1913 Europe, people are just itching, just charged and jazzed and fired up, for *WAR!* A condition so nicely highlighted in the works of Barbara Tuchman, a woman who saw so much more clearly the real structure and idiocy of the whole Game in all its manifestations…

    • “I hope there’s some wise, spiritual and powerful aliens that can bring real wisdom, knowledge, love and cooperation to the idiots on Earth.”

      I understand how you feel but that’s asking rather a lot!

  2. “The first thing that occurred to me on the fall of Qa’im is that Iran no longer has a land bridge to Lebanon.” The media was claiming the fall of Qa’im opened up a route for Isis to bring in heavy weapons to Iraq. Without air cover, I couldn’t understand what ISIS was gaining. Now I think I do. ISIS gained because Iran lost which is the flip-side of Assad gaining because ISIS lost Homs.

    Even with the very informative map of the ethnic lines in Diyala Province, the ISIS strategy is still murky to me.

  3. Syria and Palestine now seem to be in Jordan, in terms of refugee population. So much for British and French colonial dictates of the 20th Century.

    • There has been a Palestinian Diaspora that has taken them around the world for resettlement.

      There are significant Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps currently within Lebanon.

  4. The new state looks suspiciously like the map of the Northern Mesopotamian Arabic dialect. When I went to the region I was struck by the difference with Levantine Arabic in cadence and intonation.
    link to

    Ethnic, religious and tribal differences in Iraq have featured prominently in the news, but an underlying linguistic difference should not be discounted in fostering separatist identity. Could the dialect date to the era of the Zangis? Or perhaps it just shows a long term ethnic division of the region.

  5. That last quote by H.R.P. Dickson reminds me of T.E. Lawrence’s line in the movie, “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are. ”

    While Lawrence most assuredly didn’t actually say that, the patronage and arrogance is remarkable.
    Nevertheless, I can’t myself help but wonder how many will need to be slaughtered for a century to arrive when tribalism is not the guiding principle.
    Still love the movie though.

    • This is why nationalism beat tribalism. But then, what is the difference? Raw size. Nations eat tribes by a combination of co-optation, intermarriage, economic migration, and sometimes extermination. The places where you see armed tribes in control are the places where it wasn’t worth it for any nation to do those things. It is probably rare for tribes to spontaneously do what Lawrence wanted, to form themselves into a nation quickly without the means for administrative coordination. Saudi cash, however, might do the trick.

  6. By this map, I am looking forward, at least , to the eminent restoration of the Byzantine Empire! Finally, Greeks in charge of Constantinople again!

    • It has zero diplomatic recognition in the world community.

      Contrast it with the Taliban – who did receive very limited diplomatic recognition from certain corners of the world – including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

      However it does have a limited governmental structure including a cabinet of ministers.

  7. Kent- agree on two things.It is a great movie and Lawrence most assuredly did not say that . The second map above remindsme of the one Lawrence presented the British at the end of the war to end all wars which they, and the French, were too arrogant to consider. Sykes and Pico both should have been taken out. I’d say and shot but I’m not prone to violence.Definitely they should have listened to Lawrence rather than those two.

    • There are some reports that ISIS has Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, T-55 tanks and M-60 machine guns, as well as other weapons of U.S. manufacture.

      ISIS has published corporate-style annual reports to lure investors as well as 2 billion in assets. It derives a large share of its funding from the extortion of businesses.

      On of the more amazing aspects of ISIS is such sophisticated weaponry and financial structure.

  8. How much fighting for how many centuries – or even millennium, over what was once called Mesopotamia (“land of rivers”), has happened throughout known history ?

    The U.S. government-ordered military (both directly and via mercenaries, and via proxies) invasions, and earlier C.I.A.-directed coups from 1953 (as ‪Kermit Roosevelt, Jr.‬ went public about in 1979…) onward in the region, certainly seem to have both reignited and then “poured gasoline” onto some of these ancient conflicts.

    Both the recent neo-conservatives’ (who go around the U.S. getting paid millions of dollars for giving speeches – now that they are out of office…) arrogance, and some of the neo-liberals’ arrogance – including in regards to both types of “group-thinkers” believing that U.S. government-ordered military force could do any long-term “control” the region, plus past conservative arrogance and actions (including the two C.I.A.-directed military coups used to topple Iran’s democracy in 1953…), have all born bitter fruit in the long run *, with no real lessons learned.

    (* except for profiteering benefiting a rather small group of people: the heads of certain oil companies, the heads of the corporations who make weapons, and the heads of the corporations providing private mercenaries…)

  9. The idea that Hezb would collapse without a land bridge all the way from Tehran to Lebanon seems exaggerated to me. They did most of the their fighting when Saddam was still in power, it didn’t seem to stop them then. Also rockets aren’t that hard to make and I have little doubt they could be fabricated in Lebanon.

  10. What is the economics of this state? The Kurds have Kirkuk and those oilfields. Basra is safe in the south. Can they extract enough oil from Mosul to fund a long running war?

    • They have some oil fields in Syria (and actually sell oil to the Syrian government they are trying to overthrow). They also are trying for the refinery at Baiji (raw crude isn’t very valuable and isn’t usually smuggled but gasoline is gold).

      • Regarding Baiji and Golden Gasoline, the lifeblood of commerce, there’s this snippet: link to

        We all might want to watch the “Mad Max” movies again, link to, with an aperitif of the “Terminator” franchise, link to, sample the various “Robocops” and their back stories (like autonomous killer robots, link to with attention to what’s happening in Detroit City today, link to, and then a main course of perfectly sauteed “Soylent Green,” to see the mythology that seems to underpin the coming, or immanent, reality… Anyone for “Baked Alaska” for dessert?

        Yeah, they’re just movies, after all. And “Macbeth” is just a play…

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