The Sykes-Picot pact still defines the ME
ONE December morning in 1915, with World War I not yet 18 months old, a young diplomat stalked into the offices of the British prime minister in London, carrying with him a map and a bold plan for the future of the Middle East once the allies had defeated Germany and the Ottoman Empire.
Standing before Britain’s top leaders, Sir Mark Sykes slashed his finger across his map of the region and, according to James Barr’s book “A Line in the Sand,” said, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre [in then-Palestine, on the Mediterranean] to the ‘k’ in Kirkuk [in what would become Iraq].” Britain, he said, would retain control of the territory to the south of the line, while the French would have Greater Syria north of the line. That blunt proposal to divide the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence was the seed that would lead a few years later to the birth of the modern Middle East and with it decades of political turmoil, wars, sectarian bloodletting, socio-economic disparities, and the interminable ArabIsrael conflict.
The Middle East today is undergoing its greatest political and social upheaval since the agreement negotiated by Sykes and the French statesman Francois George Picot was signed 100 years ago this week. The conflicts roiling the region, particularly those in Syria and Iraq, have thrown into question whether the post-World War I nation-states can survive or whether new entities will emerge from the turmoil in the years ahead. In June 2014, the self-declared Islamic State (ISIS) bulldozed through an earth berm marking the border between Iraq and Syria. A video of the operation was entitled “the end of Sykes-Picot.” “This is not the first border we will break, we will break other borders,” an ISIS gunman said in the video. Yet, despite ISIS’s bold promise and the collapse of governance in several states in the Arab world, including Yemen and Libya, the borders themselves remain surprisingly durable.
In Syria, both the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition continue to aspire to a unitary state rather than a much mooted break-up into mini states to better reflect the country’s sectarian demographics. And Iraq continues to hold together, albeit shakily and with the Kurdish north practicing some autonomy from Baghdad. “Although far removed from Sykes-Picot, one thing we have learned from the colonial carve-up in Africa is that ‘artificial states’ tend to persist on the map, even in cases of genocidal rampages within individual states. I suspect this will be true in the former Ottoman provinces of the Levant and Mesopotamia as well,” says Fred Hof, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and an expert on the postWorld War I boundaries of Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. That durability lies partly in the fact that borders agreed to by treaty tend to remain in place. Furthermore, tinkering with international boundaries cannot be done unilaterally but requires the consent of the state on other side of the line, which can complicate the process. “Questioning settled boundaries inevitably invites nettlesome counterclaims, especially in regions where ethnic or tribal groups straddle borders and minority populations have ended up behind the lines when maps were finalized,” wrote Steven Simon, a senior fellow at ME Institute, in an August 2014 article for Foreign Affairs magazine.
The 1916 Sykes-Picot map of the division of territorial spoils between Britain and France looks very different from a map of the modern Middle East. Yet from these crude pencil slashes, the borders of future Arab states – and one Jewish state – would emerge. When Sykes and Picot hammered out their agreement, the strategic interests of the British and French took precedence over the tangled sectarian and ethnic demographics of the region. Britain had already promised Hussein ibn Ali, the emir of Mecca, an Arab kingdom in exchange for his military support against the Ottoman Turks in World War I. The Arabs of Syria were fiercely anti-French and rejected notion of future French rule. The years between the two world wars were marked by frequent revolts against the mandatory powers. Arab nationalist parties, with their anticolonialist agenda, rose in popularity, aspiring to erase the Anglo-French constructs in favour of pan-Arab unity. After Britain and France retreated from the Middle East in the 1940s, Arab nationalism began its march. The post-World War I monarchies in Iraq and Jordan were toppled and new Arab nationalist leaders mounted coups and counter-coups. The region’s enormous oil and gas reserves helped turn the Middle East into one of the global battlefields of the cold war. And the Arab-Israeli conflict amplified the instability.
A key factor that contributed to the often dysfunctional, dictatorial, and corrupt systems is that the Levant region had not experienced selfgovernance for centuries, having been ruled over by the Ottoman Empire. “The problem … is this region, … which is effectively four or five big cities [such as Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, and Mosul] with no centre,” says Paul Salem, director of studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Hence much of the problems are deeper than where did Sykes and Picot draw the line, and [that] if they had drawn it 20 miles further east all would have been fine.”
Decades of atrophy in the Arab world exploded into protest in 2010, first in Tunisia before spreading to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, with the latter mired in a brutal war that has left more than a quarter of a million people dead. Yet many citizens of these turbulent states continue to resist the notion of dismemberment, viewing such calls as a Western plot to weaken the Arab world. — Courtesy: The Christian Science Monitor