The Sykes-Pi­cot pact still de­fines the ME

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Ni­cholas Blan­ford

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

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