By Eric Vandenbroeck

Update, for a more complete overview of the context of what is mentioned below see: The importance of oil, the ‘Arab question’, and the British.

Yes you guessed it, today is the centennial of the Sykes-Picot agreement. The British-French WWI deal to carve up areas under Ottoman rule has been blamed by many for region’s woes; others say that’s an excuse for failed leadership.

From the ubiquity of media reference to them, one might suppose that Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot were the only actors of consequence on the Ottoman theater in the First World War, and Britain and France the only relevant parties to the disposition of Ottoman territory, reaching agreement on the subject in (so Google or Wikipedia informs us including in many articles published the last 48 hours) anno domini 1916.

In fact, virtually none of the Middle East's present-day frontiers were actually delineated in the document concluded on 16 May 1916 by Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot (see below). Also for example, Sykes and Georges-Picot agreed that Palestine would have an international administration. Most of the area which became Palestine was called the 'brown area' in the agreement, which was not to be under the control of any particular power, for the ostensibly high-minded reason that the holy places were there.

In the orthodox narrative Mark Sykes is usually referred to a typical imperialist and the Sykes–Picot Agreement the epitome of Anglo-French betrayal. However, if looked at in detail, Sykes emerges as a more complex character and the Sykes–Picot Agreement as a somewhat less significant instrument of imperialist double dealing.

It seems that Sykes may have actually believed that his actions had the best interests of the Arabs at heart: that those conservative and traditionalist Arabs so prominent in his orientalist conceptualization would be untroubled by a settlement which only offered them a modicum of national independence for the foreseeable future.

Certainly, his political alignment before his premature death in January 1919 was closer to those like Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence (‘of arabia’) who thought of themselves as being enlightened compared with men like Arnold Talbot Wilson and Lieutenant-Colonel Gerard Leachman. At the same time, it is clear that by the end of the war, the Sykes–Picot Agreement no longer had the relevance in Anglo-French plans for the future of the Middle East which it had in 1916. In fact, the ultimate outcome of the Allies’ deliberations – the mandate system – was in some respects actually worse for the Arabs than Sykes–Picot, certainly in the case of Syria, which simply became an outright French colony.

As, among others, Sean McMeekin explained in his book “The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908 – 1923” the partition of the Ottoman Empire was not settled bilaterally by two British and French diplomats in 1916, but rather at a multinational peace conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1923, following a conflict that had lasted nearly twelve years going back to the Italian invasion of Ottoman Tripoli (Libya) in 1911 and the two Balkan Wars of 1912– 13. Neither Sykes nor Picot played any role worth mentioning at Lausanne, at which the dominant figure looming over the proceedings was Mustafa Kemal, the Turkish nationalist whose armies had just defeated Greece and (by extension) Britain in yet another war lasting from 1919 through 1922. Even in 1916, the year ostensibly defined for the ages by their secret partition agreement, Sykes and Picot played second and third fiddle, respectively, to a Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, who was one of  the driving force behind the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire.

In fact the 1916 carve-up should be called the Sazonov-Sykes-Picot agreement. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, was the prime mover. At the time, the Russian Empire was victorious on the Eastern Front while Britain had suffered a catastrophic defeat in Iraq. That all changed in 1917 when the Russian revolution toppled the Tsar, making many of the provisions of the treaty void.

Henry Laurens, a professor at the prestigious College de France university, in turn said that the choice of the name Sykes-Picot was a British invention to diminish the importance of the agreement.

The French were angry because they had discovered that, behind their backs their British allies had offered the Arabs territory they wanted themselves. That put their creaky wartime alliance with Britain under added strain.

To clear the air, Sykes advocated superimposing a deal with the French upon the British offer to the Arabs. He did not intend the complex compromise that he then negotiated with Picot to become a blueprint for the region - indeed he hoped it wouldn't.

The bottom right-hand corner of the map illustrating the agreement, which both men autographed on May 9, 1916, shortly before their governments signed off the deal, betrays this with a telling detail. While Georges-Picot signed in black ink, Sykes only used a pencil.

From a British point of view, Sykes knew that he had failed. His task had been to protect India by establishing "a belt of English-controlled country"* across the Middle East, which would have cut across the main east-west land route running through Aleppo, down the Euphrates, to the Gulf. Consequent British efforts to resolve these two shortcomings both rewrote the Sykes-Picot agreement and ensured that it has repercussions today. *As quoted in Elie Kedourie, ‎Sylvia G. Haim, Palestine and Israel in the 19th and 20th Centuries, 2013, p 64.

But this plan was thwarted when Picot refused to give him Palestine. The deal therefore looked flawed even before it dawned on the British government during 1918 that, with his sweeping line, Sykes had inadvertently conceded Picot the vast oilfields beneath northern Iraq.

Consequent British efforts to resolve these two shortcomings both rewrote the Sykes-Picot agreement and ensured that it has repercussions today.

To plug the hole in his cordon sanitaire, Sykes energetically began wooing the Zionist movement, hoping that the Zionists would reciprocate by endorsing British rule for Palestine, which they did, with serious consequences.

But it was not just up to the British that none of the most notorious post-Ottoman borders— those separating Palestine from (Trans) Jordan and Syria, or Syria from Iraq, or Iraq from Kuwait— were drawn by Sykes and Picot in 1916. Even the boundaries they did sketch out that year, such as those that were to separate the British, French, and Russian zones in Mesopotamia and Persia, were jettisoned after the war (Mosul in northern Iraq, most famously, was originally assigned to the French, until the British decided they wanted its oil fields). After the Russians signed a separate peace with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk in 1918, the entire zone assigned to Russia in 1916 was taken away and thereafter expunged from historical memory. To replace the departed Russians, the United States (in a long-forgotten episode of American history) was enjoined to take up the broadest Ottoman mandates, encompassing much of present-day Turkey— only for Congress to balk on ratifying the postwar treaties. With the United States and Communist Russia bowing out of the game, Italy and Greece were invited to claim their share of the Ottoman carcass, only for both to later sign away their territorial gains to Mustafa Kemal entirely without reference to the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Nor was there so much as a mention in the 1916 partition agreement of the Saudi dynasty, which, following its conquest of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, has ruled formerly Ottoman Arabia since 1924.

Nevertheless Sykes-Picot has become the label for the whole era in which outside powers imposed their will, drew borders and installed client local leaderships, playing divide-and-rule with the "natives," and beggar-my-neighbour with their colonial rivals.

There are also various contrary complaints, like for example “And now Turkey's enemies are working to create a "new Sykes-Picot" by dividing up Iraq and Syria, he said, as Kurds in particular seek their own autonomous regions.”

Or “Sykes-Picot turns 100; the Kurds are not celebrating”.

Not to mention that the two most potent forces explicitly assailing the Sykes-Picot legacy are at each other's throats: the militants of ISIS, and the Kurds in the north of both Iraq and Syria.

Resented by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States today the French merged Aleppo and Damascus states in 1932 under the “State of Syria”, which later became known as the “Syrian Republic”. They later annexed to it the states of Jabal al-Druz and the Alawite.

Following the end of WWI, confrontations erupted in the Arabian Peninsula, whose southern and eastern regions were put under British protection, between Britain’s two allies - the Emir of Najd Abdul Aziz al-Saud and King of Hejaz Sharif Hussein. The battles ended when al-Saud seized control of the regions that fell under the influence of Emir Ali, Sharif Hussein’s eldest son and heir in Hejaz, in Medina, Yanbu and Jeddah. The latter was defeated in 1925 and headed to India. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932.

Palestine, meanwhile, had been under the rule of British General Edmund Allenby since he entered Jerusalem in 1917. Its eastern border with the Emirate of Transjordan was the border that the “promised national home for the Jews”, as per the Balfour Declaration, was not allowed to cross. By the end of World War I, the Sykes-Picot agreement was replaced by the San Remo agreement and the mandate policies that were applied to the newly created Arab countries in Al Mashriq. Nothing was left of the Sykes-Picot agreement except the initial demarcation of Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine borders. In 1939, Turkey seized Syria’s Iskenderun province, in collaboration with the French mandate authorities.

The British-French colonisation remained in the Al Mashriq countries, except in the regions of Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Transjordan, until the beginning of World War II in 1939. Egypt and Iraq signed treaties with Britain that practically prevented them from getting their independence, until the two monarchies were overthrown respectively in 1952 and 1958. During the war, France’s government pledged to grant independence to the countries under its mandate, amidst the loudening voices of the local political class that called for independence. Syria and Lebanon gained independence in 1943, two years before the end of WWII.

Thus for Arabs, Sykes-Picot is a symbol of a much deeper grievance against colonial tradition and is about a whole period during which they perceive Western powers have played with them and were involved militarily. But as a Gulf News commentary argues: We’ll never know if Faisal’s map would have been an authentic substitute to the externally imposed borders that came in the end.

The French, who opposed his plan, defeated his army in July. But even if they hadn’t, Faisal’s territorial claims would have put him in direct conflict with Maronite Christians pushing for independence in what is today Lebanon, with Jewish settlers who had begun their Zionist project in Palestine, and with Turkish nationalists who sought to unite Anatolia.

When France took control of what is now Syria, the plan in Paris was to split up the region into smaller statelets under French control. Today, five years into Syria’s civil war, a similar division of the country has been suggested as a more authentic alternative to the supposedly artificial Syrian state. But when the French tried to divide Syria almost a century ago, the region’s residents, inspired by ideas of Syrian or Arab unity, pushed by new nationalist leaders, resisted so strongly that France abandoned the plan.

In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson sent a delegation to devise a better way to divide the region. Henry King, a theologian, and Charles Crane, an industrialist, conducted hundreds of interviews in order to prepare a map in accordance with the ideal of national self-determination.

Was this a missed opportunity to draw the region’s “real” borders? Doubtful. After careful study, King and Crane realized how difficult the task was: They split the difference between making Lebanon independent or making it part of Syria with a proposal for “limited autonomy.” They thought the Kurds might be best off incorporated into Iraq or even Turkey. And they were certain that Sunnis and Shiites belonged together in a unified Iraq. In the end, the French and British ignored the recommendations. If only they had listened, things might have turned out more or less the same.

We also know that the Arabs of the Middle East had no solid statehood of their own after the fall of the second Islamic caliphate of the Abbasids in the 13th century. For 750 years, most of today's Middle Eastern Arab world was ruled by Ottoman and, to a lesser extent, Iranian empires. Thus how could the new "artificial borders" have been solely responsible for contemporary Arab states' failures when these countries had no independent statehood experience for at least seven hundred years?

In fact the Palestinian Gulf News admits that even today, "federalism largely rejected in modern day Middle East."

Not to mention, the conflicts unfolding in the Middle East today, are not really about the legitimacy of borders or the validity of places called Syria, Iraq, or Libya anymore. Instead, the origin of the current struggles within these countries is over who has the right to rule them. The Syrian conflict might have began as an uprising against an unfair and corrupt autocrat, just as Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, and Bahrainis did in 2010 and 2011, yet there is no doubt that it very soon became a giant three-way proxy war going on between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. Those countries are paying the bills of the proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia/Qatar, Turkey and Iran in any number of countries across the region.

The weaknesses and contradictions of authoritarian regimes are at the heart of the Middle East’s ongoing tribulations. Even the rampant ethnic and religious sectarianism is a result of this authoritarianism, which has come to define the Middle East’s state system far more than the Sykes-Picot agreement ever did.

The region’s “unnatural” borders did not lead to the Middle East’s ethnic and religious divisions. The ones to blame are the cynical political leaders who foster those divisions in hopes of maintaining their rule. In Iraq, for instance, Saddam Hussein built a patronage system through his ruling Baath Party that empowered a state governed largely by Sunnis at the expense of Shiites and Kurds. Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and his father before him, also ruled by building a network of supporters and affiliates whereby members of his Alawite sect enjoyed a privileged space in the inner circle. The Wahhabi worldview of Saudi Arabia’s leaders strongly encourages a sectarian interpretation of the country’s struggle with Iran for regional hegemony. The same is true for the ideologies of the various Salafi-jihadi groups battling for supremacy in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Identity politics play a role in the unfolding struggles for control in the Middle East, but they are not necessarily the root of the region’s conflicts. Instead, it is the style of politics and government chosen by successive Middle Eastern leaders that has pitted their own populations against each other.

In theory, truly inclusive, democratic governments might be able to govern such heterogeneous countries in a decentralized way without the need for repression or partition. But in the real world, such ideal governments do not exist. And attempted political reforms in highly divided societies, far from encouraging reconciliation, often hasten partition and conflict. In Yugoslavia in 1990, for instance, the first multi-party elections triggered the state’s political disintegration.

Does the Middle East Need New Borders?

In a book published last month "Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East" Nicolas Pelham advocates reviving a Ottoman-esquemilletocracy” in which there are parallel states in a shared space-said another way, no fixed national borders. Pelham writes, “From the outset, Ottoman sultans had administered their diverse empire on sectarian lines, devolving authority to the leaders of their multiple faith communities, or millets. Patriarchs, chief rabbis, and Muslim clerics headed semi-autonomous theocracies that applied religious laws. But while the millets governed their respective co-religionists, they had no power over land. The empire’s many millets shared the same towns and villages with other millets. There were no ghettoes or confessional enclaves. Territorially, the powers of their respective leaders overlapped.”

Think of it as a Middle Eastern Schengen Agreement on steroids. Pelham sees glimpses of such a plan in present day Baghdad and Najaf. “By decoupling the rule of the sect from the rule of land,” he writes, “the region’s bloodied millets might find an exit strategy from secticide and restore their tarnished universalism.”

The problem with the above proposal however is that someone ultimately has to rule the land. And the majority sect will never be content with exercising religious control only over its own people. The first demand is always that the law of one sect be used to decide legal disputes between sects. Then there will be demands for blasphemy laws against people in other sects and demands for punishment of religious converts. As long as there are social/business interactions between the members of different sects, there will be religious disputes within the state.

It will remain questionable if new borders (parallel states) will restore stability. The states themselves must change if there is to be any sort of peaceful order that can accommodate the demands of the region’s diverse populations. Yet the prospects for such a transformation are dim.

Even the most ardent critics of the status quo have given no indication of where the region’s natural borders lie, because there are no natural borders. The Kurds, for example, aggrieved by a partition of the region that did not give them their own country, even disagree on whether there should be one Kurdistan or several Kurdish states.

The Kurdish KRG in Iraq, for all intents and purposes, is an independent state, with its own national institutions, flag, and army.

But divided among themselves, the Kurds show little solidarity with their counterparts in Syria and even less with those in Turkey.

The following map shows on the left Kurdish "Rojava" and on the right the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and Syria.


The Kurds may have thrown off central rule in Iraq and Syria but the border is still there: despite the Kurds or, perhaps more accurately, because of them. The Kurds have long talked of reuniting their people in a greater Kurdistan, but today their population is carved up between not only Syria and Iraq, but also Turkey and Iran, which have sizable numbers of their own. These different national populations have discovered over time that what sets them apart may be more significant than what they have in common: differences in dialect, tribal affiliation, leadership, ideology, historical experience. And Kurdish parties on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border are reaffirming these differences every day with remarkable bureaucratic fastidiousness. What’s more, the Kurdish parties seem to have internalized the very nation-states they scorn: in Syria, their leadership and members are almost exclusively Syrian Kurds; in Iraq, Iraqi Kurds; and in Iran, Iranian Kurds. Only the Kurdish movement in Turkey, which has pan-Kurdish ambitions, includes Kurds from neighboring states, though the top leadership is from Turkey (and some only speak Turkish).

With the central governance from Baghdad that has become a fiction, another paradigm is a federalized nation, which would give greater autonomy to Kurds in the far north, Sunni Arabs in the west and Shia Arabs in the south.

Syrian Kurds, for now, deny wanting their own state, but they are establishing control well beyond Kurdish majority areas in Rojava, in northern Syria. In March, they declared that their territory was a federal state within Syria, but they received no support from the international community. This is unlikely to deter them from strengthening their writ in these areas and seeking to extend them.

Some Sunnis, including Atheel al-Nujaifi, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament and the former governor of Nineveh, are arguing that the Sunni provinces will need special provisions from the Shia-led government once they are liberated. Nujaifi has even held up autonomous Kurdistan as an example that the Sunnis should consider emulating. And even some Shia provinces, such as Basra, which sits on Iraq’s richest oil fields, are challenging the authority of Baghdad and demanding autonomy.

The governments of Iraq and Syria naturally reject any change in their borders, although they can no longer claim to control everything within those borders. And among the two country’s neighbors, opposition to partition is equally strong. Russia and the United States also oppose the dismantling of either: Russia because Syria’s demise would weaken its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the United States because it is against the partition of any state. It did not even support the dismantling of the Soviet Union, hoping that political reform would make it unnecessary.

Instead, the United States, along with the European countries and the UN, believes that democratic, inclusive governments can bring about peace without the need for new borders. This belief underpins U.S. efforts to encourage reform in Iraq and international efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict in Syria. But the idea has little support in the two countries, except on the part of liberals whose voices are lost among the clashes of armed militias and the maneuvering of elites determined to maintain their power and privileges.

The problem is that a truly inclusive, democratic system would require eliminating the region’s armed militias, sectarian leaders, and corrupt elites-in other words, all those who currently hold power. Short of a massive intervention from the outside, which is not going to happen, nobody can do that.

Consider Iraq. During the occupation, the United States helped develop-some would say imposed-a political system based on elections but also on ethnic and sectarian quotas. But the system broke down after the withdrawal of U.S. troops and became increasingly Shia-dominated and authoritarian under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. As a condition of assisting Iraq in the fight against ISIS in 2014, the United States insisted on a new prime minister willing to govern inclusively, and Haider al-Abadi replaced Maliki. Abadi is now trying to curb corruption and has proposed a new cabinet of technocrats unaffiliated with political parties.

But the parties, unsurprisingly, are opposed to being sidelined, and parliament has not approved the proposed cabinet. The only political figure other than Abadi who has accepted the idea of a technocratic government is Muqtada al-Sadr, a fiery, maverick cleric shunned by the major Shia political parties. Sadr is using the idea to increase his own power by threatening to unleash demonstrations and street action unless a non-political cabinet is installed. Reform, in other words, has become a tool in a new intra-Shia political battle that has nothing to do with democracy or good governance.

The deep political reform that could possibly allow Iraq and Syria to become stable countries has not begun in either country. Abadi tried to take some modest steps and failed. Assad did not even try, insisting that all his country needs is new elections. And progress in the fight against ISIS may only make the Iraqi and Syrian governments more repressive and provide additional incentives for those who see new borders as the only solution.

Thus the rights and wrongs of 1916 really don't matter anymore. What matters a hundred years later is the proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia/Qatar, Turkey and Iran in any number of countries across the region.

With the possible exception of Iraqi Kurdistan, which was grafted onto Iraq, there will be nothing “more natural” about that new order than what has been the status quo for a century.

In the end nurturing governments that are more accountable and competent, with creative power-sharing between national or federal levels on one hand and the smaller units of government-in cities, provinces and regions-on the other is probably the best path to a more peaceful future. Such an evolution of Arab political culture, away from overly centralized and authoritarian models to more diffused power structures and greater empowerment of citizens, would be the wiser way to accommodate the searing divisions within many of the Middle East’s societies, while still enabling mobility and multiculturalism when conditions improve. That would be a more difficult and time-consuming project than castigating two colonial-era mapmakers for their “lines in the sand”-but it is a more promising one.