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Opinion: A Century of Sykes–Picot - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Is this the end of the Sykes–Picot plan for the Middle East? This has become a regular question among Western commentators these days as the world prepares to commemorate 100 years since the start of World War I, a conflict which serves as a historic lesson on how countries can be drawn into major conflicts which kill millions—without considering the consequences beforehand.

The infamous secret agreement known as Sykes–Picot, in which Britain and France agreed with Czarist Russia to share the lands of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, took place in 1916, just over year into World War I, and helped these powers carve up the borders of the nation states in the Levant which emerged at that time and have lasted until today.

The irony is that we would never have found out about this agreement—which divided the Levant, or the Fertile Crescent, between the two major powers of the time, Britain and France—had it not been for the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. That uprising not only toppled the Czars but also brought this secret document out into the open as a result of a Bolshevik propaganda offensive seeking to expose the colonialist leanings of the Western empires.

In the Arab consciousness, and especially in the era of Arab nationalist slogans, the document—named after the two men who signed it on behalf of the British and French governments, Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot—earned notoriety for a number of reasons. It was negotiated in secret by two of the world’s superpowers at the time, and the areas these two powers carved up were shared between them without informing or consulting with the local parties directly involved. Moreover, the authors of the agreement chose to conveniently ignore a British promise offered to the Arabs—independence and a greater Arab kingdom—if they revolted against Ottoman rule.

This sudden interest in Sykes–Picot is due to events currently ongoing in two of the countries that were part of the initial drawing up of the borders in the Levant: Iraq and Syria. These two countries are going through highly destructive conflicts, with both their central governments losing control of large areas of their territory, leaving the security of their borders and their sovereignty in tatters, and casting doubts over their legitimacy.

Warnings against the emergence of new political structures in these countries based on sectarian or ethnic lines started with the deterioration of the situation in Syria and its transition into a full-blown, intensely violent conflict, one whose sectarian dimension the Syrian regime succeeded in fueling after the emergence of extremist groups on the ground.

Iraq has also become the subject of speculation regarding a new political formula—also one with a sectarian and ethnic dimension, where potentially three political regions could be formed: Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish.

Then came the recent events in Iraq’s Anbar province, where the view has been totally obscured, with confusion as to who is fighting whom coinciding with the advance of a group like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which with the help of tribal allies and former Ba’athists was able to capture Mosul and other Iraqi cities, as well as a number of border crossings, most prominently those which link Iraq to Syria, where this group is also active. This reality makes the aforementioned speculation regarding the country’s partitioning on sectarian and ethnic lines doubly serious.

The scene may seem encouraging to academics and politicians embarking on a new adventure to redraw the borders of the region. (Certainly not a new pastime in modern history; the Balkan borders were redrawn after breaking up of the former Yugoslavia, for instance.) But in the Middle East itself, there is in fact an attempt to establish a new state: a Palestinian one. This certainly does not alter the fact that the geopolitical environment created by Sykes–Picot has lasted for nearly a century, and it is unlikely there will be a strong desire by the world’s contemporary superpowers to draw a new map of the region—unlike the British, the French and the Russians during World War I—as this would likely result in more wars and bloodshed

The most likely scenario in the absence of a political formula that can create harmony between the different societal groups in Iraq and Syria is that they will become failed or weak states unable to control their borders—and Somalia is the perfect model for that.

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim

Ali Ibrahim is Asharq Al-Awsat's deputy editor-in-chief. He is based in London.

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