Debating Sykes-Picot in Washington
Washington - Acentury has passed since France and Britain carved up Ottoman lands and redrew the borders of the Arab world. For Arabs, the Sykes-Picot agreement is synonymous with “betrayal” and dashed hopes for independence after years of Ottoman rule. Sykes-Picot was not just about borders; it was about the “theft” of their land and the pain of broken promises.
Today, the debate is alive in Western capitals and as painful for the Arabs as it was a century ago. Once again, Arabs hear talk from foreigners of redrawing their countries’ borders.
The debate came to life again in 2015 with the images of Islamic State (ISIS) bulldozers erasing the border between Iraq and Syria.
Americans — inheritors of the French and British spheres of influence in the region — are fascinated by the Sykes-Picot anniversary and are dissecting its implications for current policy. However, the focus is on only one aspect of Sykes-Picot: Redrawing borders.
Two interesting features of the debate in Washington are worth mentioning: First, Americans tend to see the issue as a simple redrawing of borders. They do not understand the feelings of injustice and betrayal that Arabs still feel and how that has affected their relationship with the West. Second, there is a stunning absence of Arab voices in the debate, another example of how Washington experts tend to talk only to each other. After 100 years they still do not see the Arabs as masters of their fate.
Speaking at the Wilson Center, Daniel Neep, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, noted that the issue of redrawing borders was being talked about in Washington, but not in the region, except by ISIS and the Kurds.
Middle East analysts in Washington are divided over the legacy of Sykes-Picot. One faction blames the collapse of order in the region on the artificial borders that were drawn without regard to the local sentiments. This group says that the United States should not engage in redrawing borders or even in establishing order in the region.
Martin Indyk, executive vice-president of the Brookings Institution and former US diplomat, said it was a “bad idea” for colonial powers to create states but he noted that the lesson was different now because “it is not about drawing lines. It is about understanding that the region got used to outside powers dominating and establishing order”.
“Now there is no outside power to establish order. The lesson of Sykes-Picot is that there will not be another Sykes-Picot,” Indyk told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute.
Marina Ottaway, senior scholar at the Wilson Center who participated in the discussion with Neep, spoke of the “impossibility of nation-building” and said the United States “is not going to reconstruct these countries… It depends on the local actors”.
Ottaway is among analysts who say the problem was not the redrawing of borders but “what happened inside the state and the failure to build a Weberian state”.
In other words, the problem is governance, not borders. This group blames military regimes and despotic dictatorships for paving the way for the trauma the region is experiencing. These states lacked legitimacy and the question is whether they are able to establish legitimacy.
Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Iraq, said the Middle East is “a history of failed ‘isms’: imperialism, Arab nationalism, Arab socialism… They all failed because they failed to establish legitimacy. Islamism will fail but something dreadful will come instead of it.”
The debate has produced three conclusions on Sykes-Picot: First, a near consensus that borders in the region are resilient and will not change as a result of the ongoing conflicts.
Second, state control is declining and this will bring further fragmentation. Ottaway predicted that the future will bring “highly fragmented states”.
Many analysts said the Lebanese model would characterise the future. Gregory Gause of the Bush School of Public Service at Texas A&M University said “I see Lebanonisation of the Mashriq. We are there already.”
Ottaway disagreed. She said Lebanon functions despite everything and there are worse situations, such as Somalia. “The question is whether there is anything that can be done by the international community to make it easier for the states to become Lebanon rather than Somalia,” she said.
The third conclusion is that Western and, especially United States, influence is receding. Ottaway called for rethinking ideas of imposing solutions on the region because “we are outsiders and cannot reconstruct the region”.
Crocker, though, warned that disengagement from the Middle East has consequences. He said every US president since Harry Truman has had foreign policy doctrines centred on the Middle East.
“These were doctrines of engagement,” Crocker said. “Now you have the making of a different doctrine, a shift from where we were since World War II, a doctrine of disengagement.”