Is Moscow suggesting a new Sykes-Picot Agreement over partition of Syria?

Putin will not risk losing everything for the sake of maintaining Syria united.
Sunday 29/04/2018
A map of Syria is seen on the table as Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) listens to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. (AP)
Drawing the lines. A map of Syria is seen on the table as Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) listens to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. (AP)

The idea of a partition of Syria was considered to exist solely in the conspiratorial imagination of the region’s suspicious minds, of which there is no shortage. However, such talk appears to have gone from political fiction to plausible reality. The partition of Syria seems to be a viable option. The Sykes-Picot agreement may be revisited.

Signed secretly by Great Britain and France at the close of the first world war, the agreement divvied up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire, which after more than a century was forced out of the Middle East. Russia was kept informed of the accords but was not party to them.

Since Sir Mark Sykes, representing the British Foreign Office, and Francois Georges-Picot, of the Quai d’Orsay, signed the controversial document, they came under severe criticism for how the lands were divided and how the colonial rulers seemed to have created new boundaries by tracing straight lines in the sand.

The borders of many of the newly emerged countries of the Middle East failed to consider issues such as tribes, clans and family, which traditionally played paramount roles in societal structure in the region.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement laid the groundwork for much of the upheaval that followed in the decades to come.

With the Syrian civil war turned into a regional conflict with military forces defending the interests of all kinds of global and regional powers, one must not forget the Kurds, who see there an opportunity to relaunch their quest for an independent homeland, or the radical Islamists such as ISIS, or Israel.

Although the Jewish state is not actively engaged in the fighting on the ground, Israel’s military has been keeping a very close eye on developments, periodically “rectifying” a misdirected piece of Syrian, Islamist or Iranian field artillery, or, as of late, shooting down Iranian drones.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war seven years ago there have been rumours of Syria being splintered into three or four states. The rumours differ over how the country would break up but, basically, give or take a border or two, the outcome would be the same: Divided, weakened and militarily exhausted, Syria would be replaced by a number of smaller states, each representing a single ethnicity or sect or religion, thus strengthening the legitimacy and the reason for the existence of a Jewish state.

Until now, talk of dividing Syria found no support among Syria’s principal ally, Russia, which has consistently stood by the government of Bashar Assad, stating that his forces would recapture all Syrian territories that came under ISIS control. Indeed, the army, with much help from Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has recaptured most of the territory that had been under the control of the Islamists.

“We consider Syria’s territorial integrity an absolute necessity. For now, nobody claims to act against this principle and I hope they won’t,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last November.

Much water has flowed under the bridges. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov recently expressed a very different opinion on Deutsche Welle Radio: “We do not know if things will develop in a way that will end up in a Syria as a single country.”

Why would a high-ranking Russian official come out with such a statement when all of Russia’s military might has been deployed in support of the Syrian government? Does it mean the Russians are realising there can be no military solution to the conflict?

Has the Kremlin’s analysis of the situation concluded that Syria, in its current composition, is indefensible? Does Moscow, in looking at its own interests, realise that, as far as Russian interests were concerned, an Alawite state would be easier to defend and more useful as an ally, from both a military perspective as well as from a commercial reconstruction point of view?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has achieved Moscow’s centuries-old dream of securing a year-round warm water port for its Mediterranean fleet, will not risk losing everything for the sake of maintaining Syria united if it means continuing the Syrian civil war for years and sustaining casualties.

That would indicate redrawing the region’s maps and replacing the Sykes-Picot Agreement with one reached by Russia, Iran and Turkey. If Arab world residents thought poorly of the Franco-British accord that divvied up their lands, they should brace for the Russian-Iranian-Turkish version.