Sykes-Picot is about Western opposition to national aspirations
The 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement has led analysts and writers to reflect on the significance of the 1916 deal that paved the way for the British and French mandates in the Levant that eventually became independent states.
Although these borders have more or less remained intact, they have been challenged in particular by the Islamic State (ISIS), which ceremoniously bulldozed a crossing between Syria and Iraq in 2014 to signal that Sykes-Picot was dead and that ISIS’s Islamic caliphate had replaced it.
The Kurds also challenged the legitimacy of Sykes-Picot because post-World War I territorial settlements failed to create a separate Kurdistan.
What is remarkable is that the Sykes-Picot borders have remained largely unchanged, even as they have been denounced for decades by Arab nationalists.
The borders even withstood the pan-Arab nationalist challenges of Nasserism and Ba’athism. For a time, particularly in 1958, it looked like there would be a redrawing of the map. The newly formed United Arab Republic, comprising Egypt and Syria, appeared to have a chance of moving eastward when a nationalist army officer in Iraq, Abdul Karim Qasim, seized power in a bloody coup the same year.
Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and Qasim soon became bitter enemies. The marriage between Egypt and Syria ended in a messy divorce as conservative army officers and politicians in Syria unceremoniously kicked the Egyptians out of their country in 1961.
Although there were occasional discussions in the 1960s between Ba’athists from Syria and Iraq and Nasser about other attempts at unity, nothing came of them. Rulers of each of the countries, no matter of what particular ideology, jealously guarded their borders.
So if the pan-Arab nationalists when they had a chance did not change borders, why is Sykes- Picot so reviled?
First, the agreement represented European duplicity and interventionism. The British made three promises during the course of the war: one to the Hashemite tribe, in the form of the Hussein- McMahon correspondence, promising an independent Arab kingdom in exchange for Hashemite cooperation against the Ottoman Turks; another to the Zionist organisation in Britain, promising a Jewish national home in Palestine; and another to the French for the division of the Levant in the form of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
The latter two deals came to fruition — for the most part — but the first was shelved. In the summer of 1920, the British allowed French forces to take over Syria, ending the brief kingdom established by the Hashemite King Faisal.
Although the British later installed Faisal as king of Iraq and declared his brother emir of Transjordan, this was a far cry from what the Hussein-McMahon correspondence had promised.
Second, during the secondWorld War, Allied powers occupied much of the Levant, in large part to prevent pro-Axis regimes from coming to or remaining in power. From the vantage point of many Arab nationalists, this was merely another episode of Western intervention against the will of the people.
Third, during the Cold War, Western powers led by the United States tried to create pro-Western defence pacts and intervened from time to time in the internal affairs of various countries to prevent what they saw as pro-Soviet elements from taking power.
Although the Soviet Union and its communist sympathisers in the region also pursued their own agendas, the fact that the West triumphed in the Cold War has caused many Arab intellectuals to forget Soviet interventionism.
The 2003 Iraq war reinforced the notion of the West again playing an interventionist role in the region that al-Qaeda and later ISIS have tried to exploit. Although most of the Arab world has denounced the perverse ideology of both groups, ISIS was clever enough to contrast Sykes-Picot with its self-declared Islamic caliphate, knowing that the denunciation of the former would have a broader appeal.
The former Arab League representative to the United Nations and the United States, Clovis Maksoud, who recently died, in 1984 perhaps captured the mood of Arab intellectuals best when he said: “We in the Arab world are sick and tired of being the whipping boy and the target of cheap shots at our national aspirations, internationally recognised rights and legitimate interests.”
The legacy of Sykes-Picot is more about the West not taking into account Arab national aspirations and intervening in Arab affairs than about actual borders.