The Sykes-Picot agreement, 100 years later

Sunday 15/05/2016

One hundred years ago this week, Britain, France and tsarist Russia met to partition much of the Middle East.

The Sykes-Picot agreement, signed May 16th, 1916, was secretly negotiated by Mark Sykes, a British colonel, and François Georges-Picot, a French consul. They aimed to create French and British zones of influence after the expected defeat of the Ottoman empire in the first world war.

They carved up parts of modern-day Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Syria, drawing arbitrary borders without consid­ering the ethnic and religious make-up of the map they were design­ing.

Subsequent Western declarations further affected the political map of the region. In November 1917, British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour promised “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, a pledge that ultimately led to the creation of the state of Israel and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. However, the British reneged on many of their promises to the Arabs as a reward for their rebellion against the Ottoman empire.

Sykes-Picot and related actions by European powers have had profound consequences for the region and for Arab-Western relations. After Russia made the agreement public following the Bolshevik revolution, the Arab world, realising the West had conspired behind its back, felt betrayed. Ever since, conspiracy theories have flourished in the Middle East and have been used to explain everything from the 1967 war to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Resisting Western interfer­ence became the raison d’être of many post-colonial regimes.

In recent years, Islamic State (ISIS) militants have exploited this enduring resentment. When they destroyed border checkpoints between Syria and Iraq, ISIS extremists vowed to “hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy”.

ISIS’s goals have less, though, to do with abolishing borders than with sectarian cleansing.

Domestic instability in many Arab states since the “Arab spring”, with the fraying of state power and the escalation of internal strife (often based on sectarian and tribal cleavages), has created tempta­tions to redraw borders, especially in Syria and Iraq.

But current borders are likely to remain for the time being, not least because regional and international actors are committed to maintain­ing them. Redrawing borders would splinter current states and probably trigger new wars.

Indeed, the region’s borders have been highly resilient since independence. Attempts by Arab nationalist leaders, such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, to effect mergers generally failed.

The real problem has been the inability of Arab states to address their peoples’ needs and devise adequate policies that fulfil the dreams of their young populations.

And this task cannot be achieved by foreign powers.

James Clapper, director of US National Intelligence, recently admitted: “The US can’t fix it. The fundamental issues they have — the large population bulge of disaffected young males, ungoverned spaces, economic challenges and the availability of weapons — won’t go away for a long time.”

Sykes-Picot is a testimony to the unpredictable effects of outside tinkering. The Arab world must determine its own fate.

Those encouraging the partition of current states should heed the lessons of the last century.