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''The End of Sykes-Picot''

July 2, 2014
Roland Elliott Brown
6 min read
''The End of Sykes-Picot''
''The End of Sykes-Picot''

''The End of Sykes-Picot''


On June 29, the Sunni extremist group ISIS released an Arabic-laced but mostly English-language video entitled “The End of Sykes-Picot,” in which an ISIS spokesman identified as “Abu Safiya from Chile” declared a caliphate annulling the border between Iraq and Syria. The group had previously proclaimed “the beginning of the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement” after it had captured Mosul in northern Iraq.

The Sykes-Picot agreement was a secret arrangement negotiated by Britain and France in May 1916, during the First World War, to divide Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Palestine—hitherto territories of the Ottoman Empire—into areas of French and British control and influence. It was named for Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot, the diplomats who represented Britain and France, respectively. Many argue that the borders it inspired were largely arbitrary, straight-lines drawn across regions of overlapping tribal alliances and cultural identities. Of late, “The End of Sykes-Picot” has become foreign policy jargon for the collapse of modern Arab states whose borders derive from the agreement.

Long before ISIS captured swathes of Iraqi territory earlier this month, journalists were referring to “the end of Sykes-Picot” in light of the conflict in Syria. In June 2013, for example, Patrick Cockburn wrote an article entitled The End of Sykes-Picot in The London Review of Books, in which he noted that Iraqis kept using the phrase in response to what they saw as the revolt of Syria’s Sunni majority inspiring Iraq’s Sunni minority. “Already the frontier dividing the western deserts of Iraq from the eastern deserts of Syria is ceasing to have any physical reality,” he wrote. “There will soon be a solid bloc of fragmented countries that stretches between the Mediterranean and Iran.”

In February, Itamar Rabinovich of the Brookings Institution published a report entitled The End of Sykes-Picot? Reflections on the Prospects of the Arab State System. Rabinovich noted the Syrian conflict’s “spillover effect” on neighboring Arab states, and surveyed scholarly speculation that the collapse of one or more Arab states could bring about a new regional order. He wrote that although the Sykes-Picot order had been challenged by regional monarchies in the 1930s and 1940s, by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, and by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, it was now threatened not by powerful states or ideologies but by weak ones.

Rabinovich assessed the relations of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey to the Syrian crisis. Iran and Hezbollah, he wrote, were happy to maintain the “shell” of the Lebanese state as long as it didn’t interfere with their policies. The fall of the Assad regime would “introduce a massive change in the equation and open the way to a normalization of Lebanese political life.” Jordan was burdened by hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, but saw the main challenge to its legitimacy coming from a prospective Palestinian state. Turkey also hosts many Syrian refugees, as well as the political headquarters of the Syrian opposition, but the collapse of the Syrian state, he argued, would bear upon Turkey’s dealings with its Kurdish minority, since it could lead to autonomy for Syria’s Kurdish population.

In May, Gregory Gause, professor of political science at the University of Vermont, argued in the Washington Post that there would be no grand redrawing of borders in the Middle East, even though neither Iraq not Syria nor Lebanon would be able to claim effective governance within their borders in the near future. Rather, all three would remain “quasi-states”—internationally recognized but lacking control over their territory and borders. “The end of Sykes-Picot,” he wrote, was a misnomer both because of its emphasis on changing borders, and because the region’s modern borders were actually finalized at the San Remo conference in 1920. Borders were unlikely to change, he argued, because no outside actors seemed keen on drawing or recognizing new ones.

In June, Michael Williams, a visiting fellow at Chatham House, wrote that while the Sykes-Picot order appears to be unravelling, and Syria in particular faced the prospect of dissolution, the accoutrements of the Syrian and Iraqi states, such as flags and seats at the U.N., would endure. While noting ISIS’s “stunning assault” on northern Iraq earlier that month, he added that ISIS numbered only about 6000 men, and owed its success less to military prowess than to the collapse of any Iraqi Sunni support for Nouri Al-Maliki. He also claimed that the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga’s seizure of Kirkuk compounded ISIS’s success, and observed that the 2011 Arab uprisings had led to weaker states in Egypt and Libya, too.


''The End of Sykes-Picot''

Sykes-Picot agreement map, 1916.


Writing in Foreign Policy, Nick Danforth questioned the idea that political upheaval could establish more authentic borders in the Middle East, arguing that if there was a dramatic change in the region “force and chance will play a greater role in determining what happens next than demography, geography, or history.” ISIS’s name, “The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham,” he wrote, referred to historical entities from different times—Iraq being a geographical term associated with British presence in the 1920s, and Al Sham being a former province of the Ottoman Empire.

Writing in Asharq Al-Awsat last week, Ali Ibrahim placed “Sykes-Picot” talk in the context of First World War centenary commemorations, and noted the secret agreement’s exposure by the Bolsheviks as part of a propaganda offensive against western colonialism, as well as its notoriety in Arab consciousness. Syria, he writes, has fuelled sectarianism, while ISIS’s Iraq incursion made speculation about the emergence of new Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political regions in Iraq “doubly serious.” While he cites the breakup of Yugoslavia as a modern example of borders redrawn, he also notes the lack of will on the part of superpowers to see Sykes-Picot scrapped. The most likely scenario, he wrote, was that Iraq and Syria would become failed states like Somalia.

In the Financial Times two days ago, Roula Khalaf warned that the Sykes-Picot debate offers a too-simple explanation for sectarian mayhem, and implicitly makes the prospect of the partition of states less contentious. Focusing on a 100-year-old agreement, she wrote, also tends to obscure the culpability of more recent actors—notably George W. Bush. While the agreement put European interests ahead of Arab ones, she argued, Arab societies haven’t been rebelling against the established borders, nor the Iraq historian Reidar Visser tells her, are they wholly artificial, since they correspond to old Ottoman means of administration. She argues that few Iraqis, Syrians, Jordanians or Lebanese seek partition of their countries, and that the region’s real problem is “the tragic failure of successive postcolonial governments to build inclusive states that would reinforce a national identity.”