Sykes-Picot and the modern Middle East

Two mid-ranking diplomats from the early twentieth century, each of whom died in relatively obscurity, have received an astonishing amount of bad press of late. Their names? Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, the British and French negotiators of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement.

Reading some accounts, you could be forgiven for concluding that these two gentlemen are the sole authors of the current turmoil, tragedy and deep instability plaguing the Middle East. There have been countless calls from informed commentators urging a ‘re-negotiation’ of Sykes-Picot as a panacea for the region.

It is true that the compact at the heart of Sykes-Picot, later elaborated and codified in the Treaties of Sevres and Lausanne, partitioned the Ottoman Empire into constituent ethnic and national units. In this sense, the legacy of Sykes-Picot lives on, for better and for worse, in today’s map of the Middle East.

But before we seize on the ghost of Sykes-Picot as both sinner and saviour, some context is called for.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire on the battlefields of World War One inevitably meant the dismemberment of that empire into nation-states, just as it did for the Austro-Hungarian empire. Without a doubt, the state boundaries drawn up by the victorious powers were artificial and sub-optimal in places. But to put the blame for the turmoil of today’s Middle East solely onto Sykes-Picot is a colossal analytical failure.

It is to misrepresent what is an epochal challenge to the very system of sovereign nation-states in the Middle East as a mere series of border disputes. And it is to mislead us into the conclusion that some tweaking of national boundaries, and possibly the creation of a new state here and there, would readily bring peace to the Middle East. Alas, the truth is much more inconvenient.

The dominant form of political order in the Middle East for millennia has been one based on empires – a metropolitan power ruling over other peoples and territories, in a hierarchical fashion – or one based on faith or religion. Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians and Romans – all contested and ruled the Middle East as imperial powers, whilst the Byzantines, Umayyads, Abbasids, Crusaders and Ottomans ruled as imperial and religious powers.

So when, following the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a Westphalian model of sovereign and equal nation-states was introduced into the Middle East, it was an entirely unfamiliar and foreign concept for the region.

States were brought into being that, for the most part, had never once previously existed as sovereign entities. People were brought under the rule of a capital or a ruling class to whom they had never previously been subject. And the concept of national identity, so familiar to Europeans, had to be consciously formed, learnt and inculcated.

Europe’s transition from an international system based on monarchies and empires to one based around nation-states as the core geopolitical unit was bloody and prolonged, taking hundreds of years and costing millions of lives. It is still not entirely resolved.

Little wonder, then, that the transition in the Middle East is not proving to be an easy one.

The nation-state system in the Middle East is a fragile one. National identity, never strongly-rooted to begin with, has been steadily weakened by failures of national leadership. Against this loss of legitimacy, older and more resilient forms of identity – religion, tribe, sect, ethnicity, and even gender – are re-asserting themselves as the basis for political order.

This is the real struggle underway today in the Middle East. It’s the struggle for the survival of the modern nation-state system, against deep and historic forces that seek the return of the older forms of political order.

This is why ISIS made such a show of demolishing a sand-berm on the Iraq-Syria border in 2014 and proclaiming it the death-knell of Sykes-Picot. They wish to erase the borders from the map, dismantle the nation-state system in the Middle East, and re-establish a caliphate.

You can disagree about where Sykes and Picot plotted state boundaries on the map. But seeking to adjust these boundaries is a folly, its simplicity misleading. Such a prospect will only fuel further conflict, whilst doing little to address the underlying driver of state weakness.

In a region as ethnically and religiously diverse as the Middle East, no map can be drawn that will satisfy every national ambition (unless we are prepared to countenance decades of bloodshed, persecution, and population displacement).

Instead, the current nation-state system, with all its imperfections, needs to be bolstered and made to work better.

The sovereignty and territorial integrity of the constituent states of the Middle East must be reaffirmed. Governments in the Middle East require help in earning the legitimacy and trust that can only come with providing their citizens a measure of security, dignity and opportunity. And, within the system of current nation-states, the rights of minorities need to be affirmed, and their security strengthened.

Stabilising and then strengthening the nation-state as the basic geopolitical unit of the Middle East is no easy task. It will take decades, require patience, and may well be beyond the scope of outside powers. But it, and not Sykes-Picot 2.0, is the only durable pathway ahead.

Published as an OpEd in the Times of Israel on 26 May 2016.

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