These days we are marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which laid the ground for the borders of the new Middle East following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Many historians, politicians, and even radical Islamist groups, such as Islamic State (IS), blame this colonial pact, which was agreed by Britain and France and accepted by Tsarist Russia, for being the main source of most of the failures of modern Arab countries.
Many analyses invariably end up speculating about developments and policies based on a world without the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
And, considering current politics and especially Islamic extremism, they argue that without the “artificial borders” for countries like today’s Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, etc., there wouldn’t be any (or there would be less) authoritarianism, religious extremism, scientific stagnation, backwardness, anti-Western bias, and terrorism in the Middle East today.
It’s an attractive idea, but it’s ultimately wrong.
Yes, fantasy is fun, even in science fiction, but all professional historians know how misguided it is to start speculating about “what ifs.”
We all know that the Arabs of the Middle East had no solid statehood of their own after the fall of the second Islamic caliphate of the Abbasids in the 13th century.
For 750 years, most of today’s Middle Eastern Arab world was ruled by Ottoman and, to a lesser extent, Iranian empires.
How could these “artificial borders” have been solely responsible for contemporary Arab states’ failures when these nations had no independent statehood experience for at least 700 years?
It is also clear that the Sykes-Picot Agreement alone did not create these “artificial borders.”
The agreement was the basis for a new map of the Middle East at a time when the region’s leading power, the Ottoman Empire, had been in decline for 300 years and was ceasing to function as a collection of ethnic, religious and linguistic units.
This demise occurred in parallel with the rise of Europe’s Western powers. It took some three centuries for the West’s age of discovery, industry, and renaissance to overtake the last Islamic empire, which had been established on the basis of victories achieved on horseback and traditional land grabs.
Divvying Up The Cake
Ultimately, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was not just about the Arab world. It was primarily about how to dismember the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Muslim world west of Iran as well as the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. It was a way of cutting and divvying up the cake.
Ultimately, today’s modern Republic of Turkey was not created because of Sykes-Picot, but in spite of it.
There are two important reasons for why this is the case.
First, modern Turkey’s war of national independence was led by an exceptional military commander and charismatic leader called Mustafa Kemal Pasha, or Ataturk.
Second, events were precipitated by Russia’s October Revolution and its leader Vladimir Lenin, who decided to withdraw Russian troops from the former Ottoman lands and even supported Ataturk’s pro-independence movement.
To understand this a bit better, let’s take a look at the evolution of the Ottoman Empire, the former “overlord” of the biggest chunk of the Middle East, including today’s Arab countries.
A year before Sykes-Picot, the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, “promised” the Sharif of Mecca Hussain a vast Arab Kingdom if Arabs would help Britain and France defeat the Ottomans.
What actually happened was different, however.
A year later, on May 16, 1916, a Briton and a Frenchman, Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot, drew up a map to officially dismember the “qanimat,” or the bounty that comprised the defeated Ottoman Empire.
Did this pact consider nation states and the right of nations to self-determination?
Just like in previous centuries, it was purely about the strategic interests of victorious powers, i.e. British dominion over oil and sea routes, a French share of influence in the Mediterranean space, and some sops for the Russians to keep them happy.
“Mandates” or “spheres of influence” were constructed, borders were drawn up, and countries were created in lands that had dozens of ethnic, religious, cultural, and linguistic mixes.
Today, you still hear complaints from some Arabs and others about “broken promises” concerning the creation of smaller and more mono-ethnic national states.
After 100 years, however, people forget, or still don’t know, that any putative borders would have been “artificial” – since it was not about changing the ownership of clearly defined countries and territories but distributing a “war bounty” consisting of a defeated, once powerful overlord.
In Arab lands, the Sykes-Picot Agreement became a symbol of injustice and double-standards. It provided a reason to rebel against the West and to fight against one another.
The agreement is viewed in some quarters as the starting point for wars of liberation — first against Western mandate-holders, and then against their local representatives, Israel and the United States.
More recently, these conflicts have taken on other forms — with Sunnis fighting Shi’a, one Sunni group waging war against another faction it considers “non-believers,” Kurds taking on Turks, Turks fighting among themselves, and IS fighting everybody else.
Now, the world is wary of the entire Middle East as a result of this upheaval.
Ultimately, perhaps the only “what if” we can permit ourselves to consider is the following:
Today, both Iraq and Syria can already be viewed as “failed states.”
But what if Turkey (which is the biggest and most “significant” country in the region, but not without vulnerabilities) was also dismembered with or without a plan and map similar to Sykes-Picot 100 years ago?
Imagine three (or maybe even four or five) smaller states based on ethnicity, religion, language, and historical and cultural values (both real and perceived) who would all be hostile to each other.
Now, that’s a scenario where the real tragedy of the Middle East would begin to play out.