A century-long ‘parenthesis’ everyone hates
It is every Islamist’s dream, in the words of the outgoing prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, “to close the century-long parenthesis” that goes by the official name the “Asia Minor Agreement” – or, as it is more commonly known, the Sykes-Picot accord of May 16, 1916.
The talented but unfortunate Mr. Davutoğlu was going to close that parenthesis for good. He was going to build a Sunni empire and unite the ummah under the Turkish banner. He was going to liberate Jerusalem and pray at the al-Aqsa mosque in the Palestinian capital, Jerusalem. Syria, too, was going to be liberated. So was Cairo. The gravity center of world politics was going to return to the heart of the former Ottoman lands – stretching, in Mr. Davutoğlu’s words, from Sarajevo to Gaza, Baku and Cairo.
There may be a lot of evil and impracticality about what Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot secretly crafted a century ago, sharing between Britain and France the lands that today go by the names of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq. Fake, made-up borders: Those lands’ inhabitants, Islamists across the Middle East, and Americans today all agree on that. How they would like it to be today is another subject. A difficult one.
From the modern Turkish Islamist’s point of view, the ideological objection to the “Sykes-Picot conspiracy” is uniform and easy. Either the (good) “Kut al-Amara” - the last but temporary Ottoman military victory in Iraq against British forces - “will win,” or (the evil) “Sykes-Picot,” Mr. Davutoğlu recently asserted. One day, he proclaimed, the “spirit of Kut al-Amara” will win. Too bad, he has been forced to step down before the spirit of Kut al-Amara has won. (Could his boss be secretly conspiring for the global Sykes-Picot syndicate?)
When Mr. Davutoğlu stands down at the party congress on May 22, the century-long parenthesis he so passionately wanted to close will be one century and six days old. The problem, from the Turkish Islamist’s viewpoint, is not about whether Sykes-Picot was good or evil, or whether it created fake (Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese) borders. The trouble is about the intolerable inconsistencies over how the Turkish Islamist, like Mr. Davutoğlu or his boss, tries to formulate foreign policy and rhetoric so that the spirit of Kut al-Amara triumphs over Sykes-Picot.
Take the fake, made-up Sykes-Picot borders of Syria and Iraq, for example. They must be redrawn. Right? Right. But then Turkey’s policy has been about firmly defending the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq. How would Mr. Davutoğlu close the Sykes-Picot parenthesis while fervently protecting Syrian and Iraqi borders without the slightest retouch? Is that not asking for alcohol-free whiskey? That is not too different from the intolerable inconsistency of deeply antagonizing Iraqi Kurds because their autonomy within Iraq may threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity, then supporting their autonomy and autonomous oil revenues and befriending them passionately a decade later - though passionately antagonizing the Syrian Kurds because their potential autonomy may threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity.
Gentlemen, tell us honestly, do you love or hate Messrs. Sykes and Picot and their border-drawing a century ago? Do you think the Iraqi and Syrian states and their borders are a fabrication by colonial powers? And you want a remapping while defending till the last drop of your blood the territorial integrity of these fabricated countries?
Do you really want a remapping of Sykes-Picot? Actually, so do the Kurds in Iraq (who don’t hide it) and the Kurds in Syria (who do not voice it too loudly).
What can explain the hatred of Mr. Davutoğlu (and his ideologues) of the Sykes-Picot borders in Syria and Iraq, while at the same time ardently defending these borders?
Simple. They hate the Sykes-Picot borders because they were hostile to the collapsing Ottoman Empire, which they dream of reviving. But they defend the Sykes-Picot borders because redrawing maps will inevitably mean a Kurdish entity. The Islamist Turkish desire is hidden in the near-holy praise for Kut al-Amara: Sykes-Picot is bad. Borders must be redrawn. But in a way that revives the Ottoman Empire, not creates a Kurdish state.