New lines in the sand a century after Sykes-Picot?

New lines in the sand a century after Sykes-Picot?

Some historians give credit for the original idea of carving zones of influence out of the “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire, to Sergey Sazanov, who was the Russian foreign minister before and during the First World War. Records revealed by the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in November 1917 showed that negotiations between Mark Sykes (on behalf of Britain) and François George-Picot (on behalf of France) started in November 1915 and were concluded on May 16, 1916, almost two weeks after the defeat of British forces by the Ottomans in Kut al-Amara (now in Iraq) on April 29, 1916 - with the consent of the Tsarist Russian government.

According to the secret agreement, Istanbul and the Dardanelles Straits, plus parts of Eastern Anatolia (under the name Armenia) would be part of a Russian zone of influence; parts of southern Turkey and the Levant (including today’s Syria, Lebanon and Israel) would be part of a French zone of influence; and Southern Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf (southern Iraq and Kuwait now) would be under British influence.

The Soviet revolution that overthrew Tsarist rule in Russia ended this secret agreement. The communist Russian government’s withdrawal from the war enabled a nationalist resistance (led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) to emerge against the invading armies in the defeated Turkey between 1918-1923. The Republic of Turkey was ultimately declared in 1923. 

Republican Turkey was a shrunken version of the Ottoman Empire, covering Anatolia, a small part of Thrace, and keeping hold of the Dardanelles Straits. The Arab regions of the empire were divided into a number of different countries - including Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan - with thousands of kilometers of straight-lined borders in the desert regions of the Middle East. These lines are thought to have been inspired by the secret Sykes-Picot agreement, and drawn with an eye on the newly discovered oil fields of the region.

Those borders, often decried as “lines in the sand,” were much criticized for neglecting two key populations of the greater Middle East: Jews and the Kurds. The Israeli situation started to be put on a different course with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which resulted in the State of Israel in 1948. Meanwhile, a series of Kurdish revolts – not only after the establishment of the Turkish Republic, but also in Iraq and Iran - aimed to draw their own lines in the region. Most recently, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey have bid to carve out some kind of Kurdish state from existing countries in the region.

Since its outbreak, the Syria civil war has exposed a brand new situation. The war has provided the stage for yet another - and more radical – power, in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which also wants to defy existing borders and draw its own ones. There is also now a re-activated Sunni-Shiite rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran further complicating the situation. 

With two failing states (Syria and Iraq) and four powers with the potential to expand (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey) - plus two superpowers (the U.S. and Russia) deeply involved in the situation - the entire region is on the threshold of another shake-up. That seems particularly true as the oil-era is showing signs of decline amid the emergence of new forms of energy. On the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, the borders of countries in the region inspired by it are once again under discussion, like the upcoming Ditchley Foundation Conference in the U.K., which will have the title “Change in the Middle East: New lines in the sand?”

However, there should by now be enough lessons from history showing that attempts to forge new borders or zones of influence by military force usually end up backfiring in the long run, ultimately causing more problems than they solve.