The myth of Sykes-Picot and its shortcomings

The myth of Sykes-Picot and its shortcomings

After too much emphasis on the Sykes-Picot order as the root of problems in the region, it is now the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that claims the legitimacy of fighting Sykes-Picot. ISIL may believe in its own fantasies about the history of the Middle East and claim that it is “smashing the Sykes-Picot borders,” but we need to be more literate about the past and more sober about the present. Enough is enough about the myth of Sykes-Picot. It is true that the infamous secret agreement was more or less reflected in the drawing of the borders of a number of modern Arab states after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. However, firstly, the Middle East was no bed of roses before the First World War; secondly, Sykes-Picot was not the sole determinant of the fate of modern Arab countries; thirdly, the modern history of Arab countries of the last century cannot be reduced to the impact of the post-First World War settlement.

It seems the “Sykes-Picot centered reading of the modern history of the Middle East” suits the political discourse of many, for different reasons. For Arabs, it not only reflects their disappointment with the Western Powers after the Arab Revolt, but it has also long been a scapegoat for later political failures.

For Turks, it not only reflects their resentment over the loss of Arab lands, but for the neo-Ottomanist Turks it also reflects the future ambitions of the “new Turkey,” as it implies that the problems of the Middle East started with the dissolution of the Turkish Empire and the remedy lies in the prospect of Turkish dominance or mastership in the region. Sykes-Picot has even become the symbol of the political failures in the Middle East in the eyes of Western observers too, as if it is the reason for the demise of modern Arab states, because the so-called “artificial borders” of modern states that were drawn by the Western Powers have not worked.

In fact, modern Arab states have not failed because of “artificial borders,” but due to many other reasons, which were created not only by the First World War settlement but also by post-war political history, including the impact of the years between the two World Wars and the politics of the Cold War period. We should also add the internal dynamics of Arab modernization processes to the list. If we ignore complex historical and social factors, we cannot understand present day developments in the Middle East, as happened in the case of Syria. What’s more, we should avoid assuming that Arab societies became frozen after the First World War, only to be awoken after a century to find themselves in the same conditions that were present a century ago. If we assumed this, we would be claiming that the Middle East is all about ethnic and sectarian communities, or tribes and families, combining pre-modern loyalties and rifts, and that modern states were no more than “tribes with flags” (as Charles Glass once put it).

However, even before the World War, the Middle East was not a collection of tranquil Ottoman provinces, nor solely a land of tribes and turfs. Now ISIL, which is the newest actor in the Middle East, does not represent a retreat to pre-modern nation states in the region, but is rather an anti-modern global force that aspires to fill the authority vacuum to fulfill the ambitions of its post-modern Islamist ideology. The ideas of the Islamic caliphate and the Islamic state have no relevance to “the traditional order” or “the Muslim community,” as there was no such thing in the pre-modern history of Muslims in the region. The Arabs and all Muslims lived under different political rules in different times and never had a unique order or coherent community. The Ottoman borders were no less imposed by force than any others, and Ottoman times were never free from conflict and resentment, even though they may not have been as turbulent as present times.

In short, a peaceful solution to regional conflicts and crises, on the one hand, should be sought on a better understanding that the roots of the crises lie in the post-First War modern history of the region, not ignoring modern political and social dynamics. On the other hand, modern political concepts and institutions should be thought of as a remedy, rather than as cultural misfits for the region, in order to avoid further tribalization, sectarianization and ethnicization of conflicts.