From Churchill to Assad
Toward a new Middle East order?
THE SYKES-PICOT agreement map, drawn up in 1916. Photo: Courtesy: Royal Geographical Society
One of the factors greatly hindering the reaching of solutions to Middle East
problems is the artificial nature of the region’s borders. Some analysts, such
as Robert Kaplan, affirm the general lack of awareness that exists in this
field. Kaplan, a geopolitical expert who writes extensively on geography issues
for Stratfor, a private global intelligence agency, believes the conflict hasn’t
changed since ancient times.
For example, since antiquity Iraq has always
been a battlefield. In the ancient world Sumerians, Akkadians and Assyrians were
fighting among themselves just as today Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds do. “The
names of the groups have changed but not the cartography of war,” says
Before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War
I, François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes met to draw the spheres of control and
influence of their respective empires, which later would shape the borders of
the Middle East as they are known today.
The agreement they reached in
January 1916, negotiated secretly before the end of World War I, resulted in the
division of the Middle East. In the minds of the local people, the borders of
the Middle East had been drawn artificially by foreign, imperialistic powers to
facilitate their domination of the region.
Today, it seems the process of
shaping the borders is still alive, and that the Sykes-Picot order might be
coming to an end. We are witnessing the emergence of a New Middle East, and the
relevance of the current borders is under question.
Almost a century ago,
when the existence of the secret agreement became known to the US government,
there was an understanding of the tragic consequences.
Wilson’s foreign policy adviser Edward House told the British that they were
making the Middle East a breeding place for future war.
Since then, the
Middle East has not stopped bleeding.
Rising voices, from Arab, Israeli
and American leaders, are strengthening the argument that the Middle East is
burying the Sykes-Picot order and entering a new era: In the UAE, Dubai Police
Chief Lt.-Gen. Dahi Khalfan warned of another “Sykes-Picot” in reference to the
1916 agreements, mentioning the United States, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood
as threats to the security of the Gulf region.
Israel’s former air force
commander Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan stated the old Sykes-Picot order is falling
apart and a new order is yet to be determined.
According to Nehushtan,
all the borders are shaking, not only the geographical boundaries but also the
borders of religions and societies.
Former US secretary of state
Condoleezza Rice stated that the crisis in Syria might be the last episode in
the disintegration of the known Middle East. She’s reminding us of the fact the
European powers drew the border lines often without regard for ethnic or
sectarian differences. For example:
• Bahrain is 70 percent Shi’ite, governed by
a Sunni monarch.
• Saudi Arabia was created with a 10% Shi’ite population
in its richest provinces to the east.
• Iraq is 65% Shi’ite, 20% Sunni,
and a mix of Kurds and others, all ruled until 2003 by a Sunni
• Jordan’s population is almost 70% Palestinian.
Lebanon is roughly divided among Sunnis, Shi’ites and Christians.
is a conglomerate of Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds and others, ruled until now by the
MANY SIMPLY observe and say that obviously the borders
are there, clearly marked on the maps. Historically, boundaries used to separate
the territory of various communities and ensure their security (for example
chains of mountain, rivers or deserts). Generally speaking, the practice of
using spaces rather than lines survived until the 19th century. Today, a
boundary is by definition a line dividing territory over which states exercise
full territorial sovereignty.
All countries in the Middle East strive to
exercise full sovereignty over their own borders. It is doubtful these “lines”
can be called borders as understood in the modern world. Local tribes are
constantly moving between countries, sects and ethnic groups are delimited by
artificial borders, there is constant smuggling and transfer of weapons that is
destabilizing states, and jihadists move across the region. Most current is the
plight of refugees who are moved against their free will across these so-called
borders as illustrated recently between Iraq, Syria and their neighbors. As an
example, some analysts believe that the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq
is in great danger due to the Kurdish issue. The national borders are becoming
irrelevant as the Kurds are becoming an independent player in the
If we refer to the borders in the Arab peninsula or the border
between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, what significance do the well-defined borders
have when the regions are sparsely populated and traversed by nomadic tribes?
The myth says that the zigzag eastern Jordanian border with Saudi Arabia was
drawn by Winston Churchill while he had the hiccups, while another version says
it was due to his excessive love for whiskey, and others still claim it was
after having a generous lunch with European leaders. (This “zigzag” is still
known today as “Churchill’s hiccup.”)
IN ANY future settlement, unlike in the
Sykes-Picot agreements, the physical, economical and demographic facts on the
ground have to be taken into account. To the skeptic, this has already been done
in the post-colonial era, and some borders were in fact modified.
cite some encouraging examples in the region where boundaries were redrawn by
agreed arrangements, such as the Saudi-Jordanian swap of territory in 1965
(Jordan exchanged some 10,400 sq.km. of desert land for about 7,800 sq.km and
gained some 17 extra kilometers of shoreline south of Aqaba), or the land swaps
between Iraq and Iran in 1975 (Algiers Agreements).
In other cases where
agreements were not reached, there is still the possibility of cross-border
cooperation mechanisms, such as the Turkish-Syrian example.
their common border was high in 1998, but since then Turkey and Syria worked
together and reached an agreement in 2009 to implement a policy of cross-border
cooperation where people and goods were able to pass freely without
Even in the intractable Israeli-Arab conflict, agreements were
reached and lines were moved. Following the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979,
the recognized international border between the two countries was based upon the
1906 (Ottoman-British) line. A dispute came to light over the marking of the
border line at the southernmost point, Taba. In 1988, following an international
commission inquiry, Israel withdrew from Taba and the border was finalized
THE MIDDLE East is currently deep in crisis, with internal
and external forces attempting to reshape the entire region. Since the collapse
of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab world has experienced nationalism, Pan-Arabism
mixed with a local brand of socialism, Pan-Islamism and Political
Nationalism, as in the 19th-century European paradigm, seems not
to have provided answers to the peoples’ problems in the region. The Assad
regime tried to project a Syrian national identity, but to no avail. The
communalism (“ta’ifiya”) survived and the identification between the different
ethnic and religious groups prevailed.
In the minds of Arab nationalists,
these artificial frontiers created in 1916 cut across the Arab nation and denied
a common Arab culture. But even when the Arab states sought to “eliminate the
traces of Western imperialism,” unify the Arab nation and erase the Sykes-Picot
borders, Pan-Arabism did not materialize. As we can see, the modern Middle East
based on territorial states has since then been challenged.
intellectuals and politicians see the current order as an artificial creation of
the West, calling for its destruction and hoping for regional
Today, different political Islamic movements are sweeping the
Middle East, both from the Shi’ite and Sunni spheres. It is possible that these
two internal forces and different views of Islam will reshape the Middle East
order. There was no meaningful Middle- East “regional order” before the current
uprisings, and even if such an order had existed, in the beginning of the 21st
century it came apart. Paul Salem makes it clear: the region is among the most
disordered in the world and has no cooperative political, security or economic
The borders in the Middle East are to many people in the
region a mere decoration on maps. Further to this statement, like in the past,
various forces are aspiring to change the known borders: the rising Islamic
forces are one example. Jabhat al-Nusra, the most effective fighting force
combating the Assad regime, is calling for establishment of a “Caliphate” in the
Levant (Bilad al-Sham) – a Muslim empire under one political entity – a
territory that would include Syria, Lebanon and beyond.
scenarios in the Middle East may oscillate between a status quo with more
instability and violence to the reshaping of the current borders in the region
by internal or external forces. It is possible that the Middle East will not
break down and stay the way we know it today, but will indeed emerge with a new
political order having different political forces and the same old border lines.
As the fragile state structure of the Middle East has been held together for
decades by monarchs, dictators and external powers, the Middle East might keep
its political borders.
On the other hand, there is also the possibility
of regional chaos that will end with the redrawing of new national borders. In
that case, will the regional and internal forces be taking a leading role, in
contrast to 1916? What will be the level of participation of the world powers,
Europe, the US, Russia and China and the regional actors – Turkey, Iran and
Saudi Arabia? I believe that the internal actors will have less incentive to let
external forces draw their new borders than they did at the end of
In conclusion, Robert Kaplan is of the opinion that there is still
no solution to the problem of how to divide the former Ottoman Empire. No one
knows yet who will have the power to control which territories, or whether there
will be new tribal and sectarian lines. The Middle East borders are (along with
the African ones) the most distorted in the world and, to quote Ralph Peters,
“the greatest taboo in striving to understand the region’s comprehensive failure
isn’t Islam but the awful-but-sacrosanct international boundaries worshiped by
our own diplomats.” Correcting borders to reflect the will of all the different
peoples may be impossible, but the opposite would probably lead to more violence
Maj. (Res.) Stephane Cohen is a former liaison officer to UN
forces. He is a lay historian with an interest in general history of the Middle