Analysis: A sad centennial for Sykes-Picot

Only Arab cartographers, compasses, and navigators can lead the Arab world to a future that will be better than the past 100 years.

May 16, 2016 07:19
3 minute read.
Map of Middle East

Map of Middle East. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The practice of imperialism has seldom been so unabashed, cynical and raw.

Signed in secret 100 years ago today, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which partitioned the Middle East between Britain and France, has been rightly derided as a display of historic aloofness and moral deceit.

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Driven by the raging World War’s dynamics and the Ottoman Empire’s expected collapse, European diplomats carved areas of influence while sidelining local peoples to serve imperial designs.

The agreement shrank the land previously promised to the sharif of Mecca by the British viceroy to Egypt, and was also brewed behind the Zionist movement’s back and against its interests, designating Palestine for international rule.

In any event, the Sykes-Picot Agreement became a symbol of imperialist double dealing at a time when nations were coming alive under the imperialist power’s feet.

The agreement’s revelation by Lenin, who found it in the drawers of Czarist Russia, which was privy to and a prospective beneficiary of the deal that promised the czar chunks of Anatolia – indeed embarrassed the imperialist powers, as the communists had hoped.

However, this political aspect is now history, as the region has long been on its own, and 300 million Arabs, with the demographically marginal exception of the Palestinians, are ruled by fellow Arabs.


It is the deal’s other aspect, the cartography, that now makes many question its relationship with the Middle East’s subsequent failure to stabilize and prosper.

While technically inaccurate – the future Arab states’ borders were drawn a little later – it is indeed true that foreigners, inspired by the Sykes-Picot deal’s diplomatic patronizing and guided by its geographic outlines, mapped five Middle Eastern countries that subsequently proved untenable: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya.

The rise of Islamic State, with its disregard for the formal Iraqi-Syrian border, is the most obvious statement of the colonialist mapping’s demise.

Equally telling have been breakups of Syria and Libya, whose previous arrangements now seem impossible to restore.

That is why the Russian-American effort to jointly create a new formula for Syria is unlikely to succeed.

Moscow can create, fortify and pension an Alawite-led protectorate between the Syrian coast and Damascus, but it can’t restore the war-scarred Sunni majority to its prewar lords.

By the same token, no American or European government can viably sponsor a Sunni protectorate.

Any such structure will be a variation on the Sykes-Picot theme, and such will also be its aftermath.

Whether the Europeans who last century lumped together religious, ethnic and tribal antagonists did so out of ignorance or out of Machiavellianism is an exciting question academically, but diplomatically it is immaterial.

What matters now is that the post-colonial Middle East needs new cartographers, and these cannot be foreigners.

They must be local, or the local masses will ignore their designs.

Just who those locals will be, and what they will produce, remains to be seen and may also take too long to emerge.

Ideally, from an Arab viewpoint, Syria and Iraq will be remapped by Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt, the way they brought an end to the Lebanese civil war in 1989 with the Taif Agreement.

In a less happy scenario, from the Arab viewpoint, the new order will be shaped by non-Arab Turkey and Iran. The former has long been suspected of seeking a Sunni puppet in Syria, and the latter has turned southern Iraq into its satellite.

Whether Shi’ite Arabs’ religious affiliation is to them more important than their national identity, and if so what that means, are questions Arab leaders will have to answer in coming years.

Whatever its aftermath, the Arab world’s very exposure today to Turkish and Iranian challenges underscores its historic failure to replace the Ottoman order, and the European order that followed it, with a workable Arab order.

Changing this will hardly be helped by lashing out at yesteryears’ European mappers.

Only Arab cartographers, compasses, and navigators can lead the Arab world to a future that will be better than the past 100 years.

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