Editor's notes: Redrawing Sykes-Picot

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presciently took his cabinet to the Golan Heights late last month to put down a border marker of his own – just as Sykes and Picot did 100 years ago.

By
May 19, 2016 20:58
Mount Bental

Girls play near a sign at Mount Bental, an observation post on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, overlooking the Syrian side of the Kuneitra crossing. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)

 
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A drive along the northern border these days is a lesson in the failures of diplomacy.

While the hot springs in Hamat Gader, popular since the Byzantine era, are still full of people, just a few kilometers to the north, in Syria, Islamic State fighters roam freely.

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A few kilometers further north, fighters from al-Qaida-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra can be spotted along the border. Five more kilometers and you can meet Iranians and Lebanese, members of Hezbollah and of Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.

This reality is particularly striking considering that this week the world marked the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, the deal that created the modern Middle East, the same one that is crumbling before our very eyes.

The agreement, hammered out after months of negotiations between diplomats Mark Sykes from Great Britain and François Georges-Picot from France, had its problems from the beginning, mostly because it ignored demographic, sectarian and national identities in favor of lines that could be drawn with the help of a ruler.

Both men were familiar with the region – Sykes had traveled it extensively, albeit mostly as a tourist, and managed to convince London that he knew the Middle East better than others. Picot had served in diplomatic postings in Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine and was a strong advocate of promoting French interests throughout the wider Middle East.

The secret talks the duo launched in late 1915 stemmed from a desire to demarcate control over the soon-to-disappear Ottoman Empire.

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While it’s true that subsequent agreements and border modifications changed their original map, Sykes and Picot have the unique pleasure of being the one thing ISIS, the Turks, the Sunnis, Iran and Israel agree about – their accord is a complete failure. ISIS even produced a movie last year titled The End of Sykes Picot, in which a Chilean English-speaking fighter named Abu Safiyya takes viewers on a tour of an overrun Syrian- Iraqi border post as proof of how the caliphate is redrawing Sykes and Picot’s borders.

“As you can see,” Abu Safiyya says while standing on top of the old and fallen border sign, “it’s under our feet right now.”

This is not to say that Sykes Picot and their imperialistic ambitions are entirely to blame for the birth of al-Qaida, the rise of ISIS or the disintegration of Syria, Iraq and beyond.

But what the modern Middle East does teach us is that artificial lines are no longer significant. Here, in this region, a line drawn with a ruler is quickly erased by a pickup truck carrying five men dressed in black and armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades.

The Sykes-Picot centennial might have gone unnoticed this week had foreign ministers from around the world not gathered in Vienna on Tuesday for another meeting of the International Syrian Support Group, the forum tasked with reaching a lasting solution to the five-year-old Syrian civil war.

Israel, which is not participating in the talks, has what to worry about.

For that reason, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presciently took his cabinet to the Golan Heights late last month to put down a border marker of his own – just as Sykes and Picot did 100 years ago – and declare publicly that Israel will never withdraw from the territory it conquered in 1967.

Netanyahu’s concern is that the talks in Syria will lead to some sort of international framework for peace that will include an Israeli concession on the Golan Heights, without even consulting Jerusalem.

Even though Netanyahu’s declaration was rejected immediately by the State Department, he was willing to pay the price for his message to get out. His trips to Russia, including another one planned for June, are focused on getting Moscow on the same page as Israel. With over 1,000 troops and 100 aircraft on the ground in Syria, Russia is the predominant player within the International Syrian Support Group. Keeping the Russians on Israel’s side is no small feat.

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ON JULY 12, 2006, about 12 hours after IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were abducted by Hezbollah along the border with Lebanon, defense minister-at-the-time Amir Perez convened the top military brass on the 14th floor of the Defense Ministry.

It was early evening and the day was far from over. Rockets were being fired from Lebanon into Israel and the IDF was retaliating although still at minimum levels. The officials around the table had gathered to finalize the recommendations for a military response they would be bringing later that night to the security cabinet. Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.

Dan Halutz had already met with his team and decided that the best response would be a widespread air campaign that, in the first stages, would hit Hezbollah positions along the border as well as a bit of Lebanese national infrastructure.

He mentioned a previously-drafted plan to strike 90 homes scattered throughout southern Lebanon where Hezbollah was believed to be storing its long-range Fajr missiles, but said that the plan had been rejected, partly due to the high number of civilian casualties the air strikes might incur. Peretz, who had been appointed defense minister just two months earlier, pushed back. “The long-range missiles are of strategic importance,” he said, cutting off Halutz. “Our priority should first be to hit the missiles and then to take out the infrastructure.”

Peretz’s instincts proved right and later that night, dozens of air force F-15s and F-16s took off to bomb the 90 homes in Lebanon, neutralizing – in just 34 minutes – Hezbollah’s ability to fire long-range missiles into Israel. It was later called the “Night of the Fajrs,” and the fears of high civilian casualties were proven wrong.

This story is relevant today since Peretz’s decision at the time was not evidence of a deep understanding of military issues. He was a union leader, not a general. Instead, what Peretz demonstrated was healthy intuition that provided him with the ability to analyze situations differently from someone who had spent his entire career in uniform.

After the war, though, Peretz was pushed out of the Defense Ministry.

While he wasn’t held solely responsible for the failures of the Second Lebanon War, his inexperience was highlighted by the Winograd Commission, which had probed the war.

In the years since Peretz’s tenure, Israelis re-embraced their generals as defense ministers. Ehud Barak and now Moshe Ya’alon have held the top spot, both former IDF chiefs of staff.

Israelis need to accept the fact that civilians are capable of serving as defense ministers even in a country like ours. In the United States this is obvious where non-generals like Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Ashton Carter have served as secretaries of defense. It is true that they had years of prior experience in the Pentagon, but then again, the same argument could be made about Avigdor Liberman – the presumptive defense minister – who previously served as foreign minister and minister of strategic affairs and had a seat around the security cabinet for a number of years.

Others will argue that Israel is unique and that because of the daily threats it faces to the home front, and not 6,000 miles away, it needs a defense minister who knows defense.

That remains to be seen.

Either way, in the defense establishment there is concern. While the media focused Thursday on Liberman’s past controversial comments – he once told Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to go to hell, suggested bombing the Aswan Dam and called for what some perceived as excessive force in the Gaza Strip – that is not what is prompting the concern. Rather, what makes Liberman’s appointment worrisome for the military brass are the positions he has taken over the years.

During the Gaza war in 2014, for example, he repeatedly clashed with Ya’alon by pushing for a full-scale invasion of Gaza, something the IDF was against. More recently, he attended a court hearing for the soldier who shot and killed an immobilized and wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron even though the military had unequivocally denounced the act.

In the most recent case, he broke completely with IDF lines, turning a criminal trial into a political theater.

Now that he is likely to become defense minister, the generals will need to tread carefully as they wait to receive new cues from their incoming boss, just a few days after being told by Ya’alon that they should continue speaking their minds.

We can’t yet know what type of defense minister Liberman will be.

Is he in favor of purchasing more stealth fighter jets, of increasing Israel’s cyber capabilities or of launching a preemptive strike against Hezbollah? It could end up being a classic case of “The things you see from here, you don’t see from there,” as Ariel Sharon referred to his transformation once becoming prime minister.

And while, from a political perspective, it makes sense bringing Liberman in and expanding the coalition, this new government will have serious diplomatic obstacles to confront on the horizon. Bombing dams or telling world leaders to go to hell will not be enough to solve them.

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