Sykes-Picot drew lines in the Middle East’s sand that blood is washing away

October 24, 2014


Last week British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond said the struggle against Islamic State was “effectively Iraq’s last chance as nation state.”

That somber assessment followed his visit to Iraq a few days earlier, where he had used the expression “last chance saloon” to describe Iraq’s dire predicament.

Iraq, like Syria, was a consequence of World War One and of the infamous, in Arab eyes, agreement between Sir Mark Sykes and Francois-Georges Picot which led to the division of the former Ottoman Turkish domains by the two leading European powers, Britain and France. That agreement, now almost a century old, appears in tatters, as both countries are broken, exhausted by years of war and sectarian division for which there is no easy repair.

In that regard, we might look to Eastern Europe after 1989 for precedents.

Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, all the countries of Eastern Europe, except two, have moved gradually toward joining the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization without problems. The former Czechoslovakia broke into two states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in what was known as the ‘velvet divorce.’ The fate of Yugoslavia offers a more tragic example. That country broke up in a series of successive wars in Croatia, Bosnia and finally Kosovo, which lasted throughout the 1990s.

Like Syria and Iraq, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, were fashioned into states at the peace conference following World War One at Versailles in 1919. Perhaps Yugoslavia — with its mix of Catholic Slovenes and Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslims — resembles most the ethnic and religious diversity of Syria and Iraq.

The two Middle Eastern nations are the most diverse countries in the region, barring tiny Lebanon. Both countries have substantial Sunni, Shi’ite and Christian (of all denominations) communities, as well as smaller numbers of Druze, Yazidis and Alawites. There are also an estimated 30 million Kurds, cited by many as the largest ethnic group in the world without its own state, living in the two countries.

Since independence from Britain and France, Syria and Iraq have been governed with an iron rod. The political narratives of the two key Arab countries have never conceded much of democratic substance in their decades of highly centralized authoritarian rule.

That has now broken down and, most probably, irrevocably. That does not mean that Syria and Iraq will disappear. At the least they are likely to stumble on for some years, but the substance and strength of the two states has drained away. Each is now little more than a collection of fortified and autonomous enclaves fed by outside patrons that include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States.

In neither country is there one coherent group that is likely to emerge victorious after the years of bloodletting.

In Iraq, years of sectarian bloodletting following the U.S./UK invasion of 2003 have led the three main communities in the country — Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds — to go their own ways. This has been aggravated by the Shi’ite-dominated governments in Baghdad having reinforced the tacit dominance of Iran. It is for that reason that Islamic State receives much of its financial and other support from private backers in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies.

All of this would not matter were it not for the fact that Islamic State has set as its goal the destruction of the century-old Sykes-Picot imperial diktat and its replacement by a Sunni caliphate stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.

Such a state would of course have no place for Shi’ites, Kurds, Christians and all the other minorities of the region.

In this regard it is worth noting that the Sykes-Picot agreement itself paid little regard to ethnic or religious communities and was anyway changed within years by the British and French. Under the original maps drawn up by the two diplomats, France was allocated not only Syria and Lebanon but also northern Iraq with the present Islamic State capital of Mosul. The French sector also included most of Kurdistan. Britain was to take southern Iraq and what is now Jordan.

Later discussions between French Premier Georges Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George amended this, ceding all of Iraq to Britain. This was confirmed at the international conference in San Remo in 1920, which endowed the two countries with mandates from the recently created League of Nations.

The changes in the Sykes-Picot agreement underline the artificiality of what was an inherently imperial project, which paid scant regard to geography, terrain or ethnicity.

Contemporary Syria and Iraq are not alone in this regard.

For most of the period since World War Two, regime and country have been identical in the Arab world. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship by the United States’ 2003 invasion broke that connection and in so doing has led to the steady erosion of Iraq as a nation state.

War is often the midwife of new states. In modern Europe Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo only became states because of the wars of the 1990s.

More recently, East Timor and South Sudan are also new states that have arisen from conflicting former colonial territories. The danger is real that Syria and Iraq may yet give way to new states. What is certainly sure is that a return to strong Syrian and Iraqi states as imagined by Sykes and Picot is highly unlikely.

PHOTO: Map of the Sykes–Picot agreement, which was signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916. (The National Archives/Wikimedia Commons)


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It does not much matter what lines Sykes-Picot drew in the sand. It does not much matter what lines have been, are being, or will be drawn in the sand in the Middle-East. These people will always find excuses to kill each other.

Posted by IvanNT101 | Report as abusive

I am wondering, IvanNT101, who exactly you mean by “these people.” Kurds? Arabs? Persians? Christians? Yazadis? Muslims? Alawites?

Posted by shootmyownfood | Report as abusive

“The danger is real that Syria and Iraq may yet give way to new states.”
What is the danger? Perhaps they will be more stable aligned along ethnic/religious lines than arbitrary lines imposed by Western powers. The segregation of populations has already mostly occurred. The former Yugoslavia settled out into Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. Why should the US keep fighting to preserve artificial boundaries in Iraq and Syria?

Posted by jesterboomer | Report as abusive

Arghh!! A total whitewashing of the US’s responsibility for this disaster. Let us not forget that, although life was not good under Hussein and Assad, it was politically stable. A more thoughtful policy, informed by actual facts on the ground rather than wishful thinking, might have nudged those regimes in a positive direction with little additional bloodshed. But thoughtful, informed foreign policy has almost never been practiced by the US. The US is the bull in the china shop who now places blame on the china not being less fragile.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

What a great argument for non-intervention! It was these imperial powers that created the Frankenstein’s monster that set us up for these endless middle eastern wars. The most rational choice would be for these NATO powers with blood-stained hands to withdraw all their war materiel and troops (including mercenaries aka PMSC) from this area and leave the people alone to self-determine their borders and governance. Provide election monitors, if requested.

Posted by prolibertate | Report as abusive

With all due respect to Mr. Michael C. Williams what is happening in Iraq and Syria can not be compared to other locations in the article, not even to former Yegoslavia. It is not correct that the Sykes-Picot agreement itself paid little regard to ethnic or religious communities. The situation in Iraq and Syria is a miror of all Arabs and Muslim states torned between religiuos sectors, tribal loyalty and economic/dignity frastration, all built up since the collepse of the Ottoman Empire. The Arab Spring was just a triger that let all this break loose. like a cork off a champagne bottle. If someone believes it will not nove to Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, even Turkey (that the writer forgat to mention its 20 % Kurdish population) is not “secure”.

Posted by Nofit | Report as abusive

Europeans were at war with each other for over 100 years thus perhaps it is what will happen now in There

Posted by gentiler | Report as abusive

Not only Syria and Iraq, but ALL Arab countries are, one way or another, failed states. There’s not a single one that can be hailed as a beacon of prosperous economy AND thriving civic society.
The ones that were blessed (or maybe rather cursed) by oil riches may on the surface look prosperous, but in fact are nothing more than a small ruling minority squandering these riches and sometimes throwing a few bones from the feast table to the rest of population to chew on. But all oil wells have one not-so-beneficial feature: sooner or later they get exhausted. And when oil runs out, these countries will be in the position of their oil-less brethren.
Without oil, they are either kept together by an iron-fisted regime, like Jordan, or stumble from one crisis to another, sometimes culminating in coup or civil war. And even the ones having stability are in fact in quite precarious balance.
As for democracy, it clearly doesn’t work there. Wherever there were truly free elections, they resulted in Islamist groups grabbing the power, be that Algeria of 1990s, or Palestine territories that voted in terrorists of Hamas, or Egypt voting for Muslim Brotherhood. Sometimes the military steps forward to correct the situation, like in Algeria or Egypt, but even the military can’t be counted on forever; after all, the officers are Arab and Muslim, and they may at one point subscribe to the idea of “Islam is solution”.
And what sort of solution is Islam, is evident from what ISIS is.

Posted by Nagant | Report as abusive

Truth is, it hardly matters what the boundaries are. The goal is a new caliphate to replace the old Ottoman Empire. In the end it’s just a question of who gets to impose it on the other Muslim states, and they will be at each other’s throats until that’s resolved.

Posted by Redford | Report as abusive

There is to much at stake there thus the West involvement, if left alone tge Islamic State will have by now reached the Mediterranean and kicked the Kurds out of Irbil, next they will have set an Oil company which will no deal with West nor trade in west currencies nor deal with the West banks thus, bankers, weapon runners and oil barons send in the troops to have control and use all means to convince the World that they are doing the right thing, including CNN,FOX,CNBC,BBC

Posted by gentiler | Report as abusive

For a successful country – Reality trumps public relations – For nature ( Humanity ) will not be fooled.

Posted by Ideapete | Report as abusive

In 1985 I was driving through now Croatia. I spied a car with a broken section of drain pipe tied on its roof. The occupants looked to be having a great time that Saturday having found a new ‘part’ for their house. Yugoslavia had may fine houses that were built with money from working abroad. Built over many years, the owners rented a room or two to the tourist. Staying in their houses was a great window into the lives of locals. The problem with this tale is I was in a farming valley that was a Serbian enclave in Croatia. The war saw these people pack their belongings on trailers pulled by their tractors to Serbia leaving behind the life they had built over the generations.
Saying they will always fight each other, let them solve their own problems, ignores the individual stories of humanity: the families that are lost to the dominance of the machines of war. The Syrian Iraq conflict shows us a brutal side of international diplomacy that may invoke a strong approach avoidance feelings.

Posted by Stanley7746 | Report as abusive

Not only “infamous in Arab Eyes,” but infamous in students in the United States who are not Arabs. The author understates the attitude of learned students of the period after WWI and the mess it has cased in the Middle East and the world of that infamy. It was a tragedy of the highest order and we, the whole world, have been paying the price that the Brits and the French brought to the world because of their insatiable thirst for empire.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

Also worth noting that the S-P agreement was devastating to the Arab-English alliance formed with the moderate Sunni Arabs via TE Lawrence. Lawrence of Arabia’s Arab friends and allies, because of the betrayal, lost leadership of the Arabian Peninsula to the Wahabbist Saudi family sheiks and were relegated to the minor kingdom of Jordan. Absent Sykes-Picot it is likely or at least possible that a greater Sunni kingdom under the moderates who were sidelined by it.

Posted by AlbinF | Report as abusive

A few years ago Joe Biden was universally ridiculed for saying (essentially) that the US should be using our military occupation of Iraq to manage an orderly breakup of this artificially created country into three separate nations of cohesive populations. He had to furiously recant, but time has proven that he was absolutely correct.

Posted by khiggi | Report as abusive

Nice article, I’d be just as sick of Westerners as these people are, the instability is a result of broken dysfunctional colonialism.

Posted by Bookfan | Report as abusive

The defacto boundaries now do seem more “natural” than the post WW1 colonial mandates, but another cause to the conflict and tragedy in Iraq and Syria could be attributed to the “degradation” and “corruption” of the Ba’athist parties from a secular, nationalistic, arab-socialist, “vanguard party” program.
Over decades they seem to have become ruled by “tyrant” families and cliques, produced self serving elites, narrowed the support base to privileged ethnic groups, etc.
The wikipedia article gives some overview:
The anti-colonial aspect meant hostility from powerful Western interests, but the “Western Crusader Imperialists” should not take all the blame for the present and future chaos and conflict.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

This is just about the most conventional article and thinking imaginable.

Arab history 1 (not even 101) teaches that there were TWO (not one) major Arab caliphates. Without getting hypertechnical, the first long-lasting caliphate (from about a generation after the death of Mohammed) was ruled from Damascus and was therefore centered in Syria. After a century, it was replaced by the a much long-ruling caliphate dynasty in Baghdad. After that, the Arab world was ruled the Turks for many centuries up until a hundred years ago, and all of the Arab “countries” were simply provinces of the Turkish empire. There were some minor exceptions, but this is overwhelmingly the big picture. Thus Syria and Iraq have always been core units of the Arab world and always considered distinct,regardless of how many different peoples lived in those two regions under common rule.

European “colonialism” was never more than a negligible factor — the 25 years between the two world war, with never more than a tiny military presence, more like police than army. Sure, the Europeans hoped to rule, but their own wars and weakness made it impossible, and they had to split after 1945 in a hurry because they had no money or will for the task.(Hell, Britain had to leave INDIA at that time, which was really a British colony for over a century.) But the Arabs and the Persians love to claim that they were victims of Western imperialism, in part because it’s a distraction from their centuries-long humiliation by the Turks — a humiliation that the France and Britain actually ended for them. So what if a couple of diplomats drew a line in the mostly empty desert between Syria and Mesopotamia! The desert had always been the border between Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the Levant (Syria, Palestine, etc.) for thousands of years. No one cared much about the exact line while the whole thing was part of the Turkish empire.

Bottom line, “we” did nothing to these people except make their leaders rich by developing the petroleum reserves they still live off today and allowing their upper classes to become educated in the States and live in London. Of course, we supported the Shah in Iran, but believe it or not, a whole lot of Persians also supported him and would have done anything to avoid the clerical rule by ayatollahs they have today. And we used our military power to keep the old Soviet Union from rolling in and taking over all the oil production.

Posted by From_California | Report as abusive

Good article. Thanks.

Posted by shillingfarmer | Report as abusive

For goodness sake why is the US still trying to maintain the old UK/French border lines. It’s not worth an ounce of American blood (or anyone else’s) to keep trying to force the Kurds back under the control of Baghdad. We need some leadership here. Where is it??

Posted by RobertMorrisIV | Report as abusive