Time for a new Sykes-Picot Agreement to fix the Middle East

March 6, 2016
Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. Militant Islamist fighters held a parade in Syria's northern Raqqa province to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq, a monitoring service said. The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), posted pictures online on Sunday of people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, the SITE monitoring service said.  REUTERS/Stringer (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTR3WJ9Q

Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

It’s time to renegotiate the contract that put the Middle East together.

The “contract” is the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The world that document created exists now only on yellowed maps, and the issues left unsettled — primarily the need for separate Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish territories — have come home begging. War is not fixing this; diplomacy might.

In November 2014, I wrote the only solution to Islamic State was to use American peacekeepers to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide inside Iraq.

However, in the intervening 15 months, Turkey and Russia entered the fight, and the Saudis may soon join the fray. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies — as well as Iraq, Islamic State and Iran — never left. Only a massive diplomatic effort, involving all parties now on the playing field, including Islamic State, has any potential of ending the bloodshed. That means a redivision of the region along current ethnic, tribal, religious and political lines.

A new Sykes-Picot Agreement, if you will.

The old Sykes-Picot Agreement was enforced by the superpowers of the day, Britain and France, with buy-in from Russia. The immediate aim was colonialism; the long-term goal stability, following the massive realignment of power that was World War One. The lines were literally drawn for the next nine decades.

Another important goal of the era, creating “Kurdistan,” never actually happened. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres left an opening for a referendum on Kurdish independence. Problem one: the referendum only included plans for Kurds outside of Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of fighting that saw the Turkish people separate themselves from the remains of the Ottoman Empire and fight for two years to prevent the dismantling of what is now modern Turkey. The result was 20 million Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.

From a geopolitical perspective, here’s what we have now: the 2003 invasion of Iraq blew open the struggle among the Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. It unleashed the forces behind some of the Arab Spring-driven chaos in Syria, and drew Iran deep into the Iraqi conflict. Shi’ite militia and Iraqi government attacks on Sunnis opened the door for Islamic State to step in as their protector.

The struggle metastasized into the ongoing, broader conflict. The Kurds are expanding the land they control, out of Iraq, and into Turkish and Syrian territory. The Turks look to repel that effort, and perhaps seize some territory to tidy up their own border with Syria. Russia has re-entered the region as a military force. The Saudis may yet send in troops. Iran is already there via proxy forces. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad still holds territory, but only alongside Islamic State. The United States is training, assisting and equipping groups often fighting each other.

That all has led to human suffering on a genocidal scale, including refugee flows no one seems sure how best to handle. The ongoing effort to bomb away the problems has resulted in destroying cities like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs, and soon Mosul, in order to “save” them. Four American presidents have made war in the region without concrete results, and Obama‘s successor will be number five.

The only answer left, the one not yet tried, is to negotiate a comprehensive resolution that addresses all of the issues, borders and struggles now underway. That resolution will need to be enforced with military power coordinated by the United States, Russia and Iran, with each speaking for, and agreeing to corral, its proxies.

It will mean giving Islamic State a seat at the table, as the British were forced to do with the Irish Republican Army in the 1990s to resolve the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. One, by definition, must negotiate peace with one’s enemies. That is why, in part, the current ceasefire in Syria, which excluded Islamic State, has little chance of achieving any long-term progress.

Out of the new negotiations will have to emerge a Kurdistan, with land from Turkey, Iraq, perhaps Iran, and Syria. Assad will stay in power as a Russian proxy. Iran’s hold on Shi’ite Iraq will strengthen. A Sunni homeland, to include the political entity Islamic State will morph into, will need to be assured via a strict hands-off policy by Baghdad.

That Sunni homeland offers the first real way to geographically contain Islamic State. There obviously is risk in overtly allowing Islamic State to continue to exist, though that lives alongside the questions of whether it can be militarily destroyed, or if another group will simply take its place, as Islamic State did with al Qaeda in Iraq. These groups are symptoms of the broader Sunni-Shi’ite problem, not problems of their own per se.

The payoff of such a broad resolution will be a measure of stability, and a framework to enforce it. American efforts will shift from fanning the flames (American weapons are as ubiquitous as iPhones in the region) to putting out fires.

At risk for not acting: an empowered Islamic State, thriving on more chaos. An explosive dissolution of Iraq. A Russian-Turkish fight that could involve NATO. The shift from a Saudi-Iranian proxy war to a straightforward conflict between the two countries. A spark that forces Israel to act. A mini-world war, in the world’s most flammable region, that will create its own unexpected and uncontrolled realignment of power, and leave behind a warehouse of the dead.

Yes, I hate it, too. It is a very imperfect resolution. But an elegant solution is no longer viable.


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My thoughts on the issue exactly. I wrote about the problems in the middle east years ago in a copyrighted best-seller, THE PALESTINE CONSPIRACY and another, SECRET OF EKATERINBURG: THE HOUR-GLASS. The first book written in 1987 but not published until 2004. You did a great piece on a very complicated matter.

Posted by Geo20 | Report as abusive

Hear, Hear! Amen to a new conference including the U.S., E.U. Russia and reps. of all interested Middle East parties (including militias, even ISIS.). The U.S. has screwed up terribly meddling, destroying governments, even nations, creating chaos and civil wars. The U.S. should offer a U.S> policy of DISENGAGEMENT: cease fire unless fired upon, followed by U.S. VOLUNTARY protective evacuation of threatened populations to nearby Middle Eastern states that will take people in exchange for, say, 3 years of subsidy to accepting governments for subsistence, economic integration and military protection within newly affirmed national boundaries.

But you’ll never hear this from American politicians during campaign season. H. Clinton is as hawkish as any Republican candidate. Is here any hope? I don’t know.

Posted by Counselor1 | Report as abusive

An islamic reformation would help just a skosh…

LOL as though they could unify!

Posted by thebruce | Report as abusive

Middle-east was minding their business till this NATO/US meddle that killed off over a million and displaced over 10 million families. Senseless. Boot these folks out of this region to leave them to their own governance. What a waste of 4+ trillion dollars of precious US public’s tax-payer funds and to have brought to un-conceivable grief to both sides!

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

The Sykes-Picot agreement did more to create the issues we have today than almost any other Western policy towards the Ottoman Empire. Sheesh! Why would anyone advocate to do the same thing again? It is NOT the business of Western nations to tell other nations what their boundaries should be, who their citizens should be, or what form of government they should use. Leave well enough alone, fools.

Posted by shootmyownfood | Report as abusive