The Sykes-Picot agreement and its lasting implications

The Sykes-Picot agreement and its lasting implications

May 16, 2016 marked the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Sykes-Picot was a secret wartime agreement between representatives of Britain and France laying out zones of influence in Mesopotamia and the Levant. The nations also communicated the agreement to Russia and Japan as wartime allies with a cession to Czarist Russia included. Control of these lands was to be wrested from Turkey if the Ottomans lost the war. While many of the terms of the agreement were substantially altered by events and subsequent arrangements, it is still seen as a defining act of Franco-British colonial domination.

Moreover, since the main intent was to assert British and French influence over the newly defined and imposed states, it hardly matters in symbolic terms that the final areas dominated by each power differed somewhat when state borders were finally implemented. In fact, the original French zone was to straddle Iraq and Syria in a fashion consistent with ISIS’ current territorial claims.

The centrality of Sykes-Picot to the views of Islamic radicals has been repeated in several contexts. After ISIS first took control of an area that spanned northern Iraq and northern Syria they created a video showing bulldozers destroying border posts and fences between Iraq and Syria. The narrator was specific in saying that in doing so they were destroying the Sykes-Picot borders.

Several years prior when discussing his wish to set up a new Muslim caliphate, Osama Bin Laden said that the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent setting up of Western power in areas that had been part of the Ottoman Caliphate marked the saddest point in regional history. He shared the belief that a restored caliphate would remedy the situation.

What is clear from recent history is that both Western and Middle Eastern observers have severe concerns about the lack of stability in the areas focused upon by Sykes-Picot.

These states, even after independence, have had far less stability or territorial integrity than the regional former colonial North African states like Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and arguably Libya. In fact, since Libya enjoyed a 90% Sunni Arab Berber homogeneous population, a high literacy rate, and strong healthcare all paid for by strong oil sales, there was reason to believe that the Gaddafi dictatorship could have been reformed to a less authoritarian regime under Saif Gaddafi, an LSE PhD, and reform-minded members of the Libyan judiciary. Qaddafi’s own suspension of a nuclear program and his encouragement for Western investors and Saif’s outreach to western human rights organizations suggested the possibility of progress.

Lines in the sand: Breaking up ethnic and religious groups

By contrast with Libya, the Sykes-Picot areas of the Levant and Mesopotamia fell victim to a problem also confronted by post-colonial Africa. Political boundaries were created in accord with the economic and strategic needs of the colonial powers without attention to ethnic, religious, or racial identities.

The Kurds were divided between Iraq, Iran and Turkey rather than getting their own country. The eventual borders of Iraq also included populations of Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Yezidis, Assyrians, Turkmen, and even a substantial Jewish population before an outmigration to Israel from 1948-1951.

Lebanon was then majority Christian with substantial populations of Sunni and Shia Muslims. It was also considered part of greater Syria by the Syrians. Syria had a majority of Sunni Muslims but significant populations of Christians and Alawites, a marginal Shia Muslim group that shared some commonalities with Christians. These new political entities lacked mechanisms for bridging ethnic or religious divides, although Iraq did have periods of shared nationalism and positive intergroup discussions after the Qasim led coup that displaced the Faisal monarchy.

The levels of strife throughout this region including the Lebanese Civil War from 1975-1990, the current Syrian Civil War that has been raging since 2011 with no end in sight, and even the Sunni-Shia sectarian Iraq Civil War from 2003-2008 have all been bloody, of long duration, and seemingly intractable. Lebanon seems to have calmed but with a likely reduction in the Christian population and with Iranian backed social and medical services doled by the Shia to other identity groups as well.

The Sykes-Picot related problems in the area have also been caused by acts that were not in keeping with the agreement. For instance, the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which committed the British to a Jewish state in Palestine, violated the Sykes-Picot plan to internationalize Palestine. It also seemed to violate the McMahon-Hussein agreement prior to Sykes-Picot that would have granted an Arab nation to Hussein Bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca. That agreement was made with the support of TE Lawrence in recognition of the Sharif’s armed support of British forces against the Ottomans. This made sense given Sharif’s Arab nationalist cause against the Ottomans but seemed misguided to violate in light of this. The trouble with the Balfour Declaration and its incorporation in the Versailles Treaty was that it thereafter linked Israel to British colonial administration rather than make it a legitimate goal of a Jewish national liberation movement.

A source of conflicts

Colonial inattention to ethnic and religious identities identified with Sykes-Picot has created an often intolerable situation for citizens of these states. One solution has been authoritarian rule as has been seen to degrees in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. However, while authoritarian rule imposes order, it often does so in accord with the ethnic or religious affiliation of the authoritarian leader. This is seen in the suppressed non-Sunni groups under Saddam Hussein, Muslim Brotherhood adherents under Mubarak, and favored Alawites under both Hafez and Basher Al-Assad.

Attempts to create a larger Arab nation have included the former Pan Arab United Arab Republic that was formed between Egypt and Syria. Various attempts at resolving identity conflicts within states have included the power sharing arrangement between Sunni Arabs, Christians, and Shia Arabs in Lebanon. As seen in Lebanon and in Cyprus, such arrangements are rigid and often come up short. Attempts at partition of existing states into ethnic, religious or sectarian nations might not provide an equal distribution of state resources and may only result in wars following self-determination. The Israel-Gaza experiment also comes to mind.

One hopeful, but radical plan would be to restore the millet system of Ottoman administration. This set up recognition of religious sects and leaders recognized by the Ottomans with populations that cohabited the same space. It would accommodate Muslims with allegiance to the Muslim umma, or community, rather than a geographic state.

The leader of this larger state entity could distribute resources and gather taxes through religious millets rather than by geography. In fact, the leftover Ottoman qadas or counties and current religious endowments or waqfs could help to administer the plan. The only problem would be to find a proper means for nominating a leader to serve as a modern version of a Sultan.

Though radical, this plan would seem more culturally attuned than an attempt at Western federalism and like ISIS’ caliphate could be sold as overcoming Sykes-Picot.

About Author

Lawrence Katzenstein

Lawrence Katzenstein has taught at the University of New Orleans and the University of Minnesota. Through an affiliation with the Humphrey Institute he was one of the trainers for the initial Chinese WTO delegation. He has been an exchange professor at the Consolidated Universities of Shandong Province and an embedded social scientist with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He earned a B.A. in political science from CCNY and an M.A. and Ph.D in political science from Rutgers University. While at the University of Minnesota he also completed a teaching post doc in International Business.