The Twilight of Sykes-Picot

A Levant torn asunder.

Before our eyes, the Levant region of the Middle East is coming undone. With the U.S. looking to avoid entanglement rather than engage with this fraught region, the consequences may be as irreversible as they are dangerous.

Bombs are rocking Beirut. Syria is ripping at the seams. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has in its crosshairs the Fallujah area of al-Anbar, which the U.S. surge of 2007 was designed to protect. Jordan continues to teeter. Sectarianism is once again rising up against nationalism in the Middle East. But this time, sectarianism is winning.

Today, what ties the violence in these Levantine nations together is precisely that the nations themselves are tearing apart along sectarian lines. If no internal or external forces stop the trend, multiple statelets will emerge where single nations once stood. Rather than wish Sykes-Picot’s downfall away, Washington would be wise to prepare for this increasingly likely scenario by gearing up for the challenges and opportunities likely to emerge in its wake.

In order to address the Levant’s disintegration, it is necessary to properly diagnose the violence’s roots. Until World War I, the region was administered under the Ottoman Empire as a series of provinces whose borders roughly ran along ethnic, religious and sectarian lines. In 1916, as the Ottoman Empire fell, the British and French powers divided the region among themselves, drawing new borders that fit their own geostrategic interests, with little regard for the disparate identities of each new states’ citizens. Hence, states like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and TransJordan (now Jordan) came into being for the first time in history.

Consequently, despite being forced together over the past century through artificial borders without historical antecedent, Kurds, Christians, Sunnis, Shias and Alawis have never truly shared a sense of common fate. Instead, the British and French-drawn Sykes-Picot lines have been preserved through a combination of foreign military presences – with the U.S. leading the way since the end of the Cold War – and ruthless autocrats who propped up one sect while dominating others through fear.

But now, both of these ingredients have been removed. In the wake of a disastrous Iraq War and a still-recovering economy at home, Washington is bent on ending its current military campaigns in the Middle East, not starting new ones. Furthermore, Arab Uprisings have removed the hammer of fear from the Middle East dictator’s toolbox, and discriminated minorities have begun to take up arms alongside jihadist groups against their oppressors. The West’s diminished political appetite and economic means to compel through military actions or engage in pluralistic nation building, combined with this loss of fear, mean that the Arab Spring is also Sykes-Picot’s Autumn. The borders that have for a century comprised Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq (and perhaps even Jordan) may not be much longer for this world.

Are there benefits to the end of Sykes-Picot in the Levant? Theoretically, yes. New borders may provide new opportunities for long-oppressed peoples to finally gain autonomy. For instance, this may be the moment for the Kurds of Iraq, Syria and Turkey to finally form their own nation-state, offering them the self-determination they have long sought. Furthermore, Syria’s splintering would deal a blow to Iran, which relies on Bashar al-Assad’s service as willing intermediary for weapons and money shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But the creation of myriad new statelets in an already unstable region is fraught with risks. Syria has amassed chemical weapons stored in dozens of areas across the country. Now imagine an Al Qaeda-run state in central and northern Syria sitting atop a vast arsenal of such weapons. Or a Sunni jihadi western Iraq lording over critical oil pipelines, bordered by a Shia eastern Iraq that controls major reserves and sits squarely in Iran’s sphere of influence. Or an entirely sovereign Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The Levant’s current state and the West’s desire to disentangle itself from the region mean that these nightmare scenarios are increasingly likely.

Given the implications of Sykes-Picot’s demise, Washington would be wise to devise a three-pronged strategy aimed at ensuring that Syria disposes of its chemical weapons as quickly as possible, empowering Sunni moderates to prevent jihadi-controlled statelets, and reducing our strategic dependence on Middle Eastern oil by investing heavily in alternative transportation fuels. Surely, the Obama administration’s primary regional goals of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord are noble and strategically important. But these aims must be matched with an equal sense of urgency toward a Levant that is falling apart; for Sykes-Picot’s autumn, like Iranian nukes and Israeli-Palestinian strife, presents critical national security risks for the United States.

The U.S. is understandably reticent, given our experience in Iraq and our need to present a plausible military option against Iran, to stretch ourselves too thin. But policymakers must understand that just as there is a cost for overinvolvement, there is also a price for remaining aloof. Washington cannot midwife every transition in the Middle East; our experience should caution us against such hubris. But if we do not seek a comprehensive strategy to forge the Levant we wish to see, the one that emerges in its stead may come back to haunt us.

Mark Donig is a J.D. student at UC Berkeley School of Law. His focus is on international law and energy law.