Good Riddance to Sykes-Picot

February 12, 2014 Topic: Global Governance Region: Middle East

Good Riddance to Sykes-Picot

The overdue breakdown of the imposed order in the Middle East will ultimately lead to more stability.


In reading about the Middle East, it is difficult not to be amazed at how strikingly similar today's language is to that of the Gladstones and Cromers of the time. We hear of an Orient jinxed by its ethnicities, religions, history, geography and culture to a future of conflict and bloodshed. Even the popular term Arab Spring betrays this sentiment; where it's winter, no storm comes as a surprise. As Europe's bloody history of state formation reflects, violence is a natural aspect of political change. Yet with the Middle East, the natural violence and rivalries that colonialism had masterfully manipulated to maintain itself are portrayed as the underlying causes of a justified imperialism—replacing anarchy with order, bringing civilization to the barbaric and heathen tribes. In such contexts, the end of a colonial order such as Sykes-Picot comes to be viewed as a fearful prospect.

Previously in this journal, Mark Donig argued that “the Arab Spring is also Sykes-Picot’s Autumn.” He sees few benefits and many dangers in Sykes-Picot’s disintegration. He should have been more optimistic. The Sykes-Picot system brought disorder, not order; it was the "original sin" of contemporary Middle East, the dynamic behind most of its enduring troubles.


At bottom, Sykes-Picot was a colonial ordering device, devised in secret and imposed by force. It was neither the first, nor the only such device. Indeed, as Sykes and Picot were negotiating their eponymous treaty, Gen. MacMahon was promising Sherif Hussein of Mecca some of the same lands Sykes-Picot had promised to the French. The same lands—namely, Palestine—were also promised as a 'national home' for the Jews with the Balfour Declaration, making the thrice-promised land the scene of an unending conflict. The problem with the Sykes-Picot system is not that those under its purview lacked a sense of a common fate, as suggested by Mr. Donig. It was that their fate was determined by secret and illegal covenants that imposed a colonial order, against their will and contrary to the natural equilibrium of power in the region. This order not only created artificial borders, but also constructed conflicting dialectics by conferring rights and entitlements to certain communities and not to others and frustrating any attempts at state (re-)formation reflecting the natural equilibrium of power. The order condemned the region to its troubles.

Mr. Donig's argument that Sykes-Picot reflected the borders of Ottoman provinces that roughly ran along ethnic, religious and sectarian lines is an oft-cited defense against the charge of an imposition of colonial geography and betrays a poor understanding of the Ottoman administrative structure, which was based not on ethnic or religious contours but on a province's strategic significance and capacity. After Selim I consolidated Ottoman rule over the Middle East in 1517, the region had lost its strategic priority, and except for matters related to the custody of the Holy Cities, it was viewed as a hinterland to the conquests in the Balkans and beyond. Hence, high-income/low-impact governorates like Egypt, Aleppo and Baghdad were tendered to tax farmers, who paid an annual tribute to a centrally appointed governor. This arrangement had little to do with ethnic or religious contours; it optimized resource extraction and political attention. Had the assertion been true, the same dynamic would have been observed in Anatolia, the Balkans, Tunisia and Algiers, which were as ethnically and religiously diverse; it is not, precisely because these provinces had a strategic value for the Empire's 'grand strategy'.

Sykes-Picot imposed a geography that was not merely physical but also social. Prior to great-power politics, the Ottoman Empire had developed a system of peaceful coexistence Karen Barkey describes as 'discrimination without persecution,' a system that managed to achieve a relative peace among its diverse subjects. Historical dynamics like the rise of nationalism after the French Revolution resulted in the secession of the Serbs, the Greeks and the Bulgars, but the Middle East had not witnessed any such efforts until the British incitement of the First Arab Revolt. And more broadly, the ethnic, religious and sectarian conflicts of the contemporary Middle East were absent until the colonial powers created them. The leaders of the Iraqi revolution of 1920 were a Shiite and a Sunni. The Syrian revolution was led by a Druze. Ataturk's second-in-command was an ethnic Kurd. The Armenians, the Jews and the Greeks were called the 'loyal subjects' (Millet-i Sadika) under the Ottoman Empire.

The British Empire laid the foundations of the Arab-Israeli conflict by promising Palestine both to Arabs and to Jews. The overthrow of Egypt's King Farouk and Syria's Shukri al-Quwatli created the Baath and its oppressive nationalisms. Deposing Mossadegh made Iran a dictatorship that could only be overthrown by the forces of theocracy. Supporting Saddam against that theocracy brought the First Gulf War. The deployment of troops in Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War fuelled Al Qaeda.The invasion of Iraq created space for a sectarian bloodbath. And the plight of the Kurds, for whom Mr. Donig sees new opportunities to finally gain autonomy, also has its roots in colonialism: Iraq, Iran and Turkey's feared the aftershocks of colonial promises to carve a Greater Kurdistan out of their countries.

Forming a modern polity requires a slow and violent process. In France, it took more than a century and a half. The Sykes-Picot order prevented such processes, condemning the Middle East to life in a premodern geography, but under modern norms. Quoting Ian Lustick, "the kind of interstate violence through which [these] states could become the third world equivalents of Muscovy, Piedmont, Prussia, Wessex or Ile de France never happened in the Middle East.” Potential state builders like Mohammad Ali Pasha, Gamal Abdul Nasser and, yes, Saddam Hussein, imposing radical and violent change from without, were frustrated in their efforts through and because of great-power politics. Had the contemporary Middle East been seventeenth-century Europe, larger states like Iraq and Syria would have long invaded the likes of Kuwait and Lebanon. Of course, it was not morally and politically acceptable for Iraq to invade Kuwait, but it was no less so than the Thirty Years' War. The only difference was that when the great national states of Europe were constructed, there was no external club of preexisting great powers able to penetrate their continent and enforce a paralyzingly fragmented status quo, to their own benefit. Had the same pattern prevailed in Europe, perhaps atavisms like the Kingdoms of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily would still be kicking around.

Like the joke about the man who complains his brother thinks he's a chicken, but who won't take him to the doctor because he needs the eggs; those fearing the death of Sykes-Picot don't fear its life as much as they should. The purported autumn of Sykes-Picot is an occasion for celebration, not trepidation, for it could provide an opportunity for the United States to replace the spiritless Realpolitik of the colonial order it inherited with an ethical realism that would be more sober, humble, prudent and responsible. The choice is not one between Sisi and Morsi, between Assad and Al Qaeda, between interventionism and isolationism. A true partnership with the Middle East could restore America's moral leadership and ideological appeal at a time when it is most needed, and can inspire the Middle East down the road towards liberty, prosperity and democracy. Washington should bid the old colonial order good riddance.

Selim Can Sazak is a Fulbright Scholar from Turkey, currently studying as a graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Rafy. CC BY-SA 3.0.