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Why Sykes-Picot is (still) important

The centenary of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement has been marked by what can only be described as a deluge of writing. Opinions have been numerous, sometimes tiresomely so, and have ranged exceedingly widely. Some have presented the agreement as far and away the most significant point of reference for understanding the contemporary Middle East. Others have sought to revisit conventional interpretations of the agreement, typically by stressing that it was rapidly overtaken by other instruments and developments or by contending that corruption and authoritarianism, not European meddling, lie at the root of the region’s ongoing political and economic turmoil. These critical arguments are frequently advanced on the basis of a desire to “demythologize” the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

To be sure, there is something to be said for some of the arguments that have been levelled against the traditional understanding of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. However, they have sometimes been quite misleading, and they are nearly always in need of significant reframing and qualification.

To begin with, while it is true that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was not implemented directly or comprehensively, it is also true that it exemplified the logic of state-building through imperialist partition that would reconstitute the Middle East after the First World War. In late 1917, the Bolsheviks published the agreement’s text as part of a full-throated effort to mobilize the working classes of the world against the imperialist powers that had engendered the Great War. The Balfour Declaration, issued at nearly the same time, called for a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine – a territory for which Sykes and Picot had originally envisioned some type of “international administration”. All this did much to complicate and delegitimize the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Yet, the desire to restructure the region in line with European interests remained alive and well. Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant stipulated that certain territories detached from the German and Ottoman empires were to be administered by foreign states. Such states were to exercise their powers under League supervision and with the aim of ensuring the “well-being” and “development” of the peoples concerned. The 1920 San Remo Conference determined the allocation of the Middle Eastern territories that would be integrated into the resulting regime of internationalized quasi-colonialism. And as specific instruments for each of the relevant territories were drafted and entered into force during the early 1920s, the institutional architecture of a full-fledged “Mandates System” took shape, inaugurating a process of state-building that would eventually result in the creation of a new, post-Ottoman Middle East. The final result did not correspond to the map upon which Sykes and Picot had scribbled their lines and letters, not least because the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne (which replaced the unratified 1920 Treaty of Sèvres) consolidated the Turkish nationalists’ control over Cilicia and northern Kurdistan. But it would never have materialized in the way that it did without the formative influence of the deal they struck in 1916.

Turn now to the claim that political instability and uneven economic development in the Middle East is attributable principally to decades of undemocratic government. Of course, neither the Sykes-Picot Agreement nor any of the other instruments with which it is directly or indirectly affiliated can be blamed for all of the region’s ills. To suggest otherwise would be to discount the agency of regional actors and to ignore the complexity of historical developments. After all, the degeneration of Arab nationalism from a secular and broadly socialist, if disturbingly chauvinistic, movement into the one-party rule of a Hafez al-Assad or Saddam Hussein was by no means an inevitable consequence of the work of Sykes, Picot, or the countless others who had a hand in the construction of the modern Middle East.

That said, it is simply not possible to discount the significance of the kind of imperial intervention and externally coordinated state-building that Sykes and Picot facilitated. At root, this does not mean that the fundamental problem with the Sykes-Picot Agreement stems from the “arbitrariness” of the borders it ultimately helped to establish – or even, as is sometimes suggested, with the very idea of firm international boundaries in the Arab world. (It bears noting that while many Middle Eastern borders were indeed drawn arbitrarily, others grew out of long-standing Ottoman administrative practices. Even more importantly, one should keep in mind that the tendency to characterize Iraq and other states as “artificial” has often functioned as an imperialist narrative used to justify continued Western control or “assistance”.) Instead, it means that the fundamental problem with the agreement is that it bequeathed to us a legacy of Western intervention throughout the Middle East. It is bad faith and bad history – not to mention exceedingly bad “policy” – to condemn authoritarianism in the Middle East without appreciating the fact that the processes of elite formation and state capitalism that made it possible were fed by state-building experiments organized to a large degree from London, Paris, Geneva, and other Western centres.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement is not everything it has been made out to be. Its significance has frequently been exaggerated, and its links with countless other promises and arrangements – some conflicting, others complementary – have sometimes been overlooked. Nevertheless, its symbolic importance can hardly be doubted. From advocates of pan-Arabism to supporters of Kurdish nationalism, from Islamists running roughshod over one border after another to Palestinians denouncing decades of occupation and displacement, “Sykes-Picot” remains a touchstone. If it is a “mythology”, it is one that has given rise to a tremendous amount of upheaval and that continues to exercise a considerable amount of influence.

Featured image credit: ‘Living on the verge of Al Habbala Valley’. Photo by Wajahat Mahmood. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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