Today in Middle Eastern history: Sykes-Picot is signed (1916)

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Today is the anniversary of ISIS’s least-favorite arbitrarily-drawn line on a map, the Iraq-Syria boundary delineated by the Sykes-Picot agreement. Al-Jazeera has a pretty handy explainer on the agreement, though I think the headline oversells the content a little bit. Here’s another explainer over at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment that is pretty good. Or you can read my long-ago look at badly-drawn colonial borders.

Though interest in Sykes-Picot has diminished along with the size of ISIS’s “caliphate,” I’d imagine you could find more thinkpieces lamenting the agreement on the internets today than anyone should ever read. I sometimes wonder how mortified Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot would be to know that their most lasting contribution to history is this line they drew, probably without giving it very much thought, that is now blamed for a considerable percentage of the dysfunction of the modern Middle East. And some of that blame isn’t entirely fair. For one thing, as Michael Collins Dunn points out, when most people talk about “Sykes-Picot” today they’re really using this agreement as shorthand for the whole host of post-World War I agreements that were drawn up among the victorious European allies that arranged for the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, many of which changed what Sykes and Picot were trying to do. In fact, the post-war settlement as envisioned by Sykes and Picot supposed to look something like this:

Here’s the text of the agreement if you’re interested.

You don’t see it on that map, but Russia was also supposed to get control of Istanbul while Italy was supposed to get much of southern Anatolia and Greece would have controlled the western Anatolian coast. The Hashemites were going to keep ruling the Hejaz (western Arabia) while the Al Saud ruled the Nejd (central Arabia).

A lot of this stuff, obviously, never happened. The Russian Revolution and Lenin’s withdrawal from the war meant that none of the territory promised to Russia would actually come under Russian control (the Bolsheviks also did their best to screw Britain and France by publishing this “secret” agreement in their Pravda newspaper). The nationalist victory in the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1922) meant that Anatolia would not be divvied up among the Europeans and would instead become the new Republic of Turkey. The Saudi conquest of the Hijaz created the nation of Saudi Arabia. When oil was found near Mosul the Brits renegotiated (somewhat forcibly) their arrangement with France to include that city in their zone of influence. Palestine never became the international zone this agreement envisioned, and instead it became another British mandate before, well, you know. And the whole distinction between areas of “rule” and areas of “protection” was lost as the mandates all functioned pretty much like colonies. British promises of Arab self-governance were either abandoned or greatly delayed.

Then you have to consider how much of the modern crises facing this region stem simply from inadequate borders. Yes, it matters that the Syria-Iraq border has proven to be porous in large part because it divided a region that was historically dominated by Sunni Bedouin tribes. But Iraq and Syria aren’t failed states because their shared border is badly conceived. They’re failed states because of the depredations of the colonial mandate period that followed World War I and the depredations of the totalitarian dictatorships that followed and were made possible by the colonial period. Sykes and Picot were a part of the colonial machinery that did so much damage to the Middle East, but they and their agreement shouldn’t get the lion’s share of the blame for what’s happened since. There were too many subsequent failures to blame the current state of affairs just on the sloppy work of these two diplomats.

It’s also worth noting that ISIS’s biggest complaint about Sykes-Picot—that it artificially divided the historically undivided regions of Syria and Iraq—is completely wrong. The specific place where the Sykes-Picot agreement drew the dividing line was not great and certainly reflected their lack of understanding of and curiosity about the region, but “Syria” and “Iraq” have been distinct and usually separately-governed territories since antiquity.

This is not to excuse Sykes and Picot from their share of the blame for what’s happening in Syria and Iraq today. ISIS’s success, though probably fleeting, is proof of just how flimsy that Iraq-Syria border really is, and its flimsiness in turn has made it more difficult than it should be to contain the movement of men and materiel between the two countries (though, again, the governments of both Iraq and Syria have had decades to try to do something about that and haven’t). But amid the chatter these days about how Sykes-Picot is obsolete and how partitioning nations and redrawing Middle Eastern borders would be a panacea, consider that even if you could create the conditions under which the nations and peoples of the Middle East were all amenable to redrawing borders, there is no guarantee that the second attempt would be any better than the first. In fact, it could easily be worse.