100 years on, the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, Jon Stewart and Joe Biden all agree…

May 16, 2016

100 YEARS AGO TODAY

[Note by Tom Gross]

The Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, American pundit-comedian Jon Stewart, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, and the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, all agree that the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret plan for dividing up the Middle East signed by France and Britain 100 years ago today, was a bad thing.

But was it?

Certainly there were losers: the Kurds for example, or 1.3 million ethnic Greeks driven out of Anatolia by the Turks.

But others, such as The Economist magazine, argue that the chaos of the Middle East is very much the fault of the regimes there. “Lots of countries have blossomed despite traumatic histories: South Korea and Poland, for example – not to mention Israel,” argues The Economist.

Below I attach seven articles on the hundredth anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, containing a variety of views. There are extracts first, for those who don’t have time to read the articles in full.

It is worth noting that today is also significant in that it marks the 50th anniversary of another globally important event, the beginning of China’s murderous Cultural Revolution.

(Please note that my hand is still injured, it is hard to type, and I may not be able to reply to emails.)


EXTRACTS

Steven A. Cook and Amr T. Leheta, Foreign Policy magazine:

Sometime in the 100 years since the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed, invoking its “end” became a thing among commentators, journalists, and analysts of the Middle East. Responsibility for the cliché might belong to the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, who in June 2013 wrote an essay in the London Review of Books arguing that the agreement, which was one of the first attempts to reorder the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s demise, was itself in the process of dying. Since then, the meme has spread far and wide: A quick Google search reveals more than 8,600 mentions of the phrase “the end of Sykes-Picot” over the last three years…

The “end of Sykes-Picot” argument is almost always followed with an exposition of the artificial nature of the countries in the region. Their borders do not make sense, according to this argument, because there are people of different religions, sects, and ethnicities within them. The current fragmentation of the Middle East is thus the result of hatreds and conflicts – struggles that “date back millennia,” as U.S. President Barack Obama said…

Yet this focus on Sykes-Picot is a combination of bad history and shoddy social science. And it is setting up the United States, once again, for failure in the Middle East.

 

Jackson Diehl, Washington Post:

Today is the 100th anniversary of something called the Sykes-Picot agreement, an occasion that has touched off a small frenzy of Washington think-tank conferences and journal articles – not to mention Islamic State manifestos. Mark Sykes and François Georges Picot were diplomats from Britain and France, respectively, who agreed on a secret plan to partition the collapsing Ottoman Empire. The result, after a few more years of imperialist machinations, was the creation of Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon – the heart of what is now the bloody chaos of the modern Middle East….

Outside the administration, not many people believe Iraq and Syria can survive in their present form. At a minimum, they will have to become loose federations, like Bosnia after the Yugoslav wars. Who will devise those solutions, and how will they be brought into being? On that, this U.S. president is punting – which means the would-be successors to Sykes and Picot must wait for another year.

 

Daniel Pipes, Washington Times:

The Sykes-Picot accord that has shaped and distorted the modern Middle East was signed one hundred years ago… Not surprisingly, the Allied Powers secretly carving up the central Middle East without consulting its inhabitants prompted an outraged response (George Antonius, writing in 1938: “a shocking document ... the product of greed at its worst ... a startling piece of double-dealing”). Sykes-Picot set the stage for the proliferation of a deeply consequential conspiracy-mentality that ever since has afflicted the region.

Sykes-Picot created a miasma of fear about foreign intervention that explains the still widespread preference for discerning supposed hidden causes over overt ones…

From the vantage point of a century later, Sykes-Picot has an almost purely malign influence without redeeming qualities…

On its centenary, Sykes-Picot’s central achievement, the creation of the Syrian and Iraqi states, appears to be in tatters…

The Islamic State (or ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) proclaimed “the end of Sykes-Picot” when it eliminated border posts along the Syria-Iraq border; nevertheless, many observers, including myself, see the fracturing of these two rogue states into six mini-states on balance as a good thing because the small states are more homogeneous and less powerful than the prior regimes.

 

The Economist magazine:

When Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot secretly drew their lines on the map of the Levant to carve up the Ottoman empire in May 1916, at the height of the first world war, they could scarcely have imagined the mess they would set in train…

All this is not so much a clash of civilisations as a war within Arab civilisation. Outsiders cannot fix it – though their actions could help make things a bit better, or a lot worse. First and foremost, a settlement must come from Arabs themselves…

But the idea that America should turn away from the region – which Barack Obama seems to embrace – can be as destabilising as intervention, as the catastrophe in Syria shows. Lots of countries have blossomed despite traumatic histories: South Korea and Poland – not to mention Israel…

A second wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and sects can change from one village or one street to the next…

A third ill-advised idea is that Arab autocracy is the way to hold back extremism and chaos.

 

Michael Rubin, American Enterprise Institute:

Robin Wright, a frequent writer on the Middle East, recently penned an article calling Sykes-Picot “a curse.” Nonsense. Sykes-Picot was a blessing for many in the Middle East.

To look at the map of the Middle East might be to conclude that Sykes-Picot, the agreement which led to the drawing of so many contemporary borders, also created artificial countries. But just because a border is artificial does not mean that the resulting county is.

Iraq, for example, became independent in 1932, twelve years after the League of Nations demarcated its borders, but Arabic literature speaks of “Iraq” going back a millennium. Likewise, Syria – under its current artificial borders – became a League of Nations’ Mandate in 1920, but a notion of Syria as a region existed at the time of Muhammad. The same holds true for Turkey and Israel…

Did Sykes-Picot also create artificial countries? Certainly. Jordan is the primary case in point. Similar arguments are often made about the Gulf Cooperation Council states, despite not being born as the result of Sykes-Picot. The smaller among them may effectively be “tribes with flags,” but even that is a real identity…

There is no way to divide borders and create homogeneous states…

To even try to is to conduct ethnic and sectarian cleansing. To create new borders and new states with minority populations, meanwhile, is simply to reshuffle the deck, not change the game.

 

Nick Danforth, New York Times:

There probably aren’t many things that the Islamic State, Jon Stewart and the president of Iraqi Kurdistan agree on, but there is one: the pernicious influence of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret plan for dividing up the Middle East signed by France and Britain, 100 years ago this week. It has become conventional wisdom to argue, as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. recently did, that the Middle East’s problems stem from “artificial lines, creating artificial states made up of totally distinct ethnic, religious, cultural groups.”

That Western imperialism had a malignant influence on the course of Middle Eastern history is without a doubt. But is Sykes-Picot the right target for this ire?

 

Jerusalem Post editorial:

Sykes-Picot is not to blame for the disintegration of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, rather it is the autocratic nature of these countries’ political leaderships.

 

* Please “like” these dispatches on Facebook here www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia, where you can also find other items that are not in these dispatches.

You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia


CONTENTS

1. “Don’t blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s mess” (Steven Cook and Amr Leheta, Foreign Policy, May 13, 2016)
2. “‘A shocking document’ turns 100” (Daniel Pipes, Wash. Times, May 9, 2016)
3. “Was Sykes-Picot a bad thing?” (Michael Rubin, AEIdeas, May 3, 2016)
4. “The breakdown of Arab states: The war within” (The Economist, May 14, 2016)
5. “Obama’s minimalist Mideast muddle” (Jackson Diehl, Wash. Post, May 16, 2026)
6. “Could different borders have saved the Mideast?” (Nick Danforth, NY Times, May 14, 2016)
7. “Sykes-Picot’s demise” (Jerusalem Post Editorial, May 16, 2016)

 

FULL ARTICLES

“THE LEGACY OF SYKES-PICOT EXPLAINS LITTLE, IF ANYTHING, ABOUT THE REGION’S PROBLEMS TODAY”

Don’t Blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s Mess
By Steven A. Cook and Amr T. Leheta
Foreign Policy magazine
May 13, 2016

Sometime in the 100 years since the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed, invoking its “end” became a thing among commentators, journalists, and analysts of the Middle East. Responsibility for the cliché might belong to the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, who in June 2013 wrote an essay in the London Review of Books arguing that the agreement, which was one of the first attempts to reorder the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s demise, was itself in the process of dying. Since then, the meme has spread far and wide: A quick Google search reveals more than 8,600 mentions of the phrase “the end of Sykes-Picot” over the last three years.

The failure of the Sykes-Picot agreement is now part of the received wisdom about the contemporary Middle East. And it is not hard to understand why. Four states in the Middle East are failing – Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. If there is a historic shift in the region, the logic goes, then clearly the diplomatic settlements that produced the boundaries of the Levant must be crumbling. History seems to have taken its revenge on Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, who hammered out the agreement that bears their name.

The “end of Sykes-Picot” argument is almost always followed with an exposition of the artificial nature of the countries in the region. Their borders do not make sense, according to this argument, because there are people of different religions, sects, and ethnicities within them. The current fragmentation of the Middle East is thus the result of hatreds and conflicts – struggles that “date back millennia,” as U.S. President Barack Obama said – that Sykes and Picot unwittingly released by creating these unnatural states. The answer is new borders, which will resolve all the unnecessary damage the two diplomats wrought over the previous century.

Yet this focus on Sykes-Picot is a combination of bad history and shoddy social science. And it is setting up the United States, once again, for failure in the Middle East.

For starters, it is not possible to pronounce that the maelstrom of the present Middle East killed the Sykes-Picot agreement, because the deal itself was stillborn. Sykes and Picot never negotiated state borders per se, but rather zones of influence. And while the idea of these zones lived on in the postwar agreements, the framework the two diplomats hammered out never came into existence.

Unlike the French, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s government actively began to undermine the accord as soon as Sykes signed it – in pencil. The details are complicated, but as Margaret Macmillan makes clear in her illuminating book Paris 1919, the alliance between Britain and France in the fight against the Central Powers did little to temper their colonial competition. Once the Russians dropped out of the war after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the British prime minister came to believe that the French zone that Sykes and Picot had outlined – comprising southeastern Turkey, the western part of Syria, Lebanon, and Mosul – was no longer a necessary bulwark between British positions in the region and the Russians.

Nor are the Middle East’s modern borders completely without precedent. Yes, they are the work of European diplomats and colonial officers – but these boundaries were not whimsical lines drawn on a blank map. They were based, for the most part, on pre-existing political, social, and economic realities of the region, including Ottoman administrative divisions and practices. The actual source of the boundaries of the present Middle East can be traced to the San Remo conference, which produced the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920. Although Turkish nationalists defeated this agreement, the conference set in motion a process in which the League of Nations established British mandates over Palestine and Iraq, in 1920, and a French mandate for Syria, in 1923. The borders of the region were finalized in 1926, when the vilayet of Mosul – which Arabs and Ottomans had long associated with al-Iraq al-Arabi (Arab Iraq), made up of the provinces of Baghdad and Basra – was attached to what was then called the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

On a deeper level, critics of the Middle East’s present borders mistakenly assume that national borders have to be delineated naturally, along rivers and mountains, or around various identities in order to endure. It is a supposition that willfully ignores that most, if not all, of the world’s settled borders are contrived political arrangements, more often than not a result of negotiations between various powers and interests. Moreover, the populations inside these borders are not usually homogenous.

The same holds true for the Middle East, where borders were determined by balancing colonial interests against local resistance. These borders have become institutionalized in the last hundred years. In some cases – such as Egypt, Iran, or even Iraq – they have come to define lands that have long been home to largely coherent cultural identities in a way that makes sense for the modern age. Other, newer entities – Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for instance – have come into their own in the last century.

While no one would have talked of a Jordanian identity centuries ago, a nation now exists, and its territorial integrity means a great deal to the Jordanian people.

The conflicts unfolding in the Middle East today, then, are not really about the legitimacy of borders or the validity of places called Syria, Iraq, or Libya. Instead, the origin of the struggles within these countries is over who has the right to rule them. The Syrian conflict, regardless of what it has evolved into today, began as an uprising by all manner of Syrians – men and women, young and old, Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, and even Alawite – against an unfair and corrupt autocrat, just as Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, and Bahrainis did in 2010 and 2011.

The weaknesses and contradictions of authoritarian regimes are at the heart of the Middle East’s ongoing tribulations. Even the rampant ethnic and religious sectarianism is a result of this authoritarianism, which has come to define the Middle East’s state system far more than the Sykes-Picot agreement ever did.

The region’s “unnatural” borders did not lead to the Middle East’s ethnic and religious divisions. The ones to blame are the cynical political leaders who foster those divisions in hopes of maintaining their rule. In Iraq, for instance, Saddam Hussein built a patronage system through his ruling Baath Party that empowered a state governed largely by Sunnis at the expense of Shiites and Kurds. Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and his father before him, also ruled by building a network of supporters and affiliates whereby members of his Alawite sect enjoyed a privileged space in the inner circle. The Wahhabi worldview of Saudi Arabia’s leaders strongly encourages a sectarian interpretation of the country’s struggle with Iran for regional hegemony. The same is true for the ideologies of the various Salafi-jihadi groups battling for supremacy in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Identity politics play a role in the unfolding struggles for control in the Middle East, but they are not necessarily the root of the region’s conflicts. Instead, it is the style of politics and government chosen by successive Middle Eastern leaders that has pitted their own populations against each other.

Many countries in the Middle East could fragment in the years to come. But with the possible exception of Iraqi Kurdistan, which was grafted onto Iraq, there will be nothing “more natural” about that new order than what has been the status quo for a century. The myth of a better Sykes-Picot is just that – a fable that can either justify an incoherent Middle East policy or advocate for an international-led effort to redraw the map.

The worst assumption that champions of the “end of the Sykes-Picot” argument can make is that Middle Easterners, in their struggle to determine their future and ensure their own stability, want a radically new map to govern them. It would be more helpful, and more accurate, to stop giving the Sykes-Picot agreement so much credit. Its legacy explains little, if anything, about the region’s problems today.

 

“THE FOUL LEGACY OF SYKES-PICOT”

‘A shocking document’ turns 100: The secret agreement that shaped the Middle East set the stage for lethal instability
By Daniel Pipes
Washington Times
May 9, 2016

The Sykes-Picot accord that has shaped and distorted the modern Middle East was signed one hundred years ago, on May 16, 1916. In the deal, Mark Sykes for the British and François Georges-Picot for the French, with the Russians participating too, allocated much of the region, pending the minor detail of their defeating the Central Powers in World War I.

Sykes-Picot (official name: the Asia Minor Agreement) bears recalling because its profound two mistakes are in danger of being repeated: one concerned form and the other substance.

Form: Negotiated in secret by three European imperial powers, it became the great symbol of European perfidy. Not surprisingly, the Allied Powers secretly carving up the central Middle East without consulting its inhabitants prompted an outraged response (George Antonius, writing in 1938: “a shocking document ... the product of greed at its worst ... a startling piece of double-dealing”). Sykes-Picot set the stage for the proliferation of a deeply consequential conspiracy-mentality that ever since has afflicted the region.

Sykes-Picot created a miasma of fear about foreign intervention that explains the still widespread preference for discerning supposed hidden causes over overt ones. What in 1916 appeared to be a clever division of territory among allies turned out to set the stage for a century of mistrust, fear, extremism, violence, and instability. Sykes-Picot contributed substantially to making the Middle East the sick region it is today.

Substance: In simple terms, France got Syria and Lebanon, Britain got Palestine and Iraq. But it was operationally not so simple, as borders, administrations, and competing claims needed to be worked out. For example, French forces destroyed the putative kingdom of Syria. Winston Churchill one fine afternoon conjured up the country now known as Jordan. Under pressure from Lebanese Catholics, the French government increased the size of Lebanon at the expense of Syria.

But the largest issue, of course, was the issue of control over the area the Holy Land, or Palestine, a problem complicated by London’s having promised roughly this area to both the Arabs (in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence of January 1916) and the Zionists (in the Balfour declaration of November 1917). It appeared that London had not just sold the same territory twice but also double-crossed Arabs and Jews by arranging (in Sykes-Picot) itself to retain control over it.

From the vantage point of a century later, Sykes-Picot has an almost purely malign influence without redeeming qualities. It laid the basis for the future rogue states of Syria and Iraq, the Lebanese civil war, as well as exacerbating the Arab-Israeli conflict.

On its centenary, Sykes-Picot’s central achievement, the creation of the Syrian and Iraqi states, appears to be in tatters. In a surprising parallel, each has rapidly devolved from the all-powerful totalitarianisms of Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein into three micro-states. Both have an Iranian-backed, Shi’ite-oriented central government; a Turkish- and Saudi-backed Sunni opposition; and a U.S.- and Russian-backed Kurdish force.

The Islamic State (or ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) proclaimed “the end of Sykes-Picot” when it eliminated border posts along the Syria-Iraq border; nevertheless, many observers, including myself, see the fracturing of these two rogue states into six mini-states on balance as a good thing because the small states are more homogeneous and less powerful than the prior regimes.

Sykes-Picot has a lesson for the present day, a simple and important one: foreign powers must not attempt unilaterally to decide the fate of distant regions, and especially not in a clandestine manner. This may sound like outdated or obvious advice but, at a time of failed states and anarchy, the powers again find it tempting to take matters in their own hands, as they did in Libya in 2011, where their intervention failed dismally. Similar efforts could lie ahead in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Beyond those conflicts, Michael Bernstam of the Hoover Institution has argued for a broader redrawing of the region’s “antiquated, artificial map.”

No. Rather than seek to impose their will on a weak, anarchic region, the powers should hold back and remind locals of their own need to take responsibility. Rather than treat Middle Easterners as perpetual children, outsiders should recognize them as adults and help them succeed. Only in this way, over time, will the volatile, brutal, failed Middle East evolve into something better. Only in this way will it overcome the foul legacy of Sykes-Picot.

 

WAS SYKES-PICOT A BAD THING?

Was Sykes-Picot a bad thing?
By Michael Rubin
AEIdeas (American Enterprise Institute)
May 3, 2016

Sykes-Picot was a blessing for many in the Middle East.

May 16 marks the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret deal which divided up the heart of the Middle East (and would have divided up Turkey as well, had it not been for the intervention of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk). Robin Wright, a frequent writer on the Middle East, recently penned an article calling Sykes-Picot “a curse.” Nonsense. Sykes-Picot was a blessing for many in the Middle East.

To look at the map of the Middle East might be to conclude that Sykes-Picot, the agreement which led to the drawing of so many contemporary borders, also created artificial countries. But just because a border is artificial does not mean that the resulting county is.

Iraq, for example, became independent in 1932, twelve years after the League of Nations demarcated its borders, but Arabic literature speaks of “Iraq” going back a millennium. Likewise, Syria – under its current artificial borders – became a League of Nations’ Mandate in 1920, but a notion of Syria as a region existed at the time of Muhammad. The same holds true for Turkey and Israel. Mount Lebanon has always had a unique identity, not the least because of the Maronite Christian presence. Syria itself, however, never recognized the Lebanese identity but the divisions of Sykes-Picot enabled the Lebanese among others to win freedom.

Did anyone lose in the Sykes-Picot Agreement? After a free trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, Wright quotes Kurdish officials to suggest the Kurds did, although the history is a bit more complicated than that: The Kurds lost out not because of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, but because of machinations of great powers in its wake, confirmed first in the Treaty of Lausanne and subsequently by a League of Nations commission to adjudicate a continuing dispute about the Vilayat of Mosul.

Did Sykes-Picot also create artificial countries? Certainly. Jordan is the primary case in point. Similar arguments are often made about the Gulf Cooperation Council states, despite not being born as the result of Sykes-Picot. The smaller among them may effectively be “tribes with flags,” but even that is a real identity.

Is it possible to rectify past mistakes? Certainly. The Kurds may win their independence, although to do so today without internal problems resolved would likely result in Kurdistan joining South Sudan, Kosovo, East Timor, and Eritrea as a failed stated. But is discussion about reversing the legacy of Sykes-Picot counterproductive? Absolutely.

There is no way to divide borders and create homogeneous states.

First, after nearly century of nationhood, many of the states which emerged as a result of post-World War I divisions have attained specific identities distinct from their neighbors. One hundred years of history is a lot to reverse.

Second, to counsel reversing Sykes-Picot and to start again is effectively to double down on imperialism. There is no way to divide borders and create homogeneous states. To even try to is to conduct ethnic and sectarian cleansing. To create new borders and new states with minority populations, meanwhile, is simply to reshuffle the deck, not change the game.

Thirdly, to suggest the pre-Sykes-Picot order was desirable is, in effect, to return to the Ottoman millet system of basing governance upon religion. This would affirm the Islamic State, not reverse it. And it would do nothing to help those seeking statehood based on ethnic notions of nationalism.

It’s certainly become vogue to bash imperialism, colonialism, and the West’s legacy. But sometimes what is stylish is not necessarily right. Rather than lament Sykes-Picot, let’s recognize it for what it was: a mechanism born in imperial cynicism which nonetheless provided an opportunity (often missed) for freedom and national aspiration.

 

THE WAR WITHIN

The breakdown of Arab states: The war within
The Economist
May 14th 2016

When Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot secretly drew their lines on the map of the Levant to carve up the Ottoman empire in May 1916, at the height of the first world war, they could scarcely have imagined the mess they would set in train: a century of imperial betrayal and Arab resentment; instability and coups; wars, displacement, occupation and failed peacemaking in Palestine; and almost everywhere oppression, radicalism and terrorism.

In the euphoria of the uprisings in 2011, when one awful Arab autocrat after another was toppled, it seemed as if the Arabs were at last turning towards democracy. Instead their condition is more benighted than ever. Under Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt is even more wretched than under the ousted dictator, Hosni Mubarak. The state has broken down in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Civil wars rage and sectarianism is rampant, fed by the contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The jihadist “caliphate” of Islamic State (IS), the grotesque outgrowth of Sunni rage, is metastasising to other parts of the Arab world.

Bleak as all this may seem, it could become worse still. If the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90 is any gauge, the Syrian one has many years to run. Other places may turn ugly. Algeria faces a leadership crisis; the insurgency in Sinai could spread to Egypt proper; chaos threatens to overwhelm Jordan; Israel could be drawn into the fights on its borders; low oil prices are destabilising Gulf states; and the proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran might lead to direct fighting.

All this is not so much a clash of civilisations as a war within Arab civilisation. Outsiders cannot fix it – though their actions could help make things a bit better, or a lot worse. First and foremost, a settlement must come from Arabs themselves.

Arab states are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. In a way, they have never got over the fall of the Ottoman empire. The prominent ideologies – Arabism, Islamism and now jihadism – have all sought some greater statehood beyond the frontiers left by the colonisers. Now that states are collapsing, Arabs are reverting to ethnic and religious identities. To some the bloodletting resembles the wars of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Others find parallels with the religious strife of Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century. Whatever the comparison, the crisis of the Arab world is deep and complex. Facile solutions are dangerous. Four ideas, in particular, need to be repudiated.

First, many blame the mayhem on Western powers – from Sykes-Picot to the creation of Israel, the Franco-British takeover of the Suez Canal in 1956 and repeated American interventions. Foreigners have often made things worse; America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 released its sectarian demons. But the idea that America should turn away from the region – which Barack Obama seems to embrace – can be as destabilising as intervention, as the catastrophe in Syria shows.

Lots of countries have blossomed despite traumatic histories: South Korea and Poland – not to mention Israel. As our special report sets out, the Arab world has suffered from many failures of its own making. Many leaders were despots who masked their autocracy with the rhetoric of Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine (and realised neither). Oil money and other rents allowed rulers to buy loyalty, pay for oppressive security agencies and preserve failing state-led economic models long abandoned by the rest of the world.

A second wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and sects can change from one village or one street to the next. A new Sykes-Picot risks creating as many injustices as it resolves, and may provoke more bloodshed as all try to grab land and expel rivals. Perhaps the Kurds in Iraq and Syria will go their own way: denied statehood by the colonisers and oppressed by later regimes, they have proved doughty fighters against IS. For the most part, though, decentralisation and federalism offer better answers, and might convince the Kurds to remain within the Arab system. Reducing the powers of the central government should not be seen as further dividing a land that has been unjustly divided. It should instead be seen as the means to reunite states that have already been splintered; the alternative to a looser structure is permanent break-up.

A third ill-advised idea is that Arab autocracy is the way to hold back extremism and chaos. In Egypt Mr Sisi’s rule is proving as oppressive as it is arbitrary and economically incompetent. Popular discontent is growing. In Syria Bashar al-Assad and his allies would like to portray his regime as the only force that can control disorder. The contrary is true: Mr Assad’s violence is the primary cause of the turmoil. Arab authoritarianism is no basis for stability. That much, at least, should have become clear from the uprisings of 2011.

The fourth bad argument is that the disarray is the fault of Islam. Naming the problem as Islam, as Donald Trump and some American conservatives seek to do, is akin to naming Christianity as the cause of Europe’s wars and murderous anti-Semitism: partly true, but of little practical help. Which Islam would that be? The head-chopping sort espoused by IS, the revolutionary-state variety that is decaying in Iran or the political version advocated by the besuited leaders of Ennahda in Tunisia, who now call themselves “Muslim democrats”? To demonise Islam is to strengthen the Manichean vision of IS. The world should instead recognise the variety of thought within Islam, support moderate trends and challenge extremists. Without Islam, no solution is likely to endure.

REFORM OR PERISH

All this means that resolving the crisis of the Arab world will be slow and hard. Efforts to contain and bring wars to an end are important. This will require the defeat of IS, a political settlement to enfranchise Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, and an accommodation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is just as vital to promote reform in countries that have survived the uprisings. Their rulers must change or risk being cast aside. The old tools of power are weaker: oil will remain cheap for a long time and secret policemen cannot stop dissent in a networked world.

Kings and presidents thus have to regain the trust of their people. They will need “input” legitimacy: giving space to critics, whether liberals or Islamists, and ultimately establishing democracy. And they need more of the “output” variety, too: strengthening the rule of law and building productive economies able to thrive in a globalised world. That means getting away from the rentier system and keeping cronies at bay.

America and Europe cannot impose such a transformation. But the West has influence. It can cajole and encourage Arab rulers to enact reforms. And it can help contain the worst forces, such as IS. It should start by supporting the new democracy of Tunisia and political reforms in Morocco – the European Union should, for example, open its markets to north African products. It is important, too, that Saudi Arabia opens its society and succeeds in its reforms to wean itself off oil. The big prize is Egypt. Right now, Mr Sisi is leading the country to disaster, which would be felt across the Arab world and beyond; by contrast, successful liberalisation would lift the whole region.

Without reform, the next backlash is only a matter of time. But there is also a great opportunity. The Arabs could flourish again: they have great rivers, oil, beaches, archaeology, youthful populations, a position astride trade routes and near European markets, and rich intellectual and scientific traditions. If only their leaders and militiamen would see it.

 

OBAMA’S MINIMALIST MIDEAST MUDDLE

Obama’s minimalist Mideast muddle
By Jackson Diehl
Washington Post
May 16, 2026

Monday is the 100th anniversary of something called the Sykes-Picot agreement, an occasion that has touched off a small frenzy of Washington think-tank conferences and journal articles – not to mention Islamic State manifestos. Mark Sykes and François Georges Picot were diplomats from Britain and France, respectively, who agreed on a secret plan to partition the collapsing Ottoman Empire. The result, after a few more years of imperialist machinations, was the creation of Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon – the heart of what is now the bloody chaos of the modern Middle East.

The anniversary has become an occasion for debate about what could or should be made of that mess, once the Islamic State – for which Sykes-Picot has become an unlikely rhetorical touchstone – is militarily defeated. Should Iraq and Syria retain their current borders and centralized political systems, which have the effect of lumping together Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and smaller ethnic groups that have been at war with each other off and on for centuries? What about Lebanon, whose elaborate power-sharing arrangements have produced a seemingly in­trac­table political gridlock?

Not surprisingly, reasonable people differ on these questions. One broad current of opinion says Iraq and Syria must be preserved as nation-states. The two countries, it is said, were distinct and often competing entities long before Sykes-Picot; their people have developed national allegiances over the past century that transcend sect; and anyway, attempting to redraw the borders would create more problems that it would solve. “There is no way to divide borders and create homogenous states,” writes American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin. “To even try is to conduct ethnic and sectarian cleansing.”

Another school says it’s folly to suppose that either country can be patched back together. The leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan appear determined to push toward independence, though they differ on whether to do it slowly or quickly. “Iraq is a conceptual failure, compelling peoples with little in common to share an uncertain future,” wrote the head of Kurdistan’s security council, Masrour Barzani, in a recent op-ed in The Post. For its part, the Islamic State has made the erasure of the border between Syria and Iraq – which divides two majority-Sunni regions – one of its central ideological tenets.

Some Arab leaders and thinkers say the West should stay out of this debate – Mr. Sykes and Mr. Picot and their colonializing descendants, up to and including George W. Bush, have done more than enough damage, they say. Others contend the region can be stabilized only by a foreign intervention – not another Western invasion, but maybe a U.N. trusteeship, like those that managed several pieces of postwar Yugoslavia. “The traditional solutions for this region will not work,” argues the Egyptian human rights activist Bahey eldin Hassan. “Some states are not qualified for now for their own people to run the country.”

The Obama administration, for its part, has embraced the “keep out” imperative. Its mind-set is “to define our interests very narrowly and focus very aggressively on achieving those interests,” Obama’s envoy to the region, Brett McGurk, recently told Robin Wright of the New Yorker. In Iraq that has meant investing heavily in the survival of the central government and its weak prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. The hope is that Abadi will provide just enough political cover for the U.S.-led reconstruction of just enough of the Iraqi army to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, with the help of the Kurds.

In Syria, Secretary of State John F. Kerry indefatigably pursues the mirage of a “transitional” government that would somehow unite the genocidal Assad regime with its victims. The diplomacy is a fig leaf that Obama uses to rationalize a refusal to support more consequential action to remove Bashar al-Assad while patching together an ad hoc Arab-Kurdish force to advance toward Raqqa, the Islamic State capital.

The problem with this minimalist approach is that it has obstructed the emergence of a genuinely workable consensus about the future of the two countries. Though the U.S.-orchestrated military campaign could, within the next year or so, effectively destroy the Islamic State by recapturing Mosul and Raqqa, there’s no realistic plan for the borders of political structures that would replace it. That, in turn, makes some potential contributors to the offensive, such as the Kurds, reluctant to go forward. Obama’s refusal to engage politically thus makes even his narrow objectives unachievable.

Outside the administration, not many people believe Iraq and Syria can survive in their present form. At a minimum, they will have to become loose federations, like Bosnia after the Yugoslav wars. Who will devise those solutions, and how will they be brought into being? On that, this U.S. president is punting – which means the would-be successors to Sykes and Picot must wait for another year.

 

COULD DIFFERENT BORDERS HAVE SAVED THE MIDDLE EAST?

Could different borders have saved the Middle East?
By Nick Danforth
The New York Times
May 14, 2016

There probably aren’t many things that the Islamic State, Jon Stewart and the president of Iraqi Kurdistan agree on, but there is one: the pernicious influence of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret plan for dividing up the Middle East signed by France and Britain, 100 years ago this week. It has become conventional wisdom to argue, as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. recently did, that the Middle East’s problems stem from “artificial lines, creating artificial states made up of totally distinct ethnic, religious, cultural groups.”

That Western imperialism had a malignant influence on the course of Middle Eastern history is without a doubt. But is Sykes-Picot the right target for this ire?

The borders that exist today – the ones the Islamic State claims to be erasing – actually emerged in 1920 and were modified over the following decades. They reflect not any one plan but a series of opportunistic proposals by competing strategists in Paris and London as well as local leaders in the Middle East. For whatever problems those schemes have caused, the alternative ideas for dividing up the region probably weren’t much better. Creating countries out of diverse territories is a violent, imperfect process.

SYKES AND PICOT HATCH THEIR PLAN

In May 1916, Mark Sykes, a British diplomat, and François Georges-Picot, his French counterpart, drew up an agreement to ensure that once the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I, their countries would get a fair share of the spoils.

Both countries awarded themselves direct control over areas in which they had particular strategic and economic interests. France had commercial ties to the Levant, and had long cultivated the region’s Christians. Britain intended to secure trade and communication routes to India through the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf.

To the extent the Sykes-Picot plan made an attempt to account for the local ethnic, religious or culutural groups, or their ideas about the future, it offered a vague promise to create one or several Arab states – under French and British influence, of course.

FAISAL DREAMS OF A UNITED ARAB KINGDOM

In March 1920, Faisal bin Hussein, who led the Arab armies in their British-supported revolt against the Ottomans during World War I, became the leader of the independent Arab Kingdom of Syria, based in Damascus. His ambitious borders stretched across modern-day Syria, Jordan, Israel and parts of Turkey. (But not Iraq.)

Would Faisal’s map have been an authentic alternative to the externally imposed borders that came in the end? We’ll never know. The French, who opposed his plan, defeated his army in July.

But even if they hadn’t, Faisal’s territorial claims would have put him in direct conflict with Maronite Christians pushing for independence in what is today Lebanon, with Jewish settlers who had begun their Zionist project in Palestine, and with Turkish nationalists who sought to unite Anatolia.

FRANCE DIVIDES ‘SYRIA.’

When France took control of what is now Syria, the plan in Paris was to split up the region into smaller statelets under French control. These would have been divided roughly along ethnic, regional and sectarian lines: The French envisioned a state for Alawites, another for Druse, another for Turks and two more centered around Syria’s biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

This cynical divide-and-conquer strategy was intended to pre-empt Arab nationalists’ calls for a “greater Syria.” Today, five years into Syria’s civil war, a similar division of the country has been suggested as a more authentic alternative to the supposedly artificial Syrian state. But when the French tried to divide Syria almost a century ago, the region’s residents, inspired by ideas of Syrian or Arab unity, pushed by new nationalist leaders, resisted so strongly that France abandoned the plan.

AMERICANS TO THE RESCUE?

In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson sent a delegation to devise a better way to divide the region. Henry King, a theologian, and Charles Crane, an industrialist, conducted hundreds of interviews in order to prepare a map in accordance with the ideal of national self-determination.

Was this a missed opportunity to draw the region’s “real” borders? Doubtful. After careful study, King and Crane realized how difficult the task was: They split the difference between making Lebanon independent or making it part of Syria with a proposal for “limited autonomy.” They thought the Kurds might be best off incorporated into Iraq or even Turkey. And they were certain that Sunnis and Shiites belonged together in a unified Iraq. In the end, the French and British ignored the recommendations. If only they had listened, things might have turned out more or less the same.

 

SYKES-PICOT’S DEMISE

Sykes-Picot’s demise
Jerusalem Post Editorial
May 16, 2016

Sykes-Picot is not to blame for the disintegration of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, rather it is the autocratic nature of these countries’ political leaderships.

***

One hundred years ago today Great Britain and France split between themselves spheres of influences in a disintegrating Ottoman Empire. The secret arrangement was called the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Roughly speaking, it created the boundaries of the Levant as we know it.

But history seems to have taken its revenge on British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, who hammered out the agreement that bears their names.

Syria is gradually splintering into multiple entities. Iraq is fracturing along sectarian lines of its own. Shi’ite areas in southern Iraq close to the border with Kuwait are increasingly pressing for autonomy, with support from Iran. And Sunni tribes in Iraq have joined forces against the Assad regime, creating yet another distinct sectarian group in Iraq. Libya is no longer a single national entity and Yemen is being torn apart between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Even countries not created by Sykes-Picot such as Egypt are undergoing turmoil and instability.

It is no wonder that commentators, journalists and analysts of the Middle East – including the Jerusalem Post’s editorial board – have for some time now declared the demise of Sykes-Picot.

Yet, among all the upheaval and bloodshed that we have witnessed in the region that has led to the breakdown of Sykes-Picot, there remains one oasis of stability: the State of Israel. And this is not a coincidence.

Part of the reason has to do with the national character of Israel. Unlike artificial national constructions such as Syria and Iraq that contain diverse populations, Israel was created for a specific people with a shared history, culture and religion. With all its internal conflicts – between religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi – there is nevertheless a common denominator that brings together the vast majority of Israelis.

But Israel’s relatively homogeneous population is only part of the explanation for its success. Much more significant is the fact that Israel remains the only democracy in the Middle East. The disintegration of the old order in the region is more about the failure of corrupt, inept and violent autocratic regimes than about contrived borders that ignored ethnic, sectarian and cultural differences.

Sykes-Picot is not to blame for the disintegration of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, rather it is the autocratic nature of these countries’ political leaderships.

The Syrian conflict began as an uprising by all Syrians – men and women, young and old, Sunni, Shi’ite, Kurdish and even Alawite – against an unfair, corrupt autocrat out of touch with or callous to his people’s aspirations. And this was true for Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, and Bahrainis as well in 2010 and 2011.

In the midst of this upheaval, Israel stands out as a beacon of stability, freedom and economic prosperity. An advanced military based on a people’s army that is committed to the highest level of ethical conduct is successful at incorporating a broad spectrum of diverse populations – including Beduin, Druse and Christians.

While Israel is a Jewish state with Jewish symbols and legislation that gives priority to Jews in areas such as immigration, the country’s democracy also protects the basic human rights of a large non-Jewish minority. All citizens enjoy equality before the law, freedom of speech, the right to vote and other basic democratic rights.

Israel’s dynamic economy offers all citizens economic opportunities on par with other advanced economies.

This is not to say that tensions do not exist with Israeli society. These tensions are, however, manageable within the framework of democratic give and take and do not threaten to tear apart the fabric of society.

In the near future as part of an end to the civil war tearing apart Syria, talk will turn to carving up territories that were once under the control of the Assad regime. A coastal region will most likely be delivered to those loyal to the Alawite Bashar Assad regime; another yet-to-be-determined swath of territory will fall under the control of Sunni opposition forces; and a Kurdish enclave with ties to north Iraq and Kurds in Turkey will probably be carved out as well.

Within the framework of such an arrangement, it is time that the world recognize Israel’s 1981 de facto annexation of the Golan Heights. A century after Sykes-Picot, no other country in the region has provided more proof of its stability.

Now is the time to recognize it.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.