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Drawing lines on a map has left Mideast with a dreadful legacy

The Sykes-Picot Agreement is now largely forgotten in the countries that authored it but its arbitrariness can be inferred from the region’s straight frontiers

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Car bombs blasted through an Arab city on Friday, killing 27 people and injuring more than 350. This time, it was Tripoli’s turn. Not the Libyan capital, but the ancient Phoenician settlement in northern Lebanon — though, with the violence so widespread, it’s hard to keep up. The past week has seen car bombs in Amara, Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Iskanadariyah and Nasiriyah, to say nothing of the gas attacks in the Syrian capital, the grisly murder of Egyptian police officers in Sinai or the seizure of Libya’s eastern oil fields by rebel groups.

Two years after the overthrow of the despots, no one talks of an Arab Spring. On the contrary, it is hard to express how grave things have become. Syria’s civil war, by the crude calculus of human suffering, must be reckoned worse than Iraq’s. Since 2003, there have been 125,000 documented deaths in Iraq and 2.2 million people have fled the country. Syria’s internal strife has so far lasted less than two and a half years, yet already, according to the United Nations, 100,000 people have lost their lives and 1.8 million, from a smaller population, have been forced into exile. These are literally unimaginable statistics: our minds are not equipped to compute horror on such a scale. But they are paltry next to the prospect of Egypt sliding into civil war. As David Blair observed earlier in the week, the murder of those policemen in Sinai — they were pulled from their minibuses and shot by the roadside — is a grisly echo of Algeria, which endured its own horrific war in the 1990s. There, too, army officers stepped in to annul the result of a general election that had been won by a religious party. The Islamists responded by launching a rebellion, targeting security personnel precisely as those in Sinai were targeted.

What is happening to the region, so recently optimistic? Some worldly types will tell you that there is no such thing as a successful Muslim democracy, but this is demonstrably untrue. Full-scale liberal democracy is rare outside Europe and the Anglosphere — but by global standards, Islamic countries do well enough. To pluck examples from opposite ends of the umma, Albania and Malaysia have both held free elections in recent months without anyone being exiled or shot. No, there is a more local explanation, its roots stretching back a century.

In 1916, the British and French governments settled on how to dismember the Ottoman Empire. The Sykes-Picot Agreement is now largely forgotten in the countries that authored it, but it is keenly remembered in those it created. Its arbitrariness can be inferred from the region’s straight frontiers. Asked by the foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, how he planned to demarcate the French and British zones, Sykes ran a finger across the map that lay before them on the table, replying: “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk.”

The resulting accord created governments where there were no nations. People were capriciously sundered from their co-religionists, and demographic maps came to resemble fruit salads.

Lebanon, where no single group constituted a majority, has suffered a series of sectarian wars ever since. In Syria and Iraq, minority groups exercised dictatorial rule over the majorities. Even Egypt, the country with the longest period of continuous identity within something approximating its present borders, was keen to amalgamate with neighbours — an aspiration recalled in the red-white-and-black flags common to several of them. Freedom under the rule of law is almost unknown outside nation-states.

The Ottoman Empire, like its Habsburg and Romanov neighbours, held together because it had no pretensions to democracy. But constitutional liberty requires a measure of patriotism, meaning a readiness to accept your countrymen’s disagreeable decisions, to abide by election results when you lose, to pay taxes to support strangers. To put it another way, democracy functions best within units where people feel that they have enough in common with one another to accept government from each other’s hands. Take the demos out of democracy, and you are left with the kratos: the power of a state that must compel what it cannot ask in the name of civil loyalty.

In the absence of nation-states, cross-border affinities magnify, which is why the Syrian conflict risks becoming a regional Sunni-Shiite war. “If the Syrian opposition is victorious,” said Iraq’s prime minister earlier this year, “there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan, and a sectarian war in Iraq.”

It has already begun: the blasts outside the Sunni mosques in Tripoli yesterday — following blasts in a Shiite area of Beirut earlier last week — were the grim starting gun. If sectarian loyalties are strong, loyalties within states are conversely weak. Neither side in Egypt evinces the slightest understanding of compromise, let alone of power-sharing. Political rivals are treated as enemies, not as co-citizens. The junta is rounding up members of the Muslim Brotherhood under martial law. Several opposition activists have died in custody, and there are credible reports that their children are being targeted. It’s a similar story in Iraq and Syria.

Of all the post-Ottoman states, only Turkey made a success of democracy. The founders of the republic set out to purge the ramshackle excrescences of supra-nationalism, abolishing the Caliphate and replacing Persian and Arabic-derived words in their language with Turkish neologisms, adapted by lexicographers from the speech of the Turkic nomads of Central Asia. A brutal war with Greece led to population exchanges and the birth, for the first time, of a consciously Turkish national entity. There was a downside to the national principle: minorities felt excluded, and there was sporadic unrest in Kurdish areas - though the present Turkish government has, to its credit, done much to soothe that dispute. Still, the point holds: Turkey, being a nation-state, was able to sustain a meaningful, if sometimes flawed, rule of law. How can more heterogeneous places replicate that success? Border adjustments could help, though the population of the Middle East is too intermingled to make ethnographic frontiers feasible everywhere. But devolution can make a difference. Internal self-rule has brought Iraqi Kurds a measure of happiness and prosperity previously unknown. Syria’s Kurds have taken advantage of the fighting to establish a similar autonomy, though their leaders insist they have no desire to secede. Perhaps cantonalism — self-governing units for Maronites, Druze, Alawites, Syriacs and so on - might facilitate an eventual transition to democratic pluralism. Sadly, we are nowhere near such an outcome, and it is hard to see anything that the West might do to help.

If a decade of occupation and hundreds of thousands of soldiers failed to pacify Iraq, how can we realistically hope to stabilise Syria or Egypt?

The days when we could draw lines on maps are gone. Events are beyond our control - though this doesn’t mean we should make unforced errors, as when we held back from immediately condemning the coup in Egypt. I wish I had a solution, but the prospects of the region are so dark that, as usual, it takes Shakespeare to do them justice: “Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny / Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d / The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.”

— The Telegraph Group, Limited, London 2013.

Daniel Hannan is Conservative MEP for South East England