In George Antonius’ 1938 study of emerging pan-Arab solidarity, The Arab Awakening, the diplomat and author referred to the Sykes-Picot agreement as a “startling piece of double-dealing”. The book was one of the first to include the texts of previous British letters to Arab leaders pledging to support an Arab state in exchange for rebelling against the Ottomans. This, Antonius wrote, was later contradicted by the secret deal between the British and French diplomats, which essentially divided the predominately Arab portions of the Ottoman Empire between their own colonial administrations. This “shocking document” demonstrated “greed allied to suspicion”, Antonius wrote. As a direct breach of faith, he argued, it undermined the prospects of Arab nationalism.
Citing Antonius now, for the centennial of the Sykes-Picot agreement, is appropriate because his narrative of the plan as a broken promise has become engrained within Arab political memory. Critics of American policy in the Middle East and many Arab commentators not only remember the original betrayal, but see it as exemplary of a longer pattern of western countries’ destructive interventions in Arab politics. Yet, many of those writing in the US from the viewpoint of power depict it as a historical episode that explains why the region’s states are in tatters, and, dangerously, call for new border-making led by outside powers.
For some conservative American media figures and former officials, the Sykes-Picot agreement is shorthand for an unravelling of the Arab state system. The arbitrariness of the border-drawing originating with a British-French conspiracy explains why the Arab states are so fragile, failing and in crisis, they claim. This sentiment is captured in the visual idiom that the region’s boundaries are merely “lines in the sand”. This is a tempting phrase because it seems apt and expresses an impermanence. The convenience of American policy hawks attributing regional strife to a 100-year-old agreement was apparent in a 2012 Washington Post op-ed by former United States secretary of state and national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. She wrote the states of the region are a “modern construct, created by the British and the French, who drew borders like lines on the back of an envelope, often without regard for ethnic and sectarian differences”.
Coming from an architect of the US’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, this appears a disingenuous distraction from US responsibility for the rise of Daesh and the ways in which the “war on terror” empowered the region’s despots to become even more repressive. Rice ignored the US’s role in boosting the divisions exacted by the borders by bolstering authoritarian regimes and supporting Israeli expansionism, both of which have been destructive forces.
Meddling in Arab affairs
It is much more expedient to blame the French and the British. In this way, linking the Arab world’s current malaise to this old regional design is a simplistic analysis that obscures more than it reveals. This historical reference strategically displaces other vital factors, such as American foreign policy.
For Arab commentators and critics of western foreign policy, the agreement survives as a metaphor for continued meddling by foreign powers in Arab affairs. The phrase “new Sykes-Picot” captures precisely this point. It proposes that what is going on in the region today is reminiscent of the colonial era in which foreign hands seek to engineer a new imperial order.
A common refrain about the American invasion of Iraq was precisely that the superpower was going to author a new order. In 2003, Edward Said predicted the Iraq invasion would result in “a redrawn map of the whole region” — a “new Sykes-Picot”. This perception was only furthered by various American senators, including current US Vice-President Joe Biden, who proposed to split Iraq into three states. Though this exact plan was never executed, Iraq remains split between the Arab, Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Kurdish autonomous zones due to the efforts of multiple actors, not just western.
In 2011, while the world prematurely celebrated the series of uprisings termed “the Arab spring,” Mohammad Hassanain Heikal, the prominent, recently-deceased Egyptian commentator, warned of not just one, but several new Sykes-Picot plans. He said on Al Jazeera that “there are three-and-a-half plans on the scene now”: Western, Turkish, Iranian and Israeli. The latter he found to be a crude, half-plan. Unlike the original agreement, “the new maps aren’t divvying up the inheritance of the Ottoman caliphate, but rather the inheritance of the Arab national project that managed to expel Western colonialism in the previous stage and which tried to fill the void and failed”. He said the protests are being exploited by outside actors to reap the “inheritance” from the Arab project.
The war in Syria and the diplomatic manoeuvring by large powers around it, put into sharp contrast how American conservatives apply Sykes-Picot and how it remains for Arab observers a current term of reference.
The Palestinian political figure and official, Jabril Rajoub, described the various interventions in the Syrian civil war as a “new Sykes-Picot agreement that aimed to destroy the political and economic strengths of the region for the sake of the occupation and Israeli aggression”. For Rajoub, the lesson of the plan is that external intervention continues to dominate and weaken the Arab states and embolden its enemies.
Many bring up the agreement to frame the talk of federalism and partition of Syria coming from foreign capitals as conspiracies to re-make the political map. There are limits to this. As a political metaphor for geopolitical intrigue around Syria today, it distracts from the responsibility of the Syrian regime for its brutal repression of the reformist protestors in the early months before the war began. Al Assad had the opportunity to respond progressively, but his regime reverted to its authoritarian instincts and chose the path of reactionary cruelty, which led to the division of the country.
While these exploitative appropriations of history are worth condemning, there is another potential danger that misreading Sykes-Picot leads to serious errors of judgement. Some actually cite it as a reason for further transforming the outlay of borders, based on the notion that the map needs to be re-drawn. Former US Air Force general and Central Intelligence Agency director Michael Hayden said the war in Syria signified “the end of the Sykes-Picot [agreement]” and “the dissolution of all the artificial states created after the First World War”, suggesting the US should lead in re-defining the next political order.
The risk of seeing the region’s problems through a Sykes-Picot lens is that it gives way to the conclusion that the borders simply need revision. If foreign powers take this initiative they risk duplicating the errors of the past. Any such external exercise would most likely result in de-legitimised states and only propel future conflict. As flawed as the current state formations are, they have built-in elites and stakeholders, and have given way to various degrees of national identities.
Proposing to vastly re-make the borders, likely through the creation of more, even smaller states, is a recipe for further disaster. A map drawn out of current geopolitical expedience will solidify the divisions and conflicts of today, reflecting the power skews of regional actors. Far from being a solution, it will set the region on the path to further strife. There are no easy answers, but misreading history as part of current policy analysis only creates an illusion — leading to greater peril.
Will Youmans is an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.