This month marks the centennial of a secret pact. On May 16, 1916, two mid-level diplomats, a Briton and a Frenchman, concluded an agreement that essentially divided up the lands of much of the Middle East between the European powers. A map, seen above, initialed by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, shows a broad sweep of the then-crumbling Ottoman Empire carved between French and British spheres of influence.
Britain claimed control over a vast belt of land, including most of what is now Iraq, Jordan and sections of what is now Israel. France envisioned dominion over most of the Levantine coast, a chunk of southern Turkey and the populous Ottoman districts of Aleppo (now in Syria) and Mosul (now in Iraq). Under this same set of clandestine agreements, other World War I allies, including Italy and Russia, exerted their own claims on parts of what is now Turkey; the Russians long sought to rule over Istanbul and restore the primacy of the Orthodox Church in what was once the great capital of the Byzantines.
Ultimately, though, the specific Sykes-Picot blueprint never turned into reality. Its existence became public information only after it was revealed by Soviet sources following the Bolshevik revolution. And the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, subsequent treaties and shifting colonial interests all led to a map of a region with borders very different from what the diplomatic duo first agreed to in 1916, as a graphic published by the Economist shows.
— Ishaan Tharoor (@ishaantharoor) May 16, 2016
But the template for a century of crises and dysfunction was, in a sense, set.
The great desire for an independent Arab nation was first encouraged, then betrayed. The British eventually installed kings to govern the new, fledgling countries of Iraq and Jordan; they also sped the advent of a Zionist state, much to the ire of the Palestinians living in its midst. French colonial planners baked in sectarian divisions when they established modern Syria and Lebanon. And the Kurds, a stateless ethnic minority, went ignored.
Even if its lines didn't correspond to the region's political borders after World War II, the Sykes-Picot agreement, hatched in the corridors of colonial power, came to represent something far larger in the minds of many in the Arab world.
"'Sykes-Picot' became shorthand not only for the sense of betrayal created by the post-war settlement, but also for the region's vulnerability to foreign interference," writes James Barr, author of "A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East."
Arab demagogues steeped their nationalism, justifiably, in grievance against the West, which had for decades controlled and meddled in the region's affairs. And to this day, those who want to reshape the Middle East point to the seeming artificiality of the pact as grounds for creating a new status quo.
“Hundreds of thousands have been killed because of Sykes-Picot and all the problems it created,” Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, an ethnic Kurd and governor of Iraq’s Irbil province, recently told the New Yorker's Robin Wright. “It changed the course of history — and nature.”
Another top official in Iraq's Kurdistan regional government echoed this line in a tweet that hinted at growing calls for greater Kurdish autonomy and statehood.
— Masrour Barzani (@masrour_barzani) May 15, 2016
Yet the supposed legacy of Sykes-Picot was also fertile propaganda for the extremists of the Islamic State, who have been locked in deadly battles with Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria over the past two years. In 2014, the group posted a propaganda video online showing its members bulldozing a dusty rampart along Syria and Iraq's desert border. They declared that they were "demolishing" the history of Sykes-Picot.
But casting a century-old colonial agreement as the original sin of the Middle East is both convenient and somewhat naive. It ignores both the history of pluralist societies that existed before the division of Ottoman lands, as well as the many decades of Arab misrule that came thereafter, which stoked the sectarian divisions now roiling countries such as Syria and Iraq.
"What is said about Western mistakes seems true enough, but it lacks a certain self-reflection on the states’ own failures," Anthony Shadid, an acclaimed Washington Post and New York Times journalist, wrote in an article for the Times in 2011 as pro-democracy uprisings rocked the Arab world.
At the time, the old order of Arab nation-states, built largely on authoritarian rule and cynical politics, seemed to finally be imploding.
"The states have failed to foster pluralism and a universal sense of citizenship. Miserable governance fosters narrower identities as Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and so on," Shadid wrote. He pointed to the source of unrest, which had little to do with colonial history: "More tangibly, the many educated young remain frustrated. They might have the basics a state provides, but no future, that bygone notion that tomorrow will be better than yesterday."
Moreover, as Middle East scholars Steven Cook and Amr Leheta write in Foreign Policy, the borders of the Middle East are "not whimsical lines drawn on a blank map." Rather they reflected earlier Ottoman administrative units and were the consequence of various political agreements and negotiations — a process that has defined numerous borders outside the Middle East, as well. And the countries that emerged after the negotiations of Sykes and Picot can't simply be erased off the map, as the scholars explain:
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," Cook and Leheta conclude. "Instead, the origin of the struggles within these countries is over who has the right to rule them."
The answer to that bitter contest can't be found in the lines of a map etched 100 years ago.
More on WorldViews