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.
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 cultural 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.
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.
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.
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.
Nick Danforth, a senior analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, blogs at midafternoonmap.com.