The Historical Implications of Defining Sovereignty in the Middle East
“This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes–Picot conspiracy” - Islamic State Leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, July 2014
The violence occurring in the Middle East is the result of a revisionist movement, namely the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which seeks to conquer the greater region and expand its caliphate. A group that knows no geographical boundaries, its rapid rise is a symptom of what is widely regarded as the post-Westphalian trend the world has taken. Further, the volatility accompanying years of sectarian division has only been exacerbated by western involvement in the region, a century-old pattern of attempts to dictate the direction of governance dating back to World War I. This year is the 100th anniversary of the agreement that defined the borders within the Middle East as we know them, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, named for the two men who led the negotiations. Many historians mark the 1916 deal as the first in a series of Western missteps in the region, and that the borders created in the deal failed to adequately consider the ethnic and religious divisions within the various countries they created, thus furthering the potential for conflict. Consequently, many consider that the lines drawn along the remnants of the former Ottoman Empire are no longer relevant, and the current state of play in the Middle East will lead to a redefinition of those borders. Such ideas undermine the complexity of the situation and, in fact, preserving these lines may help delegitimize ISIS’s casus belli in its desire for regional conquest.
The Men Behind the Deal
Throughout World War I, Britain and France were embroiled in conflict not only in Europe but across the Turkish imperial territory. After the disaster at Gallipoli, the British knew they needed to shift the offensive momentum against the Turks, but did not have the means to do this without French assistance. The French were reluctant to spend any more blood and treasure than they had to without good cause, as early 1916 brought about the battle of Verdun, one of the deadliest engagements of World War I. To gather French support, the British would have to sweeten the deal, and dividing the future remnants of the Ottoman Empire in a manner that served both British and French interests was one way to do it. Between December 1915 and March 1916, British and French diplomats began to lay the groundwork for how the territories would be divided amongst them.
One of the principal negotiators was Sir Mark Sykes, seen by the British government as a Middle East expert after he authored a book on the history of the region called The Caliphs’ Last Heritage. In fact, Sykes’ knowledge of Middle Eastern culture was mostly gathered throughout his many travels, during which he developed quite a romanticized view of the Arab world that he sought to preserve in a post-Ottoman generation. Called to Number 10 Downing Street in December 1915, Sykes was asked by the War Cabinet to advise Prime Minister Asquith on the best way Britain should resolve any disagreements with France over the fate of the Ottoman Empire, should it fall. Sykes stated, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk,” thus laying the groundwork for the British approach to the pending negotiations. By pointing to this straight line on the map, Sykes initiated the recommendation that would generally divide the land to the south and east for Britain, to the north and west for France. On the other side of the equation was François Georges-Picot, a hard nosed French lawyer with a well known dislike for the British. His arrival in London on November 23, 1915 was a sure sign of French intent to ensure their desires in the region were met. Picot was another in a line of staunch French colonialists, the son and brother of two colonial committee members, and one of many supporters of expanded French influence in Syria. Unfortunately, neither Sykes nor Picot truly understood the reality of politics in the region. Sykes miscalculated the support for a unified Arab state, and Picot failed to account for the lack of support of educated Syrians for French colonialism, just to name two factors.
Picot’s initial rounds of negotiations failed to produce little more than a stalemate until Sykes arrived to London in December. From that point, the secret talks would carry on until their terms received approval by the British and French governments in May 1916. Under the terms of Sykes-Picot, the Syrian coastal region and much of what is known today as Lebanon would go to France. French interest in the Syrian coastal region was grounded in their historical ties to the Crusades, as well as the economic potential it brought. Baghdad and Basra, or central and southern Mesopotamia, would fall under British control, maintaining not only their sphere of influence, but also protecting their link to India. Russia’s concerns in the region influenced the fate of Palestine, as it and the other predominantly Christian states ensured Palestine was placed under an international conglomeration of government administration. To this end, the two powers agreed:
The British and French government, as the protectors of the Arab state, shall agree that they will not themselves acquire and will not consent to a third power acquiring territorial possessions in the Arabian peninsula, nor consent to a third power installing a naval base either on the east coast, or on the islands, of the red sea. This, however, shall not prevent such adjustment of the Aden frontier as may be necessary in consequence of recent Turkish aggression.
On the surface, Sykes-Picot may seem like the paragon of diplomatic cooperation between two major powers during a violent war, when in fact it was negotiated in secret and failed to account for Arab interests, let alone the interests of the Turks who were losing their empire. Both Sykes and Picot used territorial aspirations to play the other into their hand, Picot using French desire for rule in Syria to coax concessions out of Sykes, and the British diplomats planning to cede Syria to the French in order to serve as a buffer against Russian influence in the Middle East.
An important point to consider when examining the lasting influence of Sykes-Picot is that this deal was not the final arrangement for the post-war Middle East. Negotiations on the fate of the Arab world after the fall of the Ottoman Empire carried on throughout the remainder of the war, into the six months of Paris peace talks in 1919, until in 1922 when Britain, France, and Turkey reached a final settlement to divide the remnants of the Ottoman Empire between them. Unfortunately, as historian David Fromkin points out, though the British began laying the plans for the post-war era early in the conflict, and by the end of 1922 they no longer had faith in its viability, they still enacted provisions of Sykes-Picot in the settlement. This decision helped set the stage for further conflict and instability in the ensuing decades, ultimately creating a series of coups and the installation of despotic regimes throughout the Middle East.
Time to Redraw the Map?
While the eradication of Sykes-Picot is one of their stated goals, to say that ISIS desires solely to redefine the borders within the Middle East under their self-declared caliphate gives short shrift to their aims. This organization seeks to restore the power and influence of the caliph to the level it held before the fall of the Ottoman sultanate, whom they see as the last true power to hold the title. To this end, ISIS as an organization must not only endure, it must also expand its territorial claims throughout the region, drawing new “provinces” into its fold as it expands, behaving strategically in the territory they choose to retain against their opposing coalition. By portraying the Sykes-Picot as indicative of Western hegemony and oppression and bulldozing the borders between Syria and Iraq, ISIS sends the message to its followers that it recognizes no borders, especially those drawn by Western powers.
To the point of dictating the definition of sovereign borders in the Middle East, Sykes-Picot demonstrates that Western intervention in regional sovereignty may not be the solution, but Western support and partnership is necessary to ensure a stable path forward. An independent and sovereign Kurdistan is a force for security and progress, and has the potential to be a strong partner against ISIS. However, establishing Kurdistan as a separate state is fraught with risk, and must be done with the support and agreement of multiple bordering states to ensure its viability and security from external threats. Likewise, using sectarian lines to establish new borders within Iraq and Syria would pose similar problems, particularly if those borders were imposed by Western influence. In fact, it is quite possible that dividing the countries by sectarian lines would deepen, rather than resolve, the grievances between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Like Fromkin said in his 1989 book A Peace to End All Peace, “The Allies proposed a post-Ottoman design for the region in the early 1920s. The continuing question is whether the peoples of the region will accept it.” The Middle East was ill suited for external actors to dictate their borders then, and remains so today.
Steven L. Foster is an Army Strategist currently assigned to United States Transportation Command and a Featured Writer on The Bridge. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the policy or position of any official organization.
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Header image: An image posted by ISIS of a bulldozer destroying a section of the Iraq-Syria border, June 2014 | @albaraka_news
 James Barr, A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948, American ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012), 7.
 Ibid, 14-16.
 David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, Owl Books ed. (New York: H. Holt, 2001), 191.
 Ibid, 190.
 A Line in the Sand, 17.
 A Peace to End All Peace, 559
 Ibid, 563.
 William Faizi McCants, The Isis Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (New York: St. Martin, 2015), 139-41.
 A Peace to End All Peace, 565.