Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Rethinking Sykes-Picot?

The status quo created by the century-old Sykes-Picot Agreement in Iraq and the Levant should be retained, writes Salah Nasrawi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Despite military successes in the war against Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria, the conflicts in the two Arab countries are slowly and steadily drifting in a dangerous direction.

Speculation is rife that the crises in Iraq and Syria may continue for some time. Even if the wars end in the two battered countries, a comprehensive and lasting political solution looks a long way off.

By and large, this is the gloomy picture that is being painted by many US and other Western politicians, pundits and analysts for Iraq and Syria.

Their greatest fear is that the failure of a political settlement in Iraq and Syria will necessitate “last-ditch” plans that could entail dividing them along ethno-sectarian lines.

Their persistence in propagating the potential disintegration of Iraq and Syria, however, seems to entail more in terms of imperialist thinking and a Western geopolitical strategy than an historical process or real political imperative.

While the idea of partitioning Iraq has been in circulation since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, Syria has recently become a favourable candidate for future partition in the light of widespread expectations that existing settlement frameworks are doomed to fail.

The strategy was first outlined by US vice-president Joe Biden in an opinion piece in the New York Times on 1 May 2006, which Biden co-wrote with Leslie H Gelb, president emeritus of the US Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank seen by many as the shadow government that actually runs US foreign policy.

The plan, they wrote, would be to “establish three largely autonomous regions” for each of the ethno-religious groups, Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs, within Iraq.

In 2007, Biden, then a congressman and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and senator Sam Brownback of Kansas tabled a non-binding resolution that proposed separating Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions with a federal government. The resolution passed the senate by 75 votes to 23.

Though Biden has since insisted that his proposal did not mean splitting Iraq into three countries, his plan, which basically calls for a Shia and a Sunni region in addition to the existing Kurdish one, has been widely taken as a US blueprint for “a soft partitioning” of Iraq.

The suggestion was reinforced by Washington’s recently declared support for a plan to create an autonomous region for Iraqi Sunnis as a solution to Sunni empowerment in post- IS Iraq.

In recent months similar sentiments have been expressed by prominent Western voices on the subject of Syria. The assumption is that if the on-going ceasefire in the country does not hold it will be difficult for Syria to remain united.

The continuing conflicts in Iraq and Syria and the increasing instability in Lebanon have been used by pundits to declare that the borders on the eastern flank of the Arab world, drawn up by Britain and France during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Sykes-Picot Agreement during the First World War, are now on their last legs.

The end of Sykes-Picot has become a catchphrase used by those who argue that the rise of IS in both Iraq and Syria, as well as the pockets of instability that have been created because of weak state control over various territories, have put state borders in the region on the verge of substantial change.

Nevertheless, few people in the Middle East take this as a US prophesy or as an example of the game theory studied at war academies. Rather, the vision looks more like a process that has been deliberately and carefully set in motion.

In a sense it all sounds like a parallel to the division of the spoils of World War One a century ago between the Western powers.

Even before the war had ended in 1918, Britain and France had secretly discussed how they would carve up the Middle East into “spheres of influence” in the post-war period.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 led to a preliminary division of the Arab territories of the former Ottoman Empire between the two main Western powers.

The Ottoman Empire had been in decline for centuries prior to the war, and the two imperialist powers had already made plans to divide up the strategic region that stretches between the Mediterranean and the Arab Gulf in the likely event that they would defeat the Ottomans.

The secret treaty was named after its lead negotiators, the diplomats Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France. Russia was also privy to the negotiations before it withdrew from the treaty and exposed it following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. 

The treaty was a typical product of European colonial thinking at the time and of designs by European strategists and administrators who worked to define borders in the colonies and set agendas to serve imperialist ends.

The agreement was intended to balance the goals and interests of the imperialist powers.

In implementing the dubious agreement and its follow-up the San Remo Treaty, the allied powers reneged on promises to allow the Arabs to establish their own independent state or states after the war had ended and instead snatched control of their territories and resources.

One of the main goals of the agreement was to grab Palestine from the Arabs and to give it to the Jews to establish the State of Israel. Because of this, millions of Palestinians have been displaced and the Middle East has remained stuck in an apparently endless state of conflicts and wars.   

Like almost all grand imperialist schemes, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was aimed at serving the vested interests of the imperialist powers by creating new realities on the ground.

The state entities created by European colonialism in the 1920s and the ruling cliques that then took charge of them served these Western interests well.

For many decades, the Western powers turned a blind eye to the authoritarian practices of the dictatorial Arab regimes they helped to install in power in exchange for their protecting Western interests.

But a century of double-dealing, hegemony, dependency, conflicts, authoritarian rule and misery has to come to an end. The Gulf War in 1991 and the destruction of Iraq that precipitated the US-British protected Kurdish Region in northern Iraq ushered in a new era.

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Arab Spring that toppled several Arab dictatorships and threatened others nearly a decade later dictated new geopolitics to replace the old ones created by the Sykes-Picot order.

From here comes the talk about the end of Sykes-Picot and grand plans to redraw the map of the Middle East. But this would mean the Sykes-Picot states fragmenting internally and their borders collapsing, eventually obscuring the outside perpetrators’ responsibility.

Though the theory of a newly fragmented Middle East has come to refer to the region’s flashpoints, the main focus remains the Kurds in Iraq and Syria.

Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region, acknowledges that his plan for the secession of the region relies largely on the idea that the Sykes-Picot Agreement no longer makes sense.

He has been urging world leaders to start to accept that Iraq and Syria will never again be united.

Kurds in Syria have also carved out their own self-rule cantons amidst the ravages of the civil war in the country. Though they claim that their goal is to remain with their autonomous administration within a “federal” Syria, their future will largely depend on whether Syria will remain united.

Given how the Kurds have been persecuted in the countries in which they now live, it is no surprise that they are demanding the right to govern themselves.  But the idea that partitioning Iraq and Syria will be good for Kurdish statehood remains in doubt.

Though the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have been running their own affairs with little regard for Baghdad and Damascus in recent years, their self-ruled areas remain largely lacking of the elements necessary for a politically stable and economically viable state.

Though neither the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey nor the Kurdish parties in Iran are openly committed to Kurdish independence, the emergence of a mini Kurdish state in northern Iraq is another way of inciting the Kurds in Turkey and Iran to seek secession.

The two powerful Middle East nations remain opposed to the notion of Kurdish statehood. Their main concern is that an independent Kurdish state or states on their borders would be destabilising and a catalyst for foreign influence.

However, on a larger scale the question of whether remapping the Middle East is politically, economically, geostrategically or historically imperative remains in doubt.

It is true that in Iraq and Syria, and probably in other turbulent Arab countries, fundamental issues remain unresolved, including the future shape of ethnic and religious conflicts and power-sharing, but partitioning is not the answer.

It cannot be denied that communal divisions in both Iraq and Syria and frustration with the status quo are building, but it is clear that most of the pressure for partitioning is coming from abroad rather than from within.

Iraq and Syria are the cradles of ancient civilisations. The two countries witnessed the rise and fall of many great empires, and they have survived foreign invasions and occupations over centuries.

They have a rich historical experience of statehood that dates back to the ancient Sumerians in 4,000-5,000 BCE, and this should serve as the foundation for state rebuilding.

In order to stop the hellish game currently being played on the Middle East chessboard, present attempts to partition some of the region’s countries should be stopped.

However disastrous the Sykes-Picot Agreement was in failing to bring stability to the Middle East, a regional repositioning from a Western perspective will turn the entire region into a wasteland of blood and destruction that will be the worst it has ever seen.

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