by Ghassan Karam
Exactly 100 years ago Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed in Sarajevo on June 28 , 1914. His assassination set off a series of actions and counter reactions that ended up in one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, World War I. This tragedy is relevant to us in more than one way. Obviously the most basic reason for recognizing this day is the hope that the more we think about these tragic events the less likely humanity will be subjected to them again. But another important reason for us is the idea that WW I was a perfect example of unintended consequences. No one wanted to start a world war but the assassination spiraled out of control and ended up in a war that lasted for over 4 years , and resulted in an estimated 37 million casualties.. But there is another reason for us to think about this issue and that is that it culminated in freeing the ME from 400 years of Ottoman rule.
So many articles and thinkers have written about how is it that we might be witnessing the end of Sykes Picot, an agreement that is often described in negative terms by Arabs and many even go as far as to claim that all our problems, and there are so many, can be traced to the political subdivisions that were drawn after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
I do not subscribe to that vision except in one detail. One can argue very convincingly that had it not been for WWI, the resulting Mandate and the Sykes Picot agreement then possibly the Balfour declaration/Promise might not have been issued and the ME would have been spared the last seventy years of instability related to the establishment of the state of Israel. But if we are to set aside the Balfour Declaration then I cannot find much that is at fault with Sykes Picot.
Note that Figure 1
is a map that demonstrates clearly that the whole of the Arab world, including
North Africa, was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for four centuries . Roughly 1516-1916. Then in
1916 the infamous Sykes Picot subdivided part of the Ottoman Empire into two regions of influence,
one British and one French. (figure 2) .
The Sykes Picot agreement resulted in about 25 years of the Mandate Figure 3. The two Western powers ; France and Great Britain; divided the area taken away from the Ottoman Empire into the current major countries of the ME.
Once Sykes Picot delivered to each of the two European powers an area of influence they then proceeded to carve up the countries that make up the current Middle East. But each of the countries created was able to become independent by the mid 1940’s. Figure 4.
This is an important point since it makes it clear that the mandate which created the boundaries between Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine/Israel lasted only for 25 years.
Based on the above and the accompanying maps one needs to ask again whether it was the 25 year mandate or the 400 year Ottoman rule that played a more crucial role in shaping the identity and culture of the people in this region.
If, as it is often claimed, that the current political borders created by the mandatory powers after the Sykes Picot agreement created political divisions that are not acceptable then why weren’t there any major movements to correct that flaw and redraw the borders. It is easier to protest a perceived injustice but is more difficult to prove that such an injustice has taken place. Would it have been better to the inhabitants of the mandated areas had these artificial boundaries not been created? Is there a shared national identity between the residents of these countries in question and are they ready to accept the other and accept the demands of democracy and responsibilities of citizenship that would be required in an efficient modern state? Even if the answer is yes then wouldn’t it be better to create a federation where each of the member states can control its own internal affairs.
I am willing to be a Giraffe ;put my neck out ; by saying that the “death of Sykes Picot has been exaggerated” and that the current map of the ME would hold with very little changes , if any. Ideally the most important radical change would be the settlement of the Israeli Palestinian question. The Kurdish issue would not be so much of a problem had Syria, Iran and Turkey been able to treat all their citizens equally, an autonomous Kurdish region might be the only other alteration of the current inviolable boundaries. I imagine that I am saying that ISIS will not fulfill its wish. No backward thinking group of people ever do.