the past few years, as Syria has dissolved into warring fiefdoms and Iraq has struggled
to emerge from its disastrous civil war, American commentators have
listed the many failings of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, upon which the Middle
East's state system was based. The 1916 arrangement divided the Ottoman Empire's
dominions in the Arab world into British and French "zones of influence,"
laying the foundation for the region's modern borders. The intense criticism of
Sykes-Picot has provoked a backlash of sorts, as some analysts have suggested
that piling blame on the agreement has distracted from what has really ailed the
Middle East in the post-colonial period.
After capturing Mosul, Iraq, the Islamic State of
Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) announced
"the beginning of the end of the Sykes Picot agreement," as the Guardian put it. The arrival of better-armed critics of the agreement seemed to
herald a fundamental transformation of the Middle East's borders -- but behind ISIS's recent success lie a number of
ironies inherent in both the group's rhetoric and our own assumptions about
the Middle East.
all the imagination with which we've mentally remapped
the region, we remain
strangely wedded to the notion that political upheaval could reveal a new, more authentic set of Middle Eastern borders -- based
on ethnic and sectarian divisions, perhaps, or the
re-emergence of some pre-imperialist geography. But recent developments suggest
that if things do change dramatically, force and chance will play a greater
role in determining what happens next than demography, geography, or history.
the moniker "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham." Both Iraq and al-Sham are place
names with their own historical and political cachet, but it's telling that ISIS's
leadership couldn't come up with a single geographical term to describe its
current area of operations. Al-Sham -- which has sometimes been translated as
Syria, though perhaps "Greater Syria" or "the Levant" gives a clearer sense of
the geography -- was most recently the name of an Ottoman province based in
Damascus. Iraq, by contrast, was a geographical term that came into its own with
the arrival of the British in the 1920s.
on the sound logic of opportunism, ISIS is claiming to unite two regions that
even the first opponents of the European mandate system were content to treat
as separate. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, some of the earliest
Arab nationalists came together in defense of a state covering the entire
Levant. When Faisal, champion of the Arab revolt and later king of Iraq,
proclaimed in 1920 a short-lived Arab Kingdom based in Damascus, he imagined its
territory stretching from the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey to the
Sinai Peninsula, but not east into Iraq.
fate of subsequent plans to bring together Iraq and Syria is also telling.
After World War II, the Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq expressed interest
in various schemes for uniting the region. Syria's leaders, unsurprisingly,
thought that they would lose out in this arrangement, which came to naught anyway
when Iraq's army ousted its Hashemite king, alleging among other things that he
was a British puppet.
the rise of secular-socialist Baath parties in both Iraq and Syria seemed to
offer grounds for unification -- but power politics and the intricacies of
Baathist ideology almost immediately created a newfound hostility between Damascus
attempt to unite with Egypt under the banner of Arab nationalism was no more
which now finds itself allied with Sunni Baathists in Iraq while fighting to
the death against Alawite Baathists in Syria, is no more likely to triumph over
regional particularism than the regimes that came before it. Instead, the most
enduring link between Iraq and Syria today might be the millions of refugees
who, over the past decade, have crossed and recrossed the border fleeing
violence in both directions.
of transnational unification aside, one of the most striking historical
precedents for the area ISIS controlled before last week was the far older
division between the settled and nomadic parts of the Middle East. A fascinating Ottoman map from World War I describes
as "Syrian" the inhabitants of the western agricultural region that includes
all of Syria's major cities, while those living farther east in the desert are
"Arabs." British geography texts from the same period show the same division,
in this case between settled "Ottomans" and wandering Arabs who lived in the
empty space between Iraq and Syria.
a result, the territory separating Iraq and Syria was never of much importance
to the creators of the Sykes-Picot system. At its southern end, this border
crosses a stretch of desert that Ottoman and Western cartographers often left blank. The relatively
more populous stretch of the border that ISIS's new pseudo-state straddles made
up the Ottoman province of Deir ez-Zor, best known today as the place Ottoman Armenians
were sent to die of thirst in 1915.
when the British and French carved up the region, it was at least a decade
before they bothered to properly demarcate this border. The matter
was seemingly of so little consequence that the European powers left it up to a
League of Nations commission. The result, complete with thalwegs, trigonometric points,
and boundary stones, must have seemed particularly arbitrary to the tribes
whose territory spread across it -- but it also might not have mattered that
much. Throughout the colonial period, the tribes' transborder grazing and watering practices continued
unchanged. In short, ISIS has so far succeeded not by remaking the state system
but by operating, like many guerrilla groups before
it, from the ungoverned areas between
backlash provoked by ISIS's brutal tactics and rapid success also reveals the limits
of conceiving of the Middle East along ethnic and sectarian lines. The group's
religious extremism has alienated even its most radical Sunni allies in the
fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has driven half a million Iraqis
out of Mosul. Syrians and Iraqis alike have deployed the language of
nationalism to denounce ISIS fighters as foreign interlopers in their territory,
while Iraqi Shiites are now all the more likely to see Iranian troops on their
soil as coreligionists instead of Persian invaders.
ISIS has inspired an unprecedented degree of consensus between Turks, Kurds,
Iraqis, and Iranians on the need to defeat the jihadi group. With ISIS taking
49 people hostage after overrunning Turkey's consulate in Mosul, Turkish
readers that their prime minister's piety would not keep Turkey on the
group's good side. Violent chaos on Turkey's southern border has also been
an added factor behind the Turkish government's ongoing effort to make peace
with the country's Kurdish minority. Although agonizingly slow and beset with
false steps, this initiative has nonetheless brought Turkey closer than ever
before to ending decades of internal violence and securing its territorial
the same time, ISIS's rise has strengthened the hand of Iraq's Kurds. The Kurdish Peshmerga has taken
control of Kirkuk, but rather than trigger a civil war with Iraq's central
government -- as it likely would have in the past -- Baghdad remains at least
temporarily dependent on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)'s cooperation.
Of all the region's actors, the KRG now stands perhaps the best chance of
having its independence recognized.
this is a tribute to the power of Kurdish nationalism in overcoming intra-Kurdish
political differences. But it's also a tribute to the KRG's pragmatism. For
over a decade, it has built a functioning state by, among other things,
cooperating with Turkey instead of making any effort to liberate what, in the
Kurdish post-Sykes-Picot fantasy, would be Northern Kurdistan.
KRG's coming challenges, however, offer one more testament to why redrawing
borders along ethnic lines remains an ugly, impractical business. If Kurdish
forces hope to maintain a firm hold on Kirkuk, they will have to show they can
provide security for all the city's inhabitants -- not just ethnic Kurds. Once
again, the prevailing approach to drawing the borders of modern states -- basing
them on ethnic identity or historical claims - will be shown to make little
sense. It's an old story: Try to figure out how to adjudicate between
proponents of Kurdistan and Greater Armenia, say, with reference to these
maximalist maps of Armenian- and Kurdish-inhabited territory in Anatolia. (Too easy? Try
it with Assyrian claims as well.)
course, the alternative of simply deferring to precedent and affirming
existing borders is often just as illogical. There are plenty of excellent
reasons for defending Ukraine's territorial integrity against Russian
aggression -- but it's still awkward that the country took on its present shape
when Joseph Stalin gave it a large chunk of what was once Poland. Or consider Saddam
Hussein's selectivity when he justified his invasion of Kuwait by accusing the
British of stealing it from Iraq -- without ever thanking them for putting
together the rest of his country. More recently, efforts to determine the exact
frontier between Sudan and South Sudan stumbled when, after searching
libraries in Khartoum, Cairo, and London, no
one could find any maps showing in detail the provincial borders that the
British drew a century ago.
the most successful effort yet at eliminating outdated borders drawn by 19th-century
Europeans remains the European Union. And that consensus only emerged from the
belated realization that a century of fighting over the continent's true borders
hadn't done anyone any good.
Sadly, the EU's gilded dysfunction remains more than
the Middle East can hope for in the near future. But the EU's fundamental
insight remains sound: If we are going to discuss the end of Sykes-Picot, let's
first recognize that -- no matter how little sense those borders make -- none
of the alternatives are intrinsically more sensible.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons