Modern Middle Eastern history is often told to start and end with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, signed a century ago this week. The agreement is credited to British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot, who led closed-door negotiations after World War I from which a cache of secret correspondence later emerged. And though Sykes-Picot is only one part of Middle Eastern history, it is undeniable that the agreement was a critical one: It laid the framework for many of the boundaries that still define the Middle East today, delineating Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Mandate Palestine and several Arabian Gulf countries. Some of these states have been more successful than others, but all have undergone tumultuous state-building over the past century. While it is commonly recognized that the agreement imposed an idealistic and simplistic postcolonial grid onto a complex region, the boundaries became real soon enough, as citizens and governments in each country began to construct nationalist narratives.
The actual Sykes-Picot agreement is arguably less important than the numerous conferences that led to its implementation — such as the 1920 San Remo conference, which split German and Ottoman territories into British- and French-administered states, and the 1921 Cairo Conference, which separated Mandate Palestine into Transjordan and Palestine. But when we think of establishing European-style nation-states where before there were none, we invariably think of the original agreement, struck in 1916. Trying to understand the patterns of strife that now afflict the region, David Fromkin wrote in 2009 of borders and the legacy of empires in the Middle East:
Uninterrupted possession tends to give good title; thus eternal Egypt and imperial Persia, survivors of the ancient world, remain unquestioned in their claims to statehood. New states thrown up by strongmen tend to be accepted too, so long as the men really are strong and really are indigenous: one thinks of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's Turkish Republic and Abdul Aziz ibn Saud's Saudi Arabia. It is a third category that does not seem to command acceptance: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel provide examples. These are children of England and France, born of the Sykes-Picot-Sazonov Agreement as amended; and it is frequently suggested that it is their provenance that lies at the heart of [their] problems.
But the notion that provenance has fatalistically determined chaos ignores much of the ethno-sectarian reality on the ground in these countries — just as the Sykes-Picot agreement itself did. Amid sectarianism, political boundaries are often inconsequential. This is a lesson I learned early. As a child I spent a summer in the Middle East, mostly living in Jerusalem. One June day, my family set out from a weekend in Haifa to reach the northernmost border between Lebanon and Israel. I stretched my foot as far as I could under a metal fence, the first of many secure barriers separating the two countries. For several years afterward, I bragged to anyone who would listen that I had visited Lebanon. During the many years between my first experience in Lebanon and a visit to Beirut as an adult, the United Nations laid down the Blue Line between Israel and Lebanon to stave off cross-border tension; the transnational Hezbollah militia launched assaults against the Lebanese and Israeli states; and a second intifada in Palestine changed the dynamic of Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese border security. The Israeli-Lebanese border has persisted on the map, as most of the Sykes-Picot order has, despite the forces shifting on either side. Since no major powers have taken it upon themselves to redraw the map of the region, the means by which stronger powers shape the actions of the weaker ones between them matter more than political boundaries.
Preparing for a Post-Ottoman Middle East
In 1916, the Middle East was a very different web of power and influence than it is today. Beginning in 1915, France and Britain argued in daily negotiations over who should administer the Levantine territories. Each side fretted about how territory would translate into military might for the purposes of winning the war and expanding territory afterward. Together they envisioned a nominally independent yet partitioned Arab state divided between spheres of British and French control. This would allow port access and overland trade routes while, of course, containing Russian influence in the region. Previous negotiations between the entente powers, such as the Constantinople Agreement of 1915, had allotted various territorial claims — including the prized Turkish straits — to Russia. But those claims quickly fell by the wayside.
If France, Britain and Russia were the players that eked out a map across the Middle East, then Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia (more directly) and Russia, Europe and the United States (less directly) are the powers jockeying for influence in the region today. The competition may be less overt than was the Sykes-Picot's geopolitical gerrymandering; nevertheless there is a clear struggle taking place among the world's powers. In some of the more stable Levantine states, such as Jordan, external influences are less visible yet no less strong. By contrast, it is impossible to miss the external pull in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. But a century has passed since the drafting of the Sykes-Picot agreement, and the regional players' roles in the Middle East have changed.
Past and Present Powers
Even though the Ottoman Empire was crumbling in 1916, the seeds of Turkish nationalism had already been planted. The Committee of Union and Progress, a predecessor to the Republican People's Party (CHP) that espoused Turkish nationalism, was established before the decline of the empire. The party grew and adjusted its direction as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk galvanized nationalist sentiment around the creation of a new Turkish Republic. Underestimating Turkish power was perhaps among the greatest mistakes that the Allied powers made around the table between 1916 and 1922. In 1911, Britain refused the offer of an Ottoman alliance, and in 1915 Turkey accomplished one of its greatest military victories at the Dardanelles, the eight-monthlong naval campaign that repelled British, French and Russian forces. Now in 2016, a pragmatic Turkey has resurged and is active across the Middle East. Despite the stress it might cause its relationships with some of its allies, Turkey seeks to carve out a safe zone in northern Syria both to help combat the Islamic State and support Syrian rebels and to contain Kurdish attempts at sovereignty. (The Kurds represent an ethnic majority in southeast Turkey.) Moreover, Turkey is trying to rebuild ties with Israel, to bolster relationships in the Gulf and to preserve its selective links with Iraqi Kurdistan.
In 1916, a nascent Saudi state was also emerging that would unite some of the disparate tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. Some of the most valuable territory being considered was that formerly under Ottoman control. After recapturing Riyadh at the turn of the century, a sheik in Nejd province named Ibn Saud was hard at work to centralize his control as the Ottoman order disintegrated, capitalizing on British help in the process. In 2016, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, headed by one of Ibn Saud's youngest descendants, leads the most cash-flush corner of the Arab world. But because of low oil prices, the kingdom is being choosier about spending its oil wealth. Thus it cannot commit itself fully to fights it does not think it can win (such as the conflict in Iraq), especially when it is spending generously on conflicts closer to home, for example in Yemen. Today, as it embarks on an ambitious plan to try and diversify away from oil — the resource that most contributed to its rise as a state — Saudi Arabia combats a whole range of internal social, security and economic challenges. But even in spite of these obstacles, the kingdom is eager to maintain its stake as a powerful voice in the region and is pulling together as strong a force as it can behind its claims to Sunni leadership in the Muslim and Arab worlds.
In 1916 Iran, World War I coincided with the final decade of the Persian Qajar dynasty. Persia had to contend with competing Russian and British influence in its territory as early signs emerged that access to the country's oil could be a boon to future development. For the Qajars, the 19th century was marked by defeat: British and Russian pushback, coupled with internal weakness, contained its territorial claims to the east in Herat, Kabul and Balochistan. The claims to power became part of the Iranian notion of its national integrity and delineated the borders of the Iranian state, some of which remain today. 100 years later, a radically different Iran is active in the Middle East, one that seeks not to claim territory but to exert influence on its neighbors through trade — particularly in Central Asia — and through support for militias and political movements in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Some issues raised in the Sykes-Picot negotiations have never been answered and remain persistent questions of national sovereignty and independence that Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey all actively contend with. Of these, the fractured Palestinian state, more historically tied to the 1917 Balfour Declaration than to Sykes-Picot, and the impossibility of a Kurdish state are the most prominent. Both issues have spurred transnational movements and political campaigns that have sometimes turned violent. Whatever fickle political system was imposed on the region (and fickle it was — according to Fromkin, "British policymakers imposed a settlement upon the Middle East in 1922 in which, for the most part, they themselves no longer believed") wore away as subsequent political systems were tested, rejected and changed. Although Sykes-Picot will forever have a stamp on the political map of the Middle East, other forces preceded and transcend its boundaries.