Critics of Sykes-Picot Overlook Arab Agency

Western interference didn’t help but the Arabs are also responsible for many mishaps themselves.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser are seen in Moscow, Russia, May 1, 1958
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser are seen in Moscow, Russia, May 1, 1958 (Life/Howard Sochurek)

Where Sykes-Picot is blamed, Arab agency tends to be ignored.

Selim Can Sazak’s recent commentary in The National Interest is an example of this tendency to condemn Western interference the Middle East while overlooking the possibility that the Arabs might have had something to do with their own misfortune.

Sazak describes the 1916 agreement between Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot that divided the Middle East into respectively British and French spheres of influence as “a colonial ordering device, devised in secret and imposed by force” on a region that was apparently hapless. The inhabiting Arabs’ fate was “determined” by the treaty, enacted “against their will and contrary to the natural equilibrium of power in the region.”

The “natural equilibrium of power in the region,” according to Sazak, was relatively peaceful coexistence between religious groups — a system imposed by the Ottomans. In other words: a system imposed on the Arabs by a foreign power, too.

But it was European nationalism — so not Sykes-Picot per se, then — that did the most harm. As Sazak describes it, the Middle East was perfectly tranquil before the twentieth century. He writes, “the ethnic, religious and sectarian conflicts of the contemporary Middle East were absent until the colonial powers created them.”

Those conniving Westerners didn’t stop there. The British “laid the foundations of the Arab-Israeli conflict by promising Palestine both to Arabs and to Jews,” argues Sazak. No matter that Jews emigrated to the region of their own accord before Israel was created; that the Arabs got by far the bigger part of the Mandate for Palestine; and that the British actually opposed the 1947 partition of the remaining area west of the River Jordan into Arab and Jewish lands. It’s all their fault anyway.

And the Americans’. “The overthrow of Egypt’s King Farouk and Syria’s Shukri al-Quwatli created the Ba’ath and its oppressive nationalisms,” writes Sazak, implying that the United States were responsible for both coups and the regimes they put in place.

The Americans did support the 1952 overthrow of Farouk but it were Egyptian army officers, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, that carried it out. They subsequently kicked the British and French out of Suez and allied with the Soviet Union.

The coup against Quwatli was also supported by the United States but similarly carried out by the military. Quwatli would later become president of Syria nevertheless and lead the country into an ill-fated union with Egypt.

It was the combination of pan-Arabism and socialism, espoused by the likes of Nasser and Quwatli, that did more harm to the Middle East than Sykes-Picot had done. It informed an illiberal economic policy that condemned these countries to stagnation, denied any role for religion in the affairs of the state and underestimated the historical fault lines between Shia and Sunni Muslims — which Sazak seems to suggest didn’t exist at all before the Europeans, what, invented them? The pan-Arabists saw no reason to reconsider the borders those European imperialists had drawn up for they aspired to a shared Arab homeland, not Middle Eastern nation states.

It turned out pan-Arabism, despite all Arab states’ repeated professions of solidarity with the stateless Palestinians, was no substitute for existing ethnic, religious and tribal loyalties — which Sazak simply denies existed — nor strong enough to overcome the personal ambitions of Arab leaders — which he fails to take into account completely.

From the Hashemite kings Britain brought to power down to the mullahs of modern Iran, rather a lot of the Middle East’s national leaders of the last century have been expansionists. Yet their aggressions and the conflicts they created, with their Arab neighbors and the West, not to mention Israel (which, indeed, Sazak doesn’t) are all the consequence of the Europeans’ original sin of the Sykes-Picot Agreement?

To be fair, Sazak doesn’t overlook later events entirely. But where he mentions them, he blunders as well. In his narrative, outside meddling in the region is always exclusively to blame. If Arab leaders made mistakes, it is only because Westerns created the conditions in which they could.

Take the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran when the United States take over from Britain as the boogeyman in Sazak’s story. The reasons for the coup — Mosaddegh’s seizure of British oil industries in the country, rather like Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal three years later that had been dug and financed by Britain and France, and the decree powers the premier assumed in defiance of the shah — are apparently irrelevant. The only reason the coup is worth mentioning is because it “made Iran a dictatorship that could only be overthrown by the forces of theocracy.”

Sazak later insists the people of Egypt don’t have a binary choice between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military but apparently the people of Iran did only have two choices in 1979 — between monarchy and theocracy.

And then Sazak reverses himself again by proposing that “liberty, prosperity and democracy” still have a chance in the Middle East, if only America could restore its “moral leadership and ideological appeal at a time when it is most needed.”

How such an “ideological appeal,” whatever that looks like, could resonate if indeed the West has perpetrated all the transgressions in the Middle East Sazak accuses it of remains something of a mystery.

Certainly Western policy in the Middle East in the last one hundred years has had its failures. All too often, policymakers saw the region in “Western” terms, looking for nations where there were none and erecting states that lacked a popular foundation. But so did many Arab leaders post independence. Their errors and hypocrisies are altogether erased from Sazak’s narrative which, in its romanticization of the precolonial order, is hardly less naive than the misbegotten Western designs he so fiercely criticizes.