Blaming Sykes-Picot: A Dangerous Deception

Taken to its logical conclusion, the “artificial state” narratives leads to more violence, not less.

Map of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, showing proposed British, French, Italian and Russian territorial gains and spheres of influence
Map of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, showing proposed British, French, Italian and Russian territorial gains and spheres of influence

We have previously argued that blaming the colonial borders in the Middle East for today’s mayhem in Iraq and Syria overlooks the role played by the Arabs themselves. There’s another reason to be wary of the “artificial state” narrative. Taken to its logical conclusion, it leads to more, not less, sectarian conflict.

The rise of the Islamic State militant group has brought new attention to the supposed artificiality of Iraq’s and Syria’s borders. This self-declared caliphate is determined to erase a desert frontier that emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

The Islamic State’s propaganda and much Western commentary traces the region’s ethnic and sectarian strife back to a secret 1916 agreement between Mark Sykes and Fran├žois Georges-Picot that divided the Arab lands into respectively British and French spheres of influence.

This is rather unfair to Sykes and Picot. Their plan never really panned out (for one thing, Italy and Russia did not get the territory they envisaged) and Sykes himself, a War Office diplomat at the time, recognized it as a “reactionary measure” only a few years later when the region’s borders were still in flux. Neither Sykes nor Picot had the power to enforce borders on anyone and it took more planning, several conferences and consultations with the Arabs — who had after all supported the Allies in the war against the Turks — before the borders of today’s Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria were finalized.

Sara Pursley, a Princeton University postdoctoral fellow, totally rebukes what she calls the “legend” of Sykes-Picot in contribution for Jadaliyya. She argues that Iraq’s borders in particular weren’t drawn on an “empty map” somewhere in London or Paris. Rather, they formed in much the same way as other states: “A lot of work and a lot of violence went into their construction and a lot of work and a lot of violence would go into their reconstruction.”

Blaming European imperialists for “drawing lines in the sand” and setting off decades of conflict in the Middle East is not just a gross exaggeration of what happened; Westerners who perpetuate this narrative deny the Arabs agency in their own history. The notion that a few decades of European involvement in the region are wholly to blame for everything that’s wrong in the Middle East today is frankly preposterous; as though nothing that happened before or since was of any significance.

Which is exactly why this is such an attractive narrative for some Arabs. It allows them to deny responsibility for their own backwardness.

Or worse. Pursley warns that following the artificial state narrative to its logical conclusion leads to one place — “and that place is not peace in the Middle East but rather the violence of ethnosectarian cleansing.”

This is what the Islamic State (IS) is doing. It seeks to construct a “pure” Arab and Sunni state in the heart of the Middle East and is literally eradicating everyone who doesn’t fit its definition of what it means to be a true Muslim.

Yet rather than compelling the rest of the world to rethink the logic of the artificial state narrative — which is, I repeat, the logic of ethnosectarian cleansing — the violence of IS is being marshaled as yet more evidence of that narrative’s purported truth.

There are no “natural” borders in the Middle East that would give Shia and Sunni Muslims and Arabs and Kurds neatly-defined states of their own. Such borders don’t exist anywhere. The formation of nations and states usually goes hand-in-hand. Seldom does a nation clearly exist before the state.

The Kurds are one exception but even an independent Kurdistan would not be ethnically and religiously homogenous.

It doesn’t have to be. Peace doesn’t break out when every community gets a state of its own. It happens when different communities learn to live with each other in one state. This is what the people of the Middle East are struggling to do. Telling them they don’t need to try — and that the reason they’re fighting isn’t even their own fault — doesn’t help.


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