The town of al-Karama after it was captured by the SDF from ISIL.

The Surprising Endurance of Sykes-Picot

The much-maligned frontiers of the Middle East, having been drawn not by the Arabs themselves, but by Europeans, have often come under criticism as failing to respect the local political and human geography that existed a century ago. In this piece, Eamon Driscoll examines the difficult border and its surprising endurance in the face of multiple attempts to redraw it.

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With the capture of the final Islamic State (IS) stronghold of Al-Baghuz Fawqani along the Iraqi-Syrian border, the most serious challenge to atlases depicting the Middle East since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire has come to an end. Instead of mapping the peoples of the region, the often ruler-straight lines of the Levantine Middle East established states and borders reflecting the hegemony of the United Kingdom and the Republic of France at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, assigned to them by mandate of the League of Nations. The Arab states in question were not members of the League of Nations at the time that authority over their land was passed from Constantinople to London and Paris.

In May 1916, the French and British governments met secretly to determine what should happen to the Arab lands controlled by the Ottoman Empire after the (aspirational at this time) victorious conclusion of the Great War. The Arabs had aided the Triple Entente against the Turks, and had been promised an Arab national state as the reward for their assistance. The accord between Mark Sykes of the UK and François Georges-Picot of France, officially named the “Asia Minor Agreement“, was revealed publicly by Russian newspapers Izvestia and Pravda on 23 November 1917, a mere sixteen days after the Bolsheviks took control of what would become the Soviet Union. The betrayal of Arab ambitions for a state of their own represented a significant turning point in Western-Arab relations, which remains frosty to the present day.

MPK1-426 Sykes Picot Agreement Map signed 8 May 1916.jpg
Lands allocated to France (A, blue) and the United Kingdom (B, red) by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

That this arrangement has persisted, albeit with some adjustments, for a century is a testament to the great importance of borders for the people who live within them. Some issues remain today, like the absence of a homeland for the Kurdish and Assyrian peoples, both of which have played roles in the Syrian Civil War and the fight against IS. Yet Sykes-Picot was not hegemonic; it did not prevent the creation of Lebanon and Kuwait, nor did it overrule the Balfour Declaration promising the Jews an independent homeland. But its legacy remains massive in the Middle East, and when IS rose to power this fact was further recognised by the publication of a video unambiguously-entitled End of Sykes-Picot. In addition to their attempts to create a Salafist state and return the Muslims to what they felt was the true Islam, IS saw the elimination of the regional order established a century previously as one of their key responsibilities. Liberating the Arab people from the tyranny of borders set upon them by Western imperialists and the kufir and replacing it with a grand restored caliphate, the Islamic State had territorial ambitions that stretched across all lands historically conquered by Muslims, thus rewriting not only Sykes-Picot, but centuries of history as well. To this end, the  centuries-old concept of the “Dar al Islam“, meaning “Abode of Islam” was hijacked for justification of their concept of a utopian Salafist caliphate.

The “Dar al Islam”: territorial ambitions of the Islamic State.

What followed was rather predictable; IS claimed authority over many dozen countries, and not one leader of those countries swore fealty to the Caliphate despite the emergence in some cases of local IS franchises. IS-core remained primarily operating in Syria and Iraq, represented by the internationally recognised governments of President Bashar al Assad and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, respectively. Neither executive relented and kept fighting against IS, even while fighting other rebel groups in al Assad’s case and suffering severe losses in al Maliki’s case. Al Maliki even – in a moment of conspiracy-driven commentary – went so far as to claim that IS was a tool of the American government to justify a continued military presence in Iraq, and that his nation would work together with Iran and Lebanon to ensure that al Assad was not toppled.

And as the fight against IS began to turn against the Islamists, discussions of a homeland for the Kurds began to enter geopolitical discourse. The Kurdish people had proven themselves worthy allies in the battle against IS and had the military support of the United States, yet in the end no Kurdish homeland arose. The Assyrian people, meanwhile, have been devastated by the rise of IS, and no coherent Assyrian military or political force exists to stake a claim for an Assyrian state. Yet even if one did exist, it is unlikely that one would arise. To understand why this situation has emerged from the rubble of the Caliphate, we must understand the inherent strength of established borders. One hundred years ago, the idea of multiple states in the Levant and Mesopotamia might have elicited raised eyebrows given the promises made of a single Arab homeland and the League of Nations mandates given to the United Kingdom and France. But today, after many decades of independence, what was once meant as a temporary line in the sand is now a firm border. The loss of territory by any one state would mean a loss of prestige and legitimacy, and few leaders or nationalists of these states would risk such a dangerous political move. Prior to IS’ arrival on the scene, the closest attempt at overturning Sykes-Picot came in 1958 with the United Arab Republic.

This unified Arab nation – the brainchild of Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser – was intended as a pan-Arab state which would overcome the borders as drawn. Nasser was an Arab hero after the Suez War of 1956, and two years later Egypt united with Syria in what Syrians believed was a power-sharing agreement. Nasser, meanwhile, retained actual power. Despite Nasser’s efforts, in 1961 the first Syrian coup d’état took place, reasserting Syrian sovereignty and ending the political union. In 1963, a second coup occurred in Syria, ultimately leading to the ascension of the al Assad family to power in 1971. Syria’s departure from the United Arab Republic caused the latter state to be simply Egypt by another name, and despite Nasser’s repeated claims in speeches that the dream of a pan-Arab state remained strong, the UAR would quietly be renamed Egypt again in 1971.

Other efforts at pan-Arabism have met similar fate. After coming to power in Libya, Colonel Muammar al Qaddafi proposed the Federation of Arab Republics, uniting his nation with Egypt and Syria. In 1972, Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein proposed the Union of Arab Republics, also uniting Iraq with Egypt and Syria. Such proposals have come and gone, but the borders that were created after the League of Nations mandates ended have persisted. IS is merely the latest, though certainly the most unique, solution to the perceived problem of Sykes-Picot to have failed in its goal of creating a single national state for the Arab people.

If Sykes-Picot ever is overturned, it is likely to be in the form of a cataclysmic war between regional powers in the Middle East. IS sought a cataclysmic war, but could not overcome the inherent strength of states under threat combined with the military forces of the United States and Russia, and various other international powers. While IS sought to shock and awe its way to success, the brutally repugnant nature of the group led to a near-universal effort to destroy them by the international community, leading to their demise before they could truly erase the border. Never mind the fact that IS, had they succeeded in establishing a state, would also be subject to international law; though would most certainly lack recognition from the United Nations and therefore remain legally a quasi-state, friendly to no one and hostile to everyone.

Whether in the guise of a federation of legitimate states or a militant group with a vision, the dream of overturning Sykes-Picot is almost certain to remain little more than a dream well past the foreseeable future. The present cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is also not likely to emerge as a cause of this hypothetical conflict, barring an extreme expansion of the proxy wars being fought in Syria and Yemen. Neither Tehran or Riyadh would see much gain from pure conquest, especially given the current illegality of claiming land via conquest under international law.

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Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Ilinois and postgraduate of Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him with extensive experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

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Photo credit: Cover image – Zana Omar (VOA) // Sykes-picot map – Royal Geographical Society // IS caliphate map – Zamoeux