In this week of the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement it is fashionable to nail it as the prime cause for all the travails of the Middle East today. To do so is to overstate its impact.
Without doubt it is a significant contributing factor, but are we supposed to believe that without Sykes-Picot the entire region from Egypt to the Shatt al-Arab waterway would be a haven of peace and/or prosperity? Hardly. Should we ignore all the other factors which have shaped the region in the past century? No.
When the agreement was signed, in secret, none of the sovereign Arab states currently seen on the map existed. Egypt was a defined geographic entity, but few other places were, hence the European’s imperial arrogance in seeking to define them, and to a great extent, getting it wrong.
However, even if Sykes-Picot is useful shorthand for the problems bequeathed to the peoples in the region, it is far too broad a brush stroke to explain subsequent events.
Turkish history neither ended nor began with the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey has never stopped being a player in the Middle East.
The various Ottoman vilayets, in what was known in geographical terms as ‘Natural Syria’, stretched from Aqaba in the south up to the Taurus mountains in the north, and from the Mediterranean in the west, across to the desert heading towards Mesopotamia. They divided it many ways. Even within the area we now know as Syria there were several geographic, linguistic, and cultural divisions. The idea that with the end of Turkish colonialism, but without Sykes-Picot, they would all have naturally formed into states with agreed borders, and an equitable division of natural resources, is fanciful.
Sometimes the European powers simply used the old Ottoman dividing lines to govern, sometime they drew new lines in the sand. You can accept the iniquity of Sykes-Picot as hardly helping the situation, and indeed contributing to today’s violence, but it’s not as if history would have halted in 1916 without it.
From a Syrian irredentist position as seen from Damascus, Lebanon is part of Greater Syria, but the people in the coastal cities of Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre didn’t always see it that way, divided, as they are, from Damascus by the Lebanese mountain range. In same vein the idea of Kurdistan preceded Sykes-Picot and is alive and shooting today.
To simply say ‘blame Sykes-Picot’ is not good enough. It does not take into account that history never ends, that Russia, Iran, Turkey, and others, would all have played their own brutal nationalistic games, and it infantilizes the Arabs, as if to say they are not actors in their own affairs.
Even if the British and French did create what were artificial sovereign states, which is not a recipe for success, other forces preceded them and outlive their decisions. The rulers of these states have attempted to inculcate a sense of nationhood, but with mixed success. Had most of these dictators not also sought to steal the wealth of their countries, leaving their subjects oppressed and impoverished, they might have done a better job. They were dealt a poor hand and turned it into an iron fist.