Will Sykes-Picot survive Middle East tumult?

The Arabs have long maligned the Sykes-Picot agreement but now that it may be collapsing, they have started seeing its positives.

al-monitor A map of the Sykes–Picot agreement, which was signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916. Photo by The National Archives/Wikimedia Commons.

Topics covered

syrian regime, syrian kurds, syrian civil war, sykes-picot agreement, regional politics in the middle east, lebanon, jordan, israeli-palestinian conflict

Dec 20, 2013

In 2013, the Sykes-Picot agreement is struggling for survival. Nearly 100 years have turned that arrangement into small entities (Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine), large ones (Iraq and Syria), as well as several nationalities, militaries and political cultures.

Lebanese nationalism is at its most ambiguous toward itself and others, at the peak of its subordination to external pressures and displaying a lack of self-confidence.

Palestinian nationalism on its own land is at its weakest point, after years of prospering in the diaspora. Amazing how nationalism suffers after a nation returns to its land in the West Bank and Gaza without regaining its territory.

Jordanian nationalism is living a nightmare, despite its authoritarian cohesion and the fact that the country is entering a new phase. Jordan used to be a buffer zone for the Arab-Israeli conflict. Now it is becoming a buffer zone in the internal, regional and international restructuring of Sykes-Picot. But will Jordan remain only that?

The Iraqi nation has lost Kurdish nationalism forever, although it has not yet completely lost the Kurds in the north. Syrian nationalism is retreating with the collapse of its regime.

Syrian and Iraqi nationalism, both of which were born from the womb of Sykes-Picot and matured and were consecrated in it and against it, as the individual matures “against” his father, are experiencing a bloody transition. This is not only affecting the internal diversity in Syria and Iraq, but also drawing the two entities, along with Lebanon, into a single civil war of Sunni versus Shiite nationalism. Turkey and the “new” Iran have entered the region, prompting an outbreak of Saudi anger over the expansion, combined with the emergence of a Shiite authority in Baghdad for the first time since the 16th century.

We are now lamenting Sykes-Picot, whose positives suddenly became apparent through Arab political decadence. Its disadvantages turned into advantages because the agreement gave us countries that we are only now finding out how rich and deep they were. Even Israel, a Sykes-Picot product, despite its victories and persistence, remains to this day fighting to get international recognition for reuniting Jerusalem, which it occupied in 1967.

2013 was the last year of a century that began in Iraq and continues in Syria. It gave the area stretching from Basra to Tripoli in Lebanon a bloody civil war between two sectarianisms (not two sects, which are composed into dozens of sub-sects): Sunni and Shiite. The two sectarianisms, assisted by a mixture of historic irony and cruelty, are changing into Sunni and Shiite nationalism, as two dynamics of the Iranian-Saudi conflict and as a theater for international proxy conflicts.

Now, the words of the old political language in this region are like symbols of political alignments. The words have lost their actual meanings.

Lebanese nationalism” has become a lie, or rather two lies being practiced by the two schools dominating political Sunnism and Shiism in the Lebanese system. Meanwhile, the Christian political class is lost between two ideas, one very traditional and based on the political culture that established Greater Lebanon. That idea’s banner is "sovereignty." The other is the result of decades of speeches during the Arab-Israeli conflict. That idea’s banner is “nationalism.”

The words “sovereignty” and “nationalism” have no real meaning, or may have lost it. The Christian political class is confused amid the profound transformations wrought by the Syrian explosion that have for the first time since 1920 made the Lebanese Christian priority the Levant instead of just Lebanon, with all that entails in terms of new responsibilities. This change weakened the Christians' “Lebanesehood” but strengthened the Christian Lebanese leadership of the Christians in the region. One can understand the confusion of some in the Lebanese Christian elite, because a shift of this kind is not easily digested. (That confusion was preceded by the results of the Taif Agreement, a tripartite sectarian formula in 50-50 constitutional system.)

In Syria, the democratic banner is an expression of a Sunni majoritarian position against the national rule (by an Alawite minority), even if the government was a coalition of political and economic elites from all Syrian sects.

The internal Syrian formula can no longer be valid without addressing the status of the Alawite sect. The subject has essentially been deferred since the founding of the Syrian entity. The future of President Bashar al-Assad and his family will be decided after the settlement, not before. Any other view is not realistic and will not fix the problem, because Assad is a political system, not just an individual in power.

Some believe that the Kurdish problem is the biggest for Syria’s future. That was said to me to by a well-known Arab official, but I disagreed with him, because no matter the importance of the Kurdish question in the region, Syria’s history between 1920 and 1946 shows that “political Syria” is determined by the Aleppo-coast-Damascus triangle. If that situation is resolved, then the eastern and desert areas will naturally join them, whatever the formula of how the Kurdish region will join, be it as part of a centralized or federal system.

In this sense, the Kurdish issue is a problem for the whole region, especially Turkey, and not just for Syria. But there is another point of view: If the Syrian explosion includes areas such as Deir al-Zour, Raqqa, Hasakeh and Daraa, then these areas will contribute in determining Syria’s future and will not be as marginal as they were in the past, when Syria’s future was determined by the Aleppo-Damascus axis, and then by the Aleppo-coast-Damascus triangle.

Sykes-Picot persists, but its land and its demography are changing.

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