One hundred years ago in May, Sir Mark Sykes of Great Britain and Francois Georges-Picot of France sat down together and penned their signatures to a document that would come to define the face of the Middle East for the next century.
In 1915, with battles raging in the region and the Ottoman Empire on the brink of collapse, the two Europeans along with Russia, keen for the spoils of war that were expected to emerge, secretly worked on a plan to divvy up the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf amongst themselves.
While promising the Arabs sovereignty in exchange for fighting against the Turks, behind closed doors the three nations sat and drew lines across deserts and mountain tops that sought to best protect their spheres of influence and give them preferential access to trade routes, water resources and oil.
“The Sykes-Picot Agreement was about Great Britain and France gaining as much as they could, as well as ascertaining there would never be a unifying Arab force that could potentially replace the Ottoman Empire,” says Kamal Khalaf Al Tawil, a political analyst and specialist on Arab affairs based in Beirut.
By May 1916, the secret agreement was complete and with a few clean strokes of the pencil modern-day Middle East was born, colored into neat red and blue zones. Great Britain was given the red area between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, including Jordan, southern Iraq all the way to the Persian Gulf and the ports of Haifa and Acre, while France was given the blue area; south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Russia was to be given Istanbul and Armenia, but when Russia’s revolutionaries uncovered the documents in 1917 and publicly exposed the secret plans—embarrassing France and Great Britain in doing so—they removed themselves from the plan. Contrary to what these great nations had promised the Arabs regarding independence and sovereignty, the agreement stipulated it was up to the ruling nations to draw up the borders within their areas of control.
“The states of the Levant were never natural, even under the Ottomans, so when the Ottoman Empire fell and the British and the French came in, it was inevitable that what they drew was arbitrary,” says George Friedman, political scientist and chairman of Geopolitical Futures. “What they tried to do, instead of creating nations, which was an impossible task, was to create states—to control areas that were in their interest.”
Calls for Partition and the Sunni State
It is no surprise that 100 years later the lines drawn by Sykes and Picot are being redrawn. Players both old and new, either wearing suits in the lobbies of fancy European hotels or carrying guns on the ground in the Middle East, are attempting to best carve out their own spheres of influence, this time transforming these former Arab states into ethno-sectarian autonomous and independent regions.
Iraq has all but split into three ethno-sectarian-based statelets as local forces—from the Kurds to the Sunnis to the Shiites—push for further autonomy and control. Daesh has, in a very literal sense, eliminated the border between Syria and Iraq and created its own version of a Sunni state that they’re pushing to expand across the region. Syria is witnessing a move towards de facto partition as opposition-controlled areas are now governed and administered by armed militias, amid calls for the creation of Alawite, Druze, and Sunni states.
“The region is destabilizing because the normal condition of the region is unstable,” says Friedman. “Now what is happening is that those states are crumbling, in particular the Iraqi and the Syrian states, but potentially other states in the region as well.”
As Syria enters its sixth year of war and Iraq struggles under a crippling corrupt system and their continuing battles against Daesh, the discussion is no longer whether the borders will change, but rather what is the best way in which to divide up the region, as local forces and regional and international players work on an outcome that best suits their interests.
“The West doesn’t want to break Sykes-Picot, they want to alter it, so the Middle East is weakened and compliant,” Tawil says. “So they’re playing out within the fault-lines of Sykes-Picot.”
Within these fault-lines, U.S. officials and policy-makers have renewed old calls for the creation of autonomous regions, and some, like John Bolton—the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.—have even called for the establishment of a Sunni state in Iraq and even Syria, under the guise of fighting Daesh.
On the ground, however, reality is a little different. While there are local Sunni voices calling for more autonomy, it stops short at the creation of an independent state, according to Hayder Al Khoie, an Iraqi analyst at Chatham House.
“The Sunnis are very upset with the status quo, yes, and they’re very unhappy with the sense of marginalization and discrimination they face,” he says. “Some are calling for a Sunni ‘region’, but even the most extreme of those aren’t calling for a Sunni state. Rather, something along the lines of what the Kurds have,” he says.
Calls for Partition and the Kurdish State
Some of the loudest voices today calling for the creation of an independent state on both Iraqi and Syrian territories come from the Kurds. Boosted by their own actions on the ground in northern Iraq—which saw them push back Daesh as well as control areas that had previously been under Iraqi government control—backed by the U.S. and Turkey, Massoud Barzani, president of
Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, believes that Kurdish independence is only a step away.
But Khoie says these calls for independence are unlikely to see any fruition in spite of today’s climate.
“Iraq is not in a vacuum, it is in a very volatile region and Iran is simply not going to allow the Kurds, however much they like and will push, to gain independence,” he says, adding that a Kurdish state on Iran’s border would be a threat both to its national and domestic security.
In Syria, the Kurdish region has been in a de facto state of autonomy since 2013. Also bolstered by their own actions on the ground and lack of government control over the area, they have renewed their calls to secede further. But this was recently shot down by Bashar Al Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., who at the peace talks in Geneva this month said: “Take the idea of separating Syrian land out of your mind… anyone thinking of departing Syria should be cured of the illusion.”
Local analysts and historians warn against fracturing the region, warning that such divisions would not just lead to further bloodshed, but the very probable outcome of leaving the whole region in a much weaker state of affairs.
“Playing with state boundaries is not a joke. If you partition Iraq into several pieces, in a country that is so rich, these entities will be doing nothing but in-fighting, which would cause a huge backlash for those pushing for this to happen. Therefore, the partitioning of maps is not something the West wants,” he says.
“What they want is to weaken the region and impose regents,” he says. “For example, they want to rule Iraq by cooption, and this is threatening to succeed.”
“What we are witnessing now is the end of Sykes-Picot as we know it and the establishment of Sykes Picot II,” says Karim Pakradouni a political analyst and Lebanese politician. “The bigger question is whether the geography is going to change.
“The thing is we cannot make borders with crayons; it is with blood,” he says. “There will be a lot of blood for a new Middle East, and it will be a Middle East where the base of the states is religion. Is that even feasible?”
Revival of Old Plans?
The concept of splitting the region along ethno-sectarian lines is neither foreign nor new to the region; and in the past it has been a notion also promoted by local communities—much like today.
During the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and even before, certain minorities saw themselves as distinctly separate from the Arabs and were keen on establishing their own confession-based states, in order to separate and safeguard their identities in what they considered to be a Muslim-majority region.
The French, working closely with the Maronite patriarch in Lebanon, Elias El Houwayek, drew up a map which saw the creation of ‘Greater Lebanon’ to best serve the Maronite Christian population in the area. They also attempted to divide Syria into four mini statelets: a Sunni-majority state in the North, an Alawite-dominated state along the coast, another Sunni-majority state in the middle, and a Druze state in the South. The Lebanese patriarch quickly accepted the notion of Greater Lebanon, but the Syrians outright rejected dividing up their nation.
“The French thought of the Alawites like the Maronites in Lebanon,” says Pakradouni. “They saw them as privileged friends, so when they proposed splitting Syria, they thought the Alawites would be happy to have their own state.
“They were incredibly disappointed when the Alawites refused,” he says. “The Alawites themselves said ‘we won’t accept anything but a whole Syria. We don’t want to be a minority.’”
The same happened again during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s; maps of a partitioned Syria into three minor states—a Sunni state next to Turkey, an Alawite state along the coast, and another Sunni state including Damascus and the South—began circulating amongst journalists and politicians in Lebanon. Pakradouni, a key player among the Lebanese Christian axis during the civil war, saw the maps and brought them to the attention of then Syrian president, Hafez Al Assad.
“He was very concerned when he heard about them,” he says. “He was convinced it was a CIA plan and that the idea was being floated to see how people would react to it.”
Meanwhile, factions in Lebanon attempted to capitalize on the civil war crisis and pushed again to create a Christian statelet within the country’s borders; and this time they were more successful. Yet, as Pakradouni—one of the architects of the Christian state—points out, partitioning the country led to a situation that should be an example to all those today who are thinking of attempting the same.
“We did everything to have a Christian state in Lebanon,” he says. “But what happened? As soon as it was installed, we started killing each other.”
Friedman believes what is happening today in the region is not so much an inter-religious war, but that of clan warfare, repeating the events played out in the Lebanese civil war. “In Lebanon, the state collapsed and what was left were clans with their own armies,” he says. “They could not be destroyed, nor could they be victorious. They eventually formed some kind of entente amongst them, but the clans still exist.
“The way I see it, Lebanon was the dress rehearsal for what is going on now across the region.”
Western plans to divide Iraq are also not new.
Back in 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Americans sought to establish a new political system. Paul Bremmer, appointed as the U.S. governor of Iraq during its post-war transition, engineered a new constitution that divided up political power into ethno-sectarian quotes; setting in stone the lines between Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.
As early as 2006, a map created by retired U.S. army Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters envisioned a new Iraq, split into three states; one for the Kurds, one for the Sunnis, and one for the Shiites.
Alongside the Kurdish call for independence and the push for the establishment of a Sunni region, there have been calls from the Shiite-dominated province of Basra for further autonomy, to the point where they have even created their own flag.
Khoie dismissed these claims as hype on social media than reflections of the reality on the ground.
“It seems to me more expat Iraqis who don’t live in Basra [and] who are flying this flag of Basra independence,” he says. “This is not going to work; the rest of Iraq and the Shiite in Iraq are not going to allow Basra to create its own state. It would set a bad precedent for the rest of the country.”
So what can be done to prevent the region from splitting into ethno-sectarian regions? Many experts agree that the local communities need to look beyond their ethno-sectarian identities and connect on an Arab level.
Both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gave speeches this week highlighting the dangers of partitioning the region. Both claim such a partition would only serve Israel’s interests and not that of the Arabs.
“There is no future for the region without Arabism,” says Tawil. “The area needs an Arab adhesive in the form of an independent, central frame of reference as was the case prior to the defeat of 1967.”
“If not, we will keep seeing fiefdoms contrasted by the formability of Daesh,” he warns.
If this shift does not happen, we are likely to see a death to Arabism as an identity, says Pakradouni.
“Who will lose with the division of Sykes-Picot? The Arabs,” Pakradouni says. “We will no longer be Arabs, but rather a collection of different confessions.”