For over a century, people have blamed the troubles of the Middle East on those meddling kids Britain, France, and the United States. Perhaps no intervention has been chastised like the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. May 16th marks the one hundred year anniversary of the establishment of this "gentleman's agreement" for the division of the Middle East between Britain and France. But what was this historic agreement, and can it truly be held responsible for Middle East politics one hundred years later?
Well it basically all started like so many of the world's current problems: with the First World War. The area which is today Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, parts of Saudi Arabia, and Palestine was all part of the Turkish Ottoman empire. When an extremely unfortunate traffic incident led to the outbreak of the war, the Turks sided with the Germans against the British, French, and Russians (all three of whom had been picking on the Ottomans for years). Though the Turks managed to repel an invasion, they lost all of the other territories outside of modern day Turkey. Before the war was even finished, British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart Francois Georges-Picot divided up the British and French spheres of influence in the Middle East. While oil resources were a prime consideration in this division, the political and religious realities of the region were apparently not as important. After the war, the two nations took this rough outline and created the borders and nation states of the Middle East. This has definitely caused some problems, but it's a lot more complicated than just blaming everything on Sykes-Picot because....
It Wasn't Just Borders
Sure, the British and French drew literal lines in the sand, but they also installed governments to help keep the peace (and make deals in their favor of course). Basically, they didn't just up and leave, the foreign controlled transition governments ruled in many cases for a couple decades before formal independence was finally granted. During this time, public works programs and infrastructure development helped some of these nations modernize.
Of course, it wasn't all altruistic. Rebellions, puppet governments, and unpopular mass immigration policies contributed to the unrest in the region and left the Arab population feeling humiliated and resentful. In places like Jordan and Iraq, the British had installed ruthless monarchies. In Syria and Lebanon, the French tried to establish a sense of democracy, but the religious differences of people living within previously nonexistent borders undermined these efforts. So several decades of occupation and foreign imposed government have taken its toll. Still, the foundations of today's Middle East problems have just as much to do with another problem entirely.
Authoritarianism and Religious Extremism Play A Big Part Too
A lot has changed in the hundred years since then. Syria and Iraq both have very different governments than those set up by British and French, while Jordan and Lebanon's governmental systems have remained somewhat intact (though it's been very shaky at times). Part of this has to do with the rise of two prominent (and competing) ideologies in the Middle East: nationalism and religious fundamentalism. In nationalism, countries like Egypt, Iraq, and Syria adopted strict authoritarian policies from the direction of people like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Hafez al-Assad (Bashar's dad), and Saddam Hussein. To be fair, this ideology had no problem with the Sykes-Picot borders, just as long as everyone within them didn't question the leaders at the top.
Jordan and Lebanon, on the other hand, have been most affected by the resurgence of religious fundamentalism which took off in the 1970s and 1980s. Jordan's political problems are nearly always tied up with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For instance, in 1971, the Palestine Liberation Organization attempted to overthrow the Jordanian government (it has since completely renounced violence). In short, they were exiled and the basic structure of the monarchy remains intact today. Lebanon also endured an extremely bloody civil war between its religious factions from 1975 to 1990. Though the roots of these conflicts can still be traced to some of the original problems of Sykes-Picot, they also had strong ties to a general wave of religious fundamentalism which remains rampant throughout the Middle East. The pan-Islamic ideology, which is often central to these type of movements, tends to reject the entire notion of foreign imposed borders. What ISIS is doing right now is the latest (and by far more extreme) version of this ideology.
Nobody Has Any Better Ideas
So clearly Sykes-Picot hasn't created a perfect Middle East (or even a barely functioning one). But those advocating for a redrawing of the political map do not seem to have any better solutions. Sure there are some concessions which would be easier to implement (some type of Kurdish state or significant autonomy for religious minorities), but simply trying to carve up the Middle East based on today's identity politics is nearly impossible. There are Sunnis living in Shia-dominated areas, Shia living in Sunni-dominated ares, and large numbers of people who don't want religion to define their state at all!
No matter which way the map would be redrawn, minority rights would have to be considered. True inclusion in government (or at least a lack of persecution) is the only viable way to bring about stability in the region, and creating a "Sunnistan" or "Shiastan" would do nothing to further this goal. Instead, it just opens the door for further exploitation by the more overlooked meddlers in the region (Saudi Arabia and Iran for instance). In short, the borders of Sykes-Picot certainly aren't ideal, but neither is anything else at this point.
So a century later, can we still blame two foreign diplomats on all of the problems of the Middle East? Probably not. It's obvious the colonial legacy of the British and French (not to mention interventions by the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran) created the roots of many of these issues. But a lot has changed since then. Wars, revolutions, peace, and reforms have all occurred, and each of these has contributed to the modern Middle East. Perhaps now is a good time to focus less on the machinations of two nations over one hundred years ago and focus more on what is truly ailing the Middle East today.