April 5, 2017    5 minute read

How The Sykes-Picot Agreement Shaped Today’s Middle East

Eternal Borders

How The Sykes-Picot Agreement Shaped Today’s Middle East

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, also known as the Asia Minor Agreement, might seem to have little relevance in today’s times, as it dates back to the World War I era. However, this agreement is still one of the major factors of unrest in the Middle East. This agreement, signed in secret between the British and the French in order to divide up the Ottoman Empire’s territory in the presence of Russia, still sends jitters across the region.

Just last year, its centenary was marked on May 16th. But how does this agreement hold significance to date? The answer to this lies in the recent turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East – be it the Syrian war, the rise of the Islamic State or the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The agreement was the first known attempt to establish borders in the Middle East by foreign nations. This archaic document got a resurgence during the Iraq war, which led to a widespread displacement of ethnic groups.

The unrest following this displacement can be felt as far as Europe and North America, due to the migrant crisis faced there. Thus, it can be said that the agreement is still very much a part of the modern-day Middle East’s workings.

How Have Territorial Claims Adjusted Over the Years?

In order to understand the region-wide effect of this agreement, it is necessary to look back over history. All the divisional claims were decided around the year 1918, with France getting access to Cilicia – modern day Anatolia, Lebanon and Syria. Russia was to get the Caucasus and the Black Sea regions. Britain was to get control of regions of Iraq. The region of Palestine was meant to be an international territory under the Agreement.

However, little was implemented in practice, as the Turks, led by Kemal Pasha, pushed out the foreign troops from Anatolia. The city-state of Mosul was passed between the French and the British over a long period of time. All these situations of unrest can be directly attributed to moves to gain access to critical oil reserves in the region, and thus the display of power.

The present-day Middle East is very different to what was imagined at the time of the agreement. Palestine now has only a small portion left aside for Jews, and faces violent skirmishes with Israel over land entrenchments. The Oslo Accord of 1993 between them has fallen, with theWest Bank and Gaza Strip serving as bitter reminders. Israel, too, has fought multiple wars with the Arab states, such as that of Yom Kippur. The Kurds have failed to get an independent state for themselves and have been divided across four nations. Lebanon’s Maronite Christians were left with an unstable region, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Arabs got split into three branches: the kingdoms of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and the former kingdom of Iraq. The latest development is the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), which again can be seen as an offshoot of this.

Colonialism vs Nationalism

Looking into the Sykes-Picot Agreement, it was arguably orchestrated to serve as a medium for meeting colonial interests, but its effects have led to a divided region engulfed in turmoil. The agreement was a well-kept secret from the Arabs. They had demanded complete control of Arabia from the Allied Powers in exchange for support against the Ottomans. The promise was not fulfilled and it took them several decades to gain control over the region.

During this time, the rise of Arab nationalism led to the development of a volatile environment which can be seen to date. The apt example can be that of Palestine which still brews in agony of its failed promise. The land which was initially promised for Jewish settlement was later turned into a colonial settlement dominated by Israel.

ISIS the Sykes-Picot Agreement

An understanding of the Sykes-Picot agreement is critical to identifying IS’ mission. The organisation has worked against the boundaries set by the colonial powers to establish a Caliphate. The militants have erased the border between Syria and Iraq and have been quoted on record as being against a world having such borders.

They hold it against the Arab nationalist leaders and the Western powers for trying to create such divides. According to historians, it can be observed that the map used by the IS is similar to the one drawn by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. If one delves in further then it can be observed that the internal borders created within the boundaries set by the agreement are more closely correlated to the power struggles taking place within.

IS has raised questions about the political legitimacy of the states which were firmly established on paper during the imperialist era. It has brought in a sense of rebelliousness arising from the ethnic groups which were forced to live under Western domination over a period of several decades. One notable example is that of the Kurds. They have been living in a number of countries in the region over a long period of time. Of late they are forming quasi-states within the established political boundaries of nations. Kurdish movements have been gathering momentum.

Redressing the Region’s Wounds

The ‘Plan B’ ideology motivating France, Russia, the UK and the US to divide war-torn Syria into further areas of influence based on ethnicities is debatable. Before reaching a conclusion on the division of nations into further smaller entities one needs to understand its underlying history. One needs to understand the roots of foreign involvement in the region, its internal rifts, its day-to-day functioning and the needs of the future. The age old Sykes-Picot Agreement needs to be re-addressed. The situation calls for a revised version of the agreement in order to diffuse the situation taking place and set the grounds for the establishment of a renewed and peaceful Middle East.

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