June 29, 2014 1:14 pm

Colonial powers did not set the Middle East ablaze

To blame Sykes-Picot is to ignore the fact of deeply entrenched territorial nationalism in Arab states
©AFP

When it launched its spectacular offensive through northern Iraq in June, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, bulldozed a berm on the border with Syria. “Smashing Sykes-Picot”, the jihadi group tweeted to its followers. The stunt worked wonders, reigniting the debate over the 1916 secret British-French agreement that carved the Arab territories of a collapsed Ottoman Empire into separate states.

Sykes-Picot is dead, declared some; it is at the root of the present mayhem in the Middle East, said others. As Iraq and Syria teeter on the brink of break-up, zeroing in on the artificial borders defined by the Sykes-Picot accord has a certain appeal. It offers a simple explanation for the extraordinary sectarian mayhem. It also makes the case for partition of the two Arab states less contentious. If people seem bent on killing each other because colonial powers unwisely lumped ethnic and religious communities together artificially, would they not be better off living apart?

Focusing on Sykes-Picot also conveniently obscures more recent foreign meddling, particularly the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which ousted Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and sparked a sectarian struggle for the state. It suggests that the mistakes in Iraq were not committed a decade ago, but before anyone in the George W Bush administration was born.

Yet, while debating European colonialism might be a worthy exercise, relating today’s events to colonial borders is misleading.

True, the boundaries designed by Mark Sykes, a British diplomat, and François George-Picot of France, who divided up Arab territories into spheres of influence, took more account of European interests in the aftermath of the first world war than those of the populations concerned. The agreement also contradicted British promises made to the Arabs, and ushered in a period of colonialism the legacy of which the region has yet to shake off entirely.

But the Middle East is hardly the only part of the world to have borders defined by colonial powers. Nor have Arab societies been rebelling against the borders designed by the British-French duo.

As Reider Visser, a historian of Iraq, has noted, the Sykes-Picot borders were not as artificial as some think. They corresponded for the most part to administrative arrangements that had been in place under the Ottomans for decades, if not centuries. Syria and Iraq referred to specific geographic entities long before the collapse of the empire. Under the British and French mandates, the main protestation over borders was about the partitioning of Greater Syria into several mini-states, with one part also added on to Lebanon. The separate entities did not survive for long, linking up with Damascus in an independent Syrian state. To blame Sykes-Picot is to ignore the fact that territorial nationalism is deeply entrenched in Arab states today, despite the repeated outbreak of sectarian violence.

Isis’s ambition of creating a transnational Sunni Islamic state is not widely shared. “Islamists calling for an Islamist umma (nation) and who base their argument on a purely religious and communal basis are a minority opinion,” argues Paul Salem, a Lebanese political analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

With the exception of Iraqi Kurds, whose history of persecution has solidified their attachment to ethnic identity over national belonging, few Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians or Lebanese are clamouring for partition.

In the early decades after decolonisation, Arab nationalism that transcended borders was a dominant ideology. But it was undercut by repeated Arab defeats in wars with Israel. As Toby Dodge, author of Iraq: From War to New Authoritarianism, says, “the disillusionment with Arab nationalism, combined with the oil boom, led to states being deeply committed to territorial nationalism”.

Consider Lebanon’s experience during the 1975-90 civil war. Partition was raised repeatedly as a solution, yet the conflict ended with a new power-sharing arrangement that maintained the country’s territorial integrity. In the last years of the war, much of the violence was between rival groups within each of the main communities (Christian, Sunni and Shia Muslims.)

The Sunni in Iraq and Syria could well end up in separate enclaves, at least for a time. But their rebellion is not aimed at secession. The battles they are waging – some peacefully, others violently – are not for territory but control of the state.

To emphasise Sykes-Picot in the Middle East’s current predicament, is to miss the region’s real problem: the tragic failure of successive postcolonial governments to build inclusive states that would reinforce a national identity. It is the tyranny of Syria’s ruling Assad clan, the dictatorship of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the ineptitude of Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, that have driven the Middle East to catastrophe, rather than century-old lines drawn in the sand.

roula.khalaf@ft.com

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