There is nothing more likely to start disagreement among people or countries than an agreement. – E.B. White
Your neighbors can’t even mow their lawns straight, and definitely not to the edge of their property—that’s why there’s that strip of tall grass growing like some arboreal fence between all the houses on the block. If normal lawn-mowing people in 21st century Midwest America can’t cut grass across the whole yard, can you imagine trying to keep track of national borders that are drawn literally in sand? It’s a hard thing to do because sand moves. Borders are actually blowing around in the wind, riding sand dunes between Iraq and Syria and Egypt and Libya and all that. You might lay down in the desert in one country today and wake up in another tomorrow. What’s a Bedouin to do?
It’s crazy. But it’s not crazy enough to not happen, and Sykes-Picot is the proof. It’s the one hundredth blunder-versary today. Cheers.
On May 16, 1916, the fateful contract—also known as the Asia Minor Agreement, because “Asia Minor” was a concept taught in schools back then, like penmanship and bad physics—solidified a deal between the British, the French, and the Russians, cutting up the Middle East into straight-edged shards and calling it cartography. The three empires got away with this because it was the nineteen-teens and superstates could still do this sort of thing because they had gold and cannons and no Facetwitter, and also because they’d just tag-teamed the Ottoman Empire and gone ham divvying up their land. It was a rugged age, empires eating empires, Pacman style.
The Sykes-Picot agreement, named after the French and British diplomats who negotiated the deal, was a secret. For a while. Making a political party game of historic, ethnic, territorial boundaries is not the kind of thing you want plebs to just know about you. Whatever you think about transnational conspiracy theories that make marionettes of regional politics, Sykes-Picot was one of those backroom deals. It came out to the public in Izvestia and Pravda (guess where these papers were from) when the Bolsheviks decided to go all diesel and published the agreement in November 1917.
The reason it’s a big deal is because it was really pretty thoughtless and affected a lot of people. Sure, it was a good gig for the French and the British—they gained access to the sea and to the Holy Land—but for everyone else, like the actual people who actually lived in these places, it put them in a bad way. Tribes and religious communities and families were cut in half or made to live on the same plot of land with people who maybe they’d rather not share the cul-de-sac with. It was like picking teams in gym class with no thought to compatibility, but only to whose plot of field had mildly greener grass for the referees to stand on.*
Sykes-Picot was a bad idea when it first came into being, and it’s a bad idea today, but we keep it up because when something—even a bad-idea something—has been the rule for a century, you can’t just undo it. You can’t just put all the Shias in one place and all the Sunnis in another. Maybe you could have once, but not anymore. Even Maronite Lebanon—the French-Lebanese attempt at a Christian state in the Middle East—hasn’t turned out the way the Maronites, or the French, had hoped.
And this makes the Islamic State’s project interesting… and frightening. Sykes-Picot, for all its cold, concrete witlessness, survived for a hundred years because the people made it work and because, after you go for that long, a U-turn doesn’t seem all that desirable. But in 2014, Isis undid what the Triple Entente built in the desert a century earlier. In a single fell swoop they erased the flatline border between Iraq and Syria and established a caliphate. Maybe you can just undo things. There have been, of course, fresh, innovative, and violent mapmakers all along—mostly regarding definitions of Syria and Lebanon, Arab nationalism, and what is Israel’s and what isn’t—but the Islamic State is flipping the world on its head.
In the ongoing Syrian crisis and Iraqi conflict, new borders are being proposed and some are being drawn. Kurdistan in Iraq is talked about now as a real place. Rojava, which is the project of the Syrian Kurds, is autonomous. The Assyrians and Chaldeans and Yazidis talk about a homeland that you can show on paper. The Palestinians have never stopped talking about home—territorially-defined and politically-accepted. Modern Syria and Iraq are already diced into quadrants. It’s not quite Sykes-Picot 2.0—it’s more fluid, more self-determined—but it’s not quite not, either.
Looking back, it’s not hard to see that the project failed. The Europeans earned the F but pinned it on the people over whom they mandated themselves. The question now is: is the region sitting on that F, trying to raise the grade, or is it beginning a new project altogether?
A lot of people blame the problems in the Middle East today on Sykes-Picot. Sectarian violence between faith communities in Iraq, historic wheelings and unscrupulous dealings between Lebanon and Syria, the reality of Kurdistan or lack thereof, and even the seven-decade-old conflict between Israel and Palestine—they all had triggers a hundred years back. The agreement was the culmination of lies to the Arab people—who were promised homelands—and a prime example of economic and political powerplays by emperors spinning globes a thousand miles away. And while it’s true that silly and unhelpful borders are silly and unhelpful—and can be blamed for being such things—it’s also silly and unhelpful to see Sykes-Picot as the sole or even the main destabilizer in the Middle East a century on. Sectarian and schismatic feuds existed before and would have continued to exist without Mr. Sykes or Mr. Picot having their way. The Israeli-Palestinian issue came about more than thirty years after the agreement, and has had a much more pronounced impact on the region than handshakes at the close of WWI. Sadly, imperialism has done a lot of damage to the Near East apart from what happened in 1916. And, anyway, from Arab nationalism to the Arab Spring, even those events that can trace a lineage to European nation-making have many other forefathers, as all our finest and feeblest progeny must.
What’s the point? Partly, there’s a lot to be learned from all the world’s imperialist tracks, and Sykes-Picot makes the Best Of list. Not all those who parade as moral and democratic deserve such titles. There are masqueraders in our midst, forever and anon. And, partly, also, we need to be reminded that, even one hundred years after an almost-arbitrary composition of “homelands” for people not our own—all of it riddled with subterfuge and campaign promises—there are still today a lot of people looking for home.
*On a positive note—positive here being relative to some really not positive stuff—most of the oils reserves in the Arab world hadn’t been surveyed by the time of the agreement, so we can’t call it an oil grab: the petroleum consequences were mostly accidental.