Syria’s fateful centenary.
While the sun shone through the clouds of London, it remained bitterly cold, though unseasonably dry. It was November 23, 1915. Into the Foreign Office strode François Georges-Picot, a seasoned twenty-year diplomat, and fresh off of his assignment as Consul-General in Beirut. He was the scion of a colonialist family, and an outspoken proponent of France’s mission historique in the Levant. He envisioned a French-dominated Syrie intégrale that embraced Damascus, Aleppo, and Beirut, along with Palestine’s Holy Places—a prospect viewed with utter horror by the British planners in Cairo.
There he met Sir Mark Sykes, a Baronet and Conservative Party politician, recently returned from a trip through the Middle East. While Sykes styled himself an amateur in the black arts of bureaucratic intrigue, He managed at critical junctures to nudge superiors in his preferred direction. Thanks to his insider status, he nurtured a network of confidants from the imperial Cabinet downward to the remotest British outposts in the Middle East. Early on he grasped the cardinal importance of keeping a seat on interdepartmental agencies tasked with coordinating policy.
Over meetings frequently punctuated with port and cigars, these two men negotiated for four months. Working within Downing Street and Foreign Office directives, Sykes wrested a compromise. An agreement was reached on granting France direct administrative control in a Greater Lebanon and along the coastal areas of Syria, a so-called Blue Zone, while Britain would have parallel rights within southern Mesopotamia in a Red Zone, which leapfrogged from Baghdad to a tiny coastal enclave encompassing Haifa and Acre, along with rights to a railroad linking the three cities.
Such was the essence of the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement, also later approved by the Tsarist government in Russia; they had their own secret pact to protect their interests in a postwar settlement. On May 16, 1916, Great Britain formally approved this modified agreement in an exchange of notes. Its provisions remained secret until the Bolsheviks, following their November 1917 triumph, opened Tsarist archives and held up Sykes-Picot as “a typically nefarious example of imperial hubris.”
Ultimately, the borders arranged in the agreement—most of which remain to this day—were contingent on Colonialist strategic designs. Sykes and Picot perceived the region as a simple Arab-Turkish axis, that is, only taking into account broad ethnicities. The Arabs whose lands were parceled out were not consulted about the agreement’s projected political arrangements. Tribal configurations and religious divides were completely ignored.
While it is tempting to draw a straight line of causation between the division of the Syrian region by the British and French in 1915 to the massacres in Beirut and Paris by a terrorist group operating in the failed state that exists within those lines, history is rarely so simple.
But as the international community begins to bring more forces to bear in Syria, we need to look beyond air strikes and “boots on the ground” to what will come after.
We can look to Iraq, and try to learn from recent history.
Those in the Bush Administration who led the march to war did not believe that a major effort at reconstruction was necessary. The American Army was told to prepare for humanitarian contingencies such as refugees, but little else. Most of the Administration’s chief Iraq hawks shared a deeply naive view that the fall of Saddam and his top henchmen would have relatively little impact on the overall Iraqi governmental structure. They assumed that Iraq’s bureaucracy would remain intact and would therefore be capable of running the country and providing Iraqis with basic services
It was at that moment, in April 2003, that the United States created the most fundamental problems in Iraq. At that point, having torn down Saddam Hussein’s regime, there was nothing to take its place; nothing to fill the military, political, and economic void left by the regime’s fall. The result was that the United States created a failed state and a power vacuum.
That power vacuum and that failed state allowed an insurgency to develop in the Sunni tribal community of Western Iraq, left the Shi’a communities to be slowly taken over by vicious sectarian militias, spawned organized crime rings across the country, and prevented the development of governmental institutions capable of providing Iraqis with the most basic services such as clean water, sanitation, electricity, and a minimally functioning economy capable of generating basic employment.
This all occurred within the boundaries established decades previously by the Sykes-Picot agreement. At no point was any partition of Iraq into boundaries that accurately reflected its tribal and religious divides seriously considered by American military planners.
If America, Russia, or NATO states opt to actually invade Syria, the combat itself will be the least of their problems. The “Islamic State” has not been tested against a modern mechanized army, and in most of the territory it currently holds, its members do not have a sympathetic population to melt back into. Therefore, what war planners in each country need to consider is what will come after. The example of Iraq certainly demonstrates that intensive nation building will be needed. But will that nation building be along the lines of currently established borders?
As we pass the centenary of Sykes-Picot, perhaps the world can set aside its bizarre attachment to these borders. Even if Pan-Arab nationalism hadn’t died in the 1970s, it still wouldn’t reflect the diversity of the Levant. If conflict comes to an end in Syria, the West would do well to abandon any notion of restoring artificially constructed Nation-states, and instead let the people of the region determine the shape of the countries they wish to live in.