A Borderline Question: ‘The End of Sykes-Picot?’

In a widely shared video published by ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [Greater Syria]), a Chilean Islamist militant declares – whilst walking across the “so-called border of Sykes-Picot” separating Iraq and Syria – that ISIS “does not recognise [the border], and will never recognise it… this is not the first border we shall break, we will break all the borders… breaking the barriers of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon; of all of the countries, inshallah [God willing].” Similarly, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, vowed in July 2014 that “this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail into the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”

Sykes-Picot Agreement Map, Signed 8 May 1916, image courtesy of The National Archives, United Kingdom © 2011, common licensing
Sykes-Picot Agreement Map, Signed 8 May 1916, image courtesy of The National Archives, United Kingdom © 2011, common licensing

The footage, titled ‘The End of Sykes-Picot’, makes reference to the 1916 secret agreement between diplomats Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Francois George-Picot of France. Officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement (also assented to by Russia), the arrangement sought to carve-up swathes of territory loosely held within the grip of the flailing Ottoman Empire and then accordingly re-instate these fashioned areas as British and French ‘zones of influence’. The pact laid disregard to regional demographics and localised aspiration, and was arguably premeditated solely to placate the ambition of entente colonial super-powers.

Indeed, ‘Sykes-Picot’ conflicted with pledges already given by the British to the Hashimite leader and Sharif of Mecca, Husayn ibn Ali. Ali was to lead an Arab rebellion against Ottoman rulers in the Hejaz (a region in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia) on the understanding that the Arabs would receive a much more significant portion of the territory won. Regardless of Arab perspective and discontent, the regional template constructed through exclusive negotiation was stamped onto the map, entrenching the fence posts for contemporary Middle Eastern state boundaries. It seems the Arab world was rid of Ottoman rule only to fall under that of the British and French, with the only two independent Arab states in the inter-war period being two very conservative if new monarchies: the Imamate of Yemen (1918) and the Kingdom of Najd and Hijaz (1926), later Saudi Arabia (1932).

Although ISIS seeks to dissolve such artificial state divides in the name of Islamic unity – often labelled as pan-Islamism: cultural and ethnic identities have been replaced with a pious one as a source for union; unification will ultimately be preserved by, and expressed through, the crafting of an acknowledged and functional caliphate – challenges to ‘Sykes-Picot’ have traditionally come in the form of Arab Nationalism, or its close relative, pan-Arabism.

As the two terms are often interchanged in popular literature, it is important to recognise that the concept of pan-Arabism moves beyond Arab Nationalism’s mere recognition of an Arab exceptionalism, and its employment of nationalist sentiment as a means to liberate the Arab peoples from the shackles of colonial rule. Pan-Arabism’s development offers an ambition to physically unite previously identified ‘Arabs’ as a single geo-political entity, challenging the existence of modern state boundaries.

 At the height of its power, the notion of pan-Arabism (or, ‘Umma Arabiyya Wahida Dhat Risala Khalida’ [the one Arab nation with an immortal mission]) shed a new light onto ‘western’ puppets heading the disembodied structures of artificially constructed states. Selfish rulers who resisted the sweeping mission of pan-Arabism supposedly feared the one idea that could resurrect the classical golden age of the Arabs. As Bernard Lewis, from his 1964 work The Middle East and the West, asserts: “[allegiance to the state] was tacit, even surreptitious, while [the notion of pan-Arabism] was the sole publically acceptable objective of statesmen and ideologues alike.”

A concept alone, however, was not enough to challenge existing state entities constructed through Sykes-Picot. The founding of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party [renaissance or resurrection party] in April 1947 offered a route to exploit the existing state structures through politics, with the ultimate goal of Arab unity and freedom from external control. It is worth quoting the first article of the party’s constitution at length: “the Arabs form one nation. This nation has the natural right to live in a single state. [As such,] the Arab fatherland constitutes an indivisible political and economic unit. No Arab can live apart from the others.”

On 01 February 1958, with Ba’athist political activity and pan-Arabism sentiment on both sides, the amalgamation of Egypt and Syria – forming the United Arab Republic (UAR) – seemed to pose a direct challenge to the foundations of Sykes-Picot. Pan-Arab agendas were further satisfied when UAR became a member of the United Arab States, a confederation with North Yemen. In 1963, Iraq also looked poised to join when it adopted a slight alternation of the Arab Liberation Flag: instead featuring three stars to signify itself as a third member state. There is little doubt that pan-Arab sentiment was very strong in Syria, and the President of Egypt, General Gamal Abdel Nasser, had already established himself as a popular champion of Arab nationalism following his victory against Britain and Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956.

However, UAR lasted only three years before its collapse: Syria ceded from the union because Nasser proved incapable of finding a suitable political system in which power could be equally shared. In a similar defiance, Ba’athist part member Saddam Hussein’s attempts to forcefully unite Kuwait with Iraq in 1990 amidst claims of Arab unity and hegemony (although economic strife in Iraq following war with Iran (‘80-’88), couple with Kuwait’s ‘slant drilling’ seem more plausible causal factors), amounted to nothing, this time due to external condemnation and intervention under Operation Desert Storm.

Thus the greatest challenge to the post-1918 state system fabricated by Sykes-Picot – the long-held Arab and, now more prominent, Muslim aspiration to a broader unity – has not yet been achieved and, for that matter, is unlikely to be achieved in the near future. This undoubtedly lends something to the resilient nature of the Asia Minor Agreement. As London School of Economics professor Fred Halliday points out, the matter at hand is relatively simple: “not that the Arabs are not a nation, but that separate states, once created, have little intention of surrendering their power.” Indeed, for all the conflicts between and within Middle Eastern states, Sykes-Picot has endured for close on a century.

An opportunity to dissolve the Syro-Iraq border may certainly have been well-seized by ISIS. But to claim an ‘End,’ or even the beginning of an end, to what Sykes-Picot represents, in a region with 17 states, 46 boundaries, and an average of 4,7 land boundaries per state,  is spectacularly optimistic. It seems pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism denotes no more than romantic myth and rhetoric to the individuals who have now come to accept their place within bordered nations. And until popular sentiment radically changes, Sykes-Picot will endure.

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