I’ve wanted to write about the Sykes-Picot Agreement for a long time. It’s pretty much universally-derided, to the point where I thought it would be difficult to show what the other side had to say, as I’ve often promised. In fact, the condemnation was so universal, that I began to suspect that there was no other side.
Today, I found a way around that.
But first, a bit of backstory on Sykes-Picot.
During World War I, the Ottoman Empire chose the side that would eventually lose. But beyond that, this empire, which had been around for a good 600 years, was weakened by both the war and the Arab Revolt that began in 1916. The Allies, especially Great Britain and France, saw an opportunity to make a massive land-grab in the Middle East.
In order to keep things civil, and to avoid working at cross purposes, France and Great Britain, represented by diplomats François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes, respectively, drew up some borders for areas they would directly occupy and areas over which the two countries would have spheres of influence.
So, here’s roughly where they drew the lines:
If you’re paying attention, you may have noticed that Russia was also in on this deal, but that whole Russian Revolution thing in 1917 seems to have kept them from putting their part of the deal into action.
And, here are those lines laid over modern borders:
And, here’s a map of ethnicities in the Middle East:
So, you may have noticed something looking from looking through these maps. Modern borders often closely follow what was negotiated in Sykes-Picot, and what was negotiated in Sykes-Picot had little consideration for where different ethnicities live. And, the real world is actually worse than the map suggests, as it doesn’t differentiate between the various branches of Arabs or include religious beliefs. The Middle East is a heterogeneous mess.
The argument you often hear runs something like this: if Europeans hadn’t interfered in the Middle East and imposed artificial borders on the region, there would be much less bloodshed there today. The mixing of ethnic group into minority-majority situations created a lot of potential violence, much of which continues today.
Al Jazeera reports that Arabs still resent Sykes-Picot, and in the post-colonial age in which we now live, journalists and academics are never shy of telling you that it was a bad idea, going so far as to say “you do not have to be a terrorist to object to the imperial mindset that drove the agreement.”
I’m not going to draw a line in the sand here and argue that what was done was right. I think people are generally happiest when they have the option of self-determination in government, but especially when they feel like they’re being fairly represented, regardless.
However, there are some moral implications what we should consider before laying today’s violence in the Middle East, and that of the last century at the feet of Sykes-Picot.
We have to remember that borders don’t kill people. People kill people. Importantly, people choose to kill people. This has always been true regardless of where borders have been drawn.
That’s not to say that you could increase or decrease violence by changing borders, just that you could not possibly hope to eliminate violence by redrawing borders, meaning that the full blame for violence cannot be laid at the feet of the border-drawers.
To say that people who drew up borders almost 100 years ago bear moral responsibility for modern violence creates a number of uncomfortable moral problems.
For instance, what does that say about the agency of the people who live in these countries? They’ve had decades of independence in which they could have peacefully redrawn the borders in a way that would create less violence. The fact that they haven’t done so seems to be absent from most people’s evaluations of the situation.
The generations of people who have lived in these places have had time to fix these issues. At some point, even if you didn’t create the problem, it becomes your problem because you haven’t fixed it. That’s not to say that you can’t feel resentful towards those who set up the dominos, but, if you don’t fix the problem, you’re just as much to blame for it. We need to stop letting people off the hook for their actions because their feelings align nicely with a post-colonial interpretation of the world.
The fact that it hasn’t been fixed suggests that there are few in the area in power with a vested interested in peacefully resolving the problem. While we’re often given over to political cynicism, it might just be true in this case that it is politically expedient for rulers in the Middle East to both preserve and promote extremism and violence. Why create peace when war serves you so much better?
And, it’s not that there’s been all that much political instability in the region. It sounds weird to say, but it’s true. Look at the long reigns of some of these rulers:
Sadaam Hussein, Iraq, 1979-2003, 24 years.
Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran, 1979-1989, 10 years.
Ali Khamenei, Iran, 1989-present, 29 years.
Khalid Al Saud, Saudi Arabia, 1975-1982, 7 years.
Fahd Al Saud, Saudi Arabia, 1982-2005, 23 years.
Abdullah Al Saud, Saudi Arabia, 2005-2015, 10 years.
Bashar al-Assad, Syria, 2000-present, 18 years.
Elias Hrawi, Lebanon, 1989-1998, 9 years.
Émile Lahoud, Lebanon, 1998-2007, 9 years.1
Almost all of these leaders had reigns or spent time in office that exceeded the longest possible U.S. presidential term. Now, it doesn’t help that some of them were brutal authoritarians, but the fact remains that if peace was their ultimate goal, they had the time necessary to achieve it.
I don’t have a solution for the Middle East. But what I do know is that blaming events that took place in the 1920’s won’t help anyone come closerto a solution. Instead, it excuses those directly responsible for the violence.
Maybe there is no solution. Maybe there’s no way you could draw the borders that could fix things. Maybe you could take away all the guns and drugs and oil, and people would still be running around with knives.
I don’t know.
But blaming the past isn’t going to make the future better.