A common theme running through much of the leading commentary on the Syrian crisis is the idea that the principal borders of the modern Middle East, created by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, are about to be fundamentally altered if not erased completely. In mid-March, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu gave a university speech in which he said that the political order in the Middle East created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement was coming to an end. He envisioned Turkey’s influence returning to those areas which were once under its sovereignty but were lost to the European colonial powers.
It seems that everyone is talking about the end of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In mid-May, David Ignatius of The Washington Post warned the Russians that they would suffer most from “the dissolution of the Sykes-Picot boundaries in the Middle East.” At the same time, Elliot Abrams, who served as the deputy national security adviser under former U.S. President George W. Bush wrote about “the unraveling” of the Sykes-Picot agreement. Several weeks earlier, one of France’s leading commentators in the Middle East, Antoine Basbous, wrote in Le Figaro on April 21 that the “artificial boundaries” established by Sykes-Picot were about to receive their final blow from what he called “the Arab tsunami and its aftershocks.”
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this change should it transpire. In October 1916, during World War I, Sir Mark Sykes, representing Britain, and Charles Francois Georges-Picot, representing France, reached a secret understanding dividing the Asian territories of the Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence that would be dominated by both countries. When the League of Nations established mandates over the former Ottoman territories that the allies subsequently captured, the mandate for Syria and Lebanon went to France while the mandate for Iraq went to Britain. These mandatory regimes in the years that followed led to the empowerment of the Alawite minority over the Sunni majority in Syria and the establishment of the domination of the Sunni minority in Iraq over the Shiites.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement also separated what would become British mandatory Palestine, which had been known among its Arab residents prior to WWI as Surya al-Janubiyya (Southern Syria) from French mandatory Syria to its north. In 1916, Russia, still under the Czar, supported the Sykes-Picot agreement in exchange for its territorial demands being recognized by the British and the French in what became Turkey. Thus the borders of at least five Middle Eastern states would eventually be determined by the original Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Presently, the Middle Eastern border that most observers are focusing on is the 600 kilometer (370 mile) border separating Syria from Iraq. On the Syrian side, important newspapers, like the Financial Times, have been writing this week about the “disintegration of Syria.” Similarly, The New York Times asserted that the Syrian state is “breaking up.” It suggested that at least three different Syrias are now emerging: one loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, another loyal to the opposition, and a Kurdish Syria with ties to Northern Iraq and Kurdish groups in Turkey.
Particularly accelerating the demise of the Sykes-Picot borders are events on the Iraqi side of the border. Incidents during the last year point in the direction of the eventual breakup of the Iraqi state. This coming September, a new pipeline carrying Kurdish oil through Turkey, will link Iraqi Kurdistan to its Turkish market instead of to the rest of Iraq. This development is seen in the West as the first step toward the independence of Kurdistan. Indeed, the Kurds are cutting separate deals with international oil companies and circumventing the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. A spokesman for U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Security Council has stated on the record that the U.S. opposes oil exports from any part of Iraq “without the appropriate approval of the Iraqi federal government.” Washington opposes Kurdish economic initiatives that could lead to the dissolution of Iraq into at least three states: Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni.
Kurdistan may be ready to become independent. What about the rest? The Shiite areas of Iraq south of Baghdad to the Kuwaiti border will be dominated one way or another by Iran. But what will happen to the Sunni sectors of Iraq, like the al-Anbar Province? In the last year, the Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq that span the Syrian-Iraqi border have joined the war against the Assad regime. Tribes like the Shammar, who migrated from the Arabian Peninsula to the Jazira plain between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the 17th century, have been regularly crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border back and forth for many years.
The prospect that their Sunni cousins in Syria will eventually defeat the Assad regime, or at least take over part of the Syrian state, has energized the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, who felt previously that the 2003 Iraq War had lead to the defeat of their Sunni-dominated regime under Saddam Hussein and a victory for Iraq’s Shiite majority. Now, they sense they can take back their autonomy from Baghdad.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker (serving between 2007 and 2009) wrote in The Washington Post on May 1 that al-Qaida-Iraq has re-established itself in areas in which it was defeated by U.S. and Iraqi forces over the last five years. It should come as no surprise that Crocker defines the leading jihadist force fighting Assad’s army, Jabhat al-Nusra, as a front group for al-Qaida in Iraq. In March, the executions of eleven Syrian soldiers in a public square in the town of al-Raqqa, inside northern Syria, were carried out under the flag of Iraqi al-Qaida. The old Sykes-Picot border was clearly meaningless for affiliates of al-Qaida. An Iraqi commentator noted that since 2011, there have been religious calls for erasing the old Iraqi-Syrian border and unifying the Sunni regions on both sides.
Should the fragmentation of Syria combine with the Balkanization of Iraq, what will the Middle East look like? The Sunni Arabs are the likely candidates to look for mergers with their neighbors. If they are politically dominated by the same branch of al-Qaida, then the emergence of a new Afghanistan in the heart of the Arab world might be the result. If more moderate forces among the Iraqi Sunnis emerge, then it should not be ruled out that they might consider some federal ties with their western Sunni neighbor, Jordan, which would give them an outlet to the Red Sea.
But however the political systems in Syria and Iraq evolve, it is clear that the map of the Middle East is likely to be very different from the map that the colonial powers fixed during World War I and which has endured for roughly 97 years since British and French officials first put it on paper. The only boundary in the Middle East that Western diplomats have become rigidly obsessed with, despite the far more profound changes that are occurring across the region, is not even formally an international border under international law, but only an armistice line from 1949 — what is inappropriately called the 1967 border. While a solution to this territorial dispute must be addressed, the final borders drawn between Israel and it’s neighbors will have to take into account the current dramatic strategic shifts.