Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Borders Melt-Down: 100 Years After the Sykes-Picot Agreement

Filed under: The Middle East

The “Middle East” with which we are all familiar is commemorating a curious and even sad 100 year anniversary.

The 1916 signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement marked the division of the Middle East between Britain and France and its restructuring in its present borders. However, since then and virtually without any interval, the region has been marked by treaties and international conferences, often contradictory and rarely strictly observed and respected. Issues such as the rivalries between the powers, the control of natural resources, the arms race, arms supplies and freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal have all prompted a power battle, turning this area into a region of unending confrontation.

In dividing the area into zones of influence, neither France nor Britain took into account the demographic, socio-cultural and religious interests and aspirations of the people who lived there. Arab tribes, though nomadic, found themselves separated and dispersed into different states. They strongly rejected the artificial divisions and centralized governmental frameworks. Over the years, the region was shaken by internal uprisings, coups and revolts that continue to this day.

A century after the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Middle East has become a political powder keg and the setting for successive armed conflicts.

Boundaries drawn just a century ago by Western powers are evaporating, and in front of our eyes the whole character of the region is changing beyond all recognition.

Throughout the region from Libya to Iraq, authority has collapsed and people are reaching for their older identities – Sunni, Shi’ite, Kurdish and even tribal. Sectarian groups, often Islamist, have filled the power vacuum, spilling over borders and spreading violence.

During the past six decades, 23 conflicts have been recorded, including the war between Iranian Shi’ites and Iraqi Sunnis, which upset military and strategic stability and caused more than a million casualties.

The domino effect of the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria has no link to the Arab-Israeli conflict. All the unrest in the Arab world is internal, social, religious and tribal. It emerged as a result of corrupt leaders who, for decades, benefited from the poverty and ignorance of their citizens and stole from the national treasury by creating a police state and ruling by terror and a cult of personality.

The Arab war against Jewish presence in the Middle East began long before the creation of the State of Israel.

It was indeed documented as a local conflict among others which existed since the Mandate period and was caused due to the weaknesses of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

The new Middle East is characterized by competing approaches to the Sykes-Picot Agreement and its legacy.

The challenge does not come from the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is but a minor aspect of the wider problem.

Today’s greatest challenge is radical Islam, which rejects the idea of nationalism in general and of local nationalism in particular. Radical Islamic movements believe in reviving the Islamic Ummah (nation) as one political entity that should be governed according to Shariah (Islamic law). All radical Islamists reject Western culture and its perceived attempts to dominate Muslim culture and territory and are all committed to the need to establish a caliphate over all the Muslim-populated areas and later over the entire world.

With the collapse of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and despite the existing difficulties in international law, only viable state lines, defensible borders and adequate safety measures will ensure the stability of the Middle East and the sustainability of the peace process with the Palestinians.

In order to better understand this issue, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs together with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung are hosting a conference in Jerusalem on May 18, 2016, to look into such central issues as the historic roots of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, strategic and political implications of the present collapse of borders, and prospects for the future, legal and strategic aspects.

* * *

A version of this article appeared in the Jerusalem Post, on May 14, 2016 (