sykes-picot is the only game in town

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Every school kid in the Arab Middle East has been raised on cursing the Sykes-Picot agreement as the ultimate perfidy and betrayal by the old colonial powers. The secret agreement between France and Britain back in 1916 to carve out the Ottoman territory after the WWI has long been seen by the Arabs (and a few others) as the root cause of much of the region’s misfortunes. They blame it for many things, but crucially for the so called arbitrary borders it imposed upon them, and for fragmenting what used to be (supposedly) one nation.

Well, borders,  unless they are linguistic or natural boundaries such as seas and mountains, are always more or less arbitrary especially in the desert. But most of the new states that emerged as a result of Sykes-Picot agreement had some basis in reality. Even a country like Jordan that had no prior geo-ethnic or religious foundation has survived despite all the political storms hovering above and around it for the best part of its existence.

In fact, under the Ottomans the peoples of the region stayed for most of their life within their ethnic or sectarian enclaves. So to talk of one nation was hardly of the order of the day. That ideology and consciousness is a late comer to the region.

The doctrine of one nation, in its pan-Arab or Islamist guise, has for decades nurtured the dream of breaking down the borders and resurrecting past (real or imagined) glories of the Arabs and Muslims. That was partially the subtext of Saddam Huseein’s brief occupation of Kuwait in 1990, which was applauded by not a few Arabs, who saw in him a latter-day Saladin, who would eventually march eastwards to liberate Palestine from the Israeli “crusaders” and set Jerusalem free again. We all know how Saddam’s Kuwait adventure ended. To this day, Iraq is still paying the enormous price of that folly.

But it is a folly that still has its ardent supporters. It was playing to this collective fantasy when Daesh (IS) blew up an official crossing point on the border between Iraq and Syria last year. The bravado and subsequent conquest of large swathes of Iraqi territory have prompted talk about the imminent demise of the Sykes-Picot order in the Levant. But having tasted what living under Daesh looks like, or how multi-faith Syria (or what is left of it) might look like under Al-Qaeda, people are beginning to realize that the dream of breaking down the Sykes-Picot borders can quickly degenerate into something far worse, in fact, the region’s worst nightmare. Levantines raised on cursing the Anglo-French agreement may live to regret the loss of the order it created.

That Islamists and pan-Arab ideologues still believe that any good could come out of the collapse of the post Ottoman order is hardly surprising. But it is shocking to hear Western academics entertain such notions, presumably out of misplaced sympathy with the oppressed or the victims of past colonial rule.

I was shocked the other day to hear a British academic striking a similar note. Speaking on a BBC programme, Professor Rosemary Holllis started by digging in a well-known orientalist trench (the nation state is a European notion that may not be suited to the peoples of the Middle East). Faced by opposition from other Middle Estern scholars who took part in the same debate, she dug even deeper when she sought to present her position as one that might actually benefit the natives, but in a very strange way : “having a number of Palestinian scholarship students as I do they see this chaos in Iraq and Syria and this hideous machine called Islamic state as potentially the only game changer the only game changer .. that might ultimately call into question all the borders in a way that might potentially benefit the Palestinians, as otherwise they see the future as miserable and see Gaza as a place where you die more slowly”

What a strange view to hold, especially when it is presented as something salubrious for the peoples of the Middle East. With friends like these !

No doubt that the Palestinians and the Kurds remain the biggest losers of the post-Ottoman settlement, but redressing those wrongs by unleashing the atavistic forces of sectarian and ethnic retribution could be the worst outcome of the current turmoil. Instead of five or six states, redrawing the borders could plunge the entire region into an unending wars between a plethora of fiefdoms and warlords.

It is the biggest illusion to assume that the problem lies in the borders in themselves. In fact, it is what actually happens within those borders. As has been pointed out repeatedly, the modern nation state with rule of law regardless religion, gender or ethnicity is the best solution for all in the ME. It is the failure to develop such modern states that lead to the emergence of religious fascism. The solution is not to cave in to the inherently supremacist logic of such movements.

Repairing the damage done to state institutions for so long will not be easy; it could take decades. But it is still a much better option than the future under religious or ethnic warlords. Western powers cannot afford to turn their backon the unfolding tragedies in Syria and Iraq. The Levant should not be left to its own devices; it should be helped by all means available to extricate itself from some of the worst political and social storms it has ever encountered.

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Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

4 comments

  • It’s a well written article but I disagree with much of it.
    Firstly – I don’t think tearing down borders and setting up one system of governance across the ME and any other Muslim countries is a bad thing. Looking at the uncertainties in the world and the inequalities- I believe it offers a solution to many problems. Currently the systems in place work against the labourers/poorer people and in favour of the rich. Europe for example have formed a formidable trading blockThe current system works on a perpetual war around the world and the poorer nations suffer the brunt of this industrialised military complex.
    With regards to the religious extremism- a unified message is required and it’s only going to come if there is one central authority. If we leave it as it is and just continue to bury our heads in the sand- the most extreme elements will prevail, by saying there is no alternative to the utopian view of a unified ME is defeatist. There is an alternative to barbarity and there can be solutions.

  • The ISIS crisis is more a symptom than a disease. It’s an indicative to the failure of the region to enter the modern world. I don’t mean by modernity the inherited neocolonial states, a la Sykos-Picot, nor the imported band-aid fake solutions to long neglected structural problems. What I mean is a real turn around against the past; and its customs, habits, and culture. Turning the page to a new beginning: a fresh new man and women free to pursue life as they see fit, rather the one prescribed millennia ago. Only then can there be reasonable individuals who would be willing to start competing with other nations and blocks. Only then can we start to speak about coming together in confederations, federations, or any other form of association. Ghoma

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