The Middle East Quagmire, The Curse of Sykes Picot Still Haunts the region

The Middle East Quagmire

The month of May this year marked the 100th anniversary of what the world knows with the name of Sykes-Picot Agreement. This Agreement, a secret deal between France and Great Britain divided up the heart of the Middle East and created the states like Iraq and Syria as well as many other fragile nations of the modern Middle East. This has long been regarded as a watershed agreement – a pivotal episode in the history of the Middle East with far-reaching implications for international law and politics. A product of intense diplomacy between Britain and France at the height of the First World War, this secret agreement was intended to pave the way for the final dissolution of Ottoman power in the region.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was, in essence, an understanding to carve up the vast areas of the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence. However, the events and developments during the past few months have provided dramatic new evidence, if more were needed, that the old colonial framework created by Britain and France isn’t working. So, it’s time to renegotiate the contract that put the Middle East together.

With the 2011 revolutionary wave, the so-called Arab Spring became a hope for Middle Easterners to demolish the Sykes-Picot order. Until that spring turned into the Arab Winter, protesters were saying that they had to go after the dictators to get rid of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. For them, it started in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; they were going after Syria; next would be Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, and then it would be Israel. However, the revolts turned into a civil war in Syria, which brought a whole new level of regional chaos when the US-led Western world changed its policy against the Arab streets’ demands. And Daesh, the brutal terrorist organization, found an opportunity to rise and grow in this mess, dashing the hopes for major change for the people of the Middle East when they captured Mosul in 2014 and announced the creation of a transnational caliphate, they triumphantly pronounced the death of Sykes-Picot and they symbolically demolished the Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria.

The dreams of the Middle Easterners started to fade after the revolutionary days were replaced by counter-revolutionary strikes and the escalation of terror attacks. However, Western pundits kept suggesting solutions to put out the fire in the Middle East, looking at history books and drawing similarities between religious conflicts in Europe 400 years ago and the new sectarian conflicts in the region. Since the US-dominated and West-controlled world order is not sustainable and US policy has not been well responded to in the Middle East while Russia and China are the new rising influential powers, the policymakers and analysts in the West have begun to admit that US-led Western policy needs to be reviewed. But, instead of facing the fact that the leading role they played in the past was the first in a series of Western missteps that eventually caused this mess, they are talking about reshaping the region, offering new borders, new nation-states and new maps.

For example, Henry Kissinger brought up a solution for the problems in today’s Middle East, exemplifying the Westphalia peace treaties negotiated in Europe at the end of the 30 Years War. In his book “World Order,” he basically said that various Christian groups had been killing each other until they understood that they had to live together, but in separate units. In that way, Kissinger wants us to understand that we must learn how to live together, but we need to be divided again to do that.

Well, the Westphalia peace treaties did not actually bring peace to Europe. The so-called peace treaties opened the way for the Napoleonic wars a century later. The winners of Westphalian sovereignty were nationalism and secularism. And, in the end, two World Wars, flamed by nationalism, ended up in Europe. Then Europe started to find ways to unite again after millions died due to war, disease, massacres and hunger.

Henry Kissinger and others who say the only solution to put out the fire in the Middle East is a new Westphalian model are not really seeking peace. As Western influence spread across the globe, the Westphalian principles formed the core of international law and the world order. They just want to establish a new order, draw new Sykes-Picot lines, without mentioning Sykes-Picot but giving examples from the West, and once again control the world in parallel with their own interests. Unfortunately, they are getting closer to doing that since leading figures in the Middle East have no intention of coming together, embracing and listening to each other, offering their own solutions and achieving common sense and a common consensus.

The ongoing effort to bomb away the problems has resulted in destroying cities like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs, and soon Mosul, in order to “save” them. Four American presidents have made war in the region without concrete results, and Obama’s successor will be number five.

So, the only answer left, the one not yet tried, is to negotiate a comprehensive resolution that addresses all of the issues, borders and struggles now underway. That resolution will need to be enforced with military power coordinated by the US, Russia and Iran, with each speaking for, and agreeing to corral, its proxies.

It will mean giving the Islamic State group a seat at the table, as the British were forced to do with the Irish Republican Army in the 1990s to resolve the Troubles in Northern Ireland. One, by definition, must negotiate peace with one’s enemies. That is why, in part, the current cease-fire in Syria, which excluded Islamic State, has little chance of achieving any long-term progress. On the other hand, the payoff of such a broad resolution will be a measure of stability, and a framework to enforce it. American efforts will shift from fanning the flames to putting out fires.

An Overview of the Sykes-Picot Agreement

Official name: The 1916 Asia Minor Agreement

Date: May 9, 1916 (Encyclopedia Britannica)

(There is no consensus date of the Agreement; an on-line legal site asserts that it was signed on May 16; the magazine Foreign Affairs offers us May 17; the on-line site favours May 19; the Jewish Virtual Library maintains that it came into existence on May 23.)

Author(s): Mark Sykes & François Georges-Picot

Signatories: Edward Grey & France Paul Cambon


  1. Russia should acquire the Armenian provinces of Erzurum, Trebizond (Trabzon), Van, and Bitlis, with some Kurdish territory to the southeast;
  2. France should acquire Lebanon and the Syrian littoral, Adana, Cilicia, and the hinterland adjacent to Russia’s share, that hinterland including Aintab, Urfa, Mardin, Diyarbakır, and Mosul;
  3. Great Britain should acquire southern Mesopotamia, including Baghdad, and also the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Acre;
  4. between the French and the British acquisitions there should be a confederation of Arab states or a single independent Arab state, divided into French and British spheres of influence;
  5. Alexandretta (İskenderun) should be a free port; and
  6. Palestine, because of the holy places, should be under an international regime.

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