Turmoil in the Middle East: it’s not just Sykes-Picot Sir Mark Sykes (left) and François Georges-Picot (right)

Turmoil in the Middle East: it’s not just Sykes-Picot

May 2016 commemorates that it is 100 years ago that the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed. The attributed impact of this diplomatic agreement on the Middle East is not in line with its actual role however.

The historical impact that is attributed to the Sykes-Picot Agreement is not in line with its actual role. For understanding Middle Eastern affairs other diplomatic agreements like the Sèvres Treaty and Lausanne Agreement should be included as well.

In his book The international politics of the Middle East Raymond Hinnebusch argues that with respect to the Middle East ‘imperialism’s arbitrary imposition of state boundaries produced a substantial incongruence between territory and identity, with the result that loyalty to the state was contested by sub-state and supra-state identities. This built irredentism into the fabric of the system: in many states, the trans-state connections of sub-state groups and dissatisfaction with borders generated protracted conflicts which spilled over in state-sub-state or inter-state wars.’ (p.5)

The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement might be the most famous expression of Hinnebusch’s ‘substantial incongruence’. This diplomatic agreement between France and Great-Britain divided the Levantine remnants of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War (1914-18) in so-called spheres of influence, of the British (Iraq) and French (Syria). Although it is argued that the ‘line in the sand’ was not drawn completely random and a historic division existed between the spheres of influence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was cutting through ethnic and religious areas and denying the Arab people a state – promised to them by the British the decade before.

Figure 1: map indicating the division of the Ottoman Empire following the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement (Ian Pitchford)

Following the Relative Deprivation Theory, the disappointment of not being offered a state is believed to have caused frustration and radicalization among the Arab people since. Arguably, the Islamic State (IS) is a modern-day outcome of this frustration as it refers to Sykes-Picot in its propaganda. IS claims to reverse the border between Iraq and Syria, which was drawn along the British and French spheres of influence before they became independent states. By its claims, IS again turns attention to Sykes-Picot.

The focus on the Sykes-Picot Agreement tends to ignore other influential inter-bellum diplomatic treaties. The 1920 Sèvres Treaty further carved up the Levant and promised independent states for both Armenian and Kurdish people. The Sèvres Treaty was never ratified and the signing of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty established the modern Turkish state. This left the Armenians (then) and Kurds (officially still) without a state of their own. In its turn this created the so-called Kurdish question on whether Kurds should have their own state. The other treaties that overtook it, illustrate that Sykes-Picot was already ignored by contemporary politicians, remaining in the history books as an example of old-style, imperialist diplomacy, which is easy to blame for all troubles in the region.

Figure 2: map indicating the divisions following the 1920 Sèvres Treaty

The impact that is sometimes attributed to the Sykes-Picot Agreement is not in line with its actual role. While groups like the Islamic State regard it as a misconduct of almost mythical proportions, it is more a tool for propaganda than the single breaking point in Middle Eastern history. To truly understand contemporary turmoil in the region, focus on Sykes-Picot is not enough and other treaties like Sèvres or Lausanne have to be considered as well.