Not too long ago, the know-it-all set was unanimous in its view that Sykes-Picot was dead.
The demise of the Middle East’s state system was beyond question. Libya did not survive Barack Obama’s decision to unseat Muammar Gaddafi. The Islamic State was knocking on Baghdad’s doors, and Syria’s Assad controlled far less than one half of his country. That the old territorial order of nation-states in the heart of the Middle East—the map created by the British-French agreement to carve up the corpse of the Ottoman empire after its defeat in World War I—had become an artifact of history was taken for granted.
ISIS’s territorial achievements energized the notion that the countries created by Skyes-Picot were artificial constructs, unable to withstand potent tribal, ethnic, and sectarian forces unleashed by the American invasion of Iraq.
“Think of all the places we are today trying to keep the peace,” Vice President Joe Biden said during a visit to Baghdad in 2016. “They’re places where, because of history, we’ve drawn artificial lines, creating artificial states made up of totally distinct ethnic, religious, cultural groups, and said: ‘Have at it. Live together.’”
Biden, in the spirit of an earlier generation of Western leaders who thought nothing of redrawing the maps of places across the sea, declared his preference for the division of Iraq into three statelets, one each for the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias.
History is not prescriptive, but it does help to know something of it. Washington may proceed as if it has erased the history of places that it occupies as a painter contemplates a blank canvas, but it does so at its peril.
Imagine an Iraqi pontificating to an American audience today about the resurgent attraction of the Confederacy. But Biden’s army was occupying Baghdad and thus any cockamamie idea from Washington was assumed to have credibility.
Biden’s new idea was in fact a very old idea. No doubt he—and not only he—was barely cognizant of the history of the place whose future he presumed to superintend, or of the ideas that have animated it.
Who in Washington could know that French and British diplomats, colleagues of Sykes and Picot, had already created sectarian-based “states” for Sunnis, Druze, Christians, and Alawis during the 1920s, and they proved to be short-lived? Or that Assad’s grandfather, said to be a “lion” of a man (by Assad), fought in the colonial Syrian militia France created? Who could remember how this exercise in imperial diplomacy precipitated popular revolts that cemented the idea of an independent, unitary Syria—not Sunnistan, Druzistan, or Alawistan—that still survives today despite years of brutal civil war?
Who could remember that the Baath (Renaissance) Party emerged out of the Second World War as champion of Syrian (and Iraqi) nationalism over an elite discredited by its own political shortcomings and sectarianism—defects that also defined the recent Syrian revolt?
The chronicle of places across the sea, the ideas that animate them and the policies that make up their troubled histories, are all too often absent from the thinking of Western diplomats and politicians, buried under the weight of everyday policymaking. But such unhappy and often blood-soaked legacies cannot be forgotten by the peoples of the region who have no way to escape their past.
The assumption that the national identities forged from Sykes-Picot’s template over the last century could be swept away like so much dust was, shall we say, premature. Washington, against its instincts, was forced to save Iraq from the Islamic State assault—in league with Iran no less—and to vote with Baghdad against the quixotic Kurdish quest for independence. ISIS’s caliphate, another new old idea exhausted by history, has been strangled in its cradle, and its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, like some of his more unfortunate predecessors, is a fugitive in his own land.
In Syria, Obama declared open season on Assad and the Baath Party, but failed to understand Assad’s secret to maintaining power (with critical Russian and Iranian support). That secret was that Assad reaffirmed the essential and enduring truth recognized and unleashed by Sykes-Picot, the superior evocative power of Syrian nationalism in the hearts of its people.
Still, Washington, unlike Moscow, has yet to be convinced of the enduring value of Sykes-Picot and the primacy of state sovereignty. The desire to “win the peace” by removing Assad in favor of a leaderless assortment of jihadis and poseurs, who have neither forgotten nor learned anything from their previous defeats, continues to exert its malign attraction. Its latest manifestation is the idea, promoted mostly by the Pentagon, of creating a Kurdish army paid for by Washington’s Gulf allies that will protect the 30 percent of the country now ruled by forces affiliated with the PKK.
Americans are totally oblivious of Syria’s history—yet what Syrian can be blamed for seeing in this effort an updated version of the notorious French divide-and-rule campaign almost a century ago? Can anyone name one Syrian who believes that Washington’s efforts to obstruct the restoration of Syrian sovereignty within the borders created after World War I will be more successful?
The challenge posed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been contained if not annihilated. Before our very eyes, and whatever our preferences, the idea of the state is prevailing against the naysayers and those making war against it. This idea, and the single-minded drive to reaffirm sovereignty and authority against challengers, is the preeminent legacy of Sykes-Picot. Washington, take note.
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.