The division of the former Ottoman Empire by the British and French following World War I appeared corrupt and driven by self-interest, and contributed to the ongoing conflict in the region. But with hindsight and the region now in turmoil, perhaps we should judge Sykes and Picot more favorably?
They reshaped the Middle East into a collection of regions/states that were each a diverse collection of tribes and ethnicities, ruled by the minority, as per the table below. The pattern is clear — a “divide and conquer” strategy, which all but guaranteed the repression of the majority ethnic group in each region/state.
While Sykes-Picot seeded ongoing repression and violation of human rights for decades through the dictatorships that inevitably emerged, it achieved a relative state of stability for some 80 years. After the Great War, the greatest imperative was not human rights, it was avoiding another world war.
If, instead, divisions had been made largely along ethnic lines, that would likely have led to large-scale ethnic cleansing of the minorities in these newly formed “countries.” And since ethnic identity was aligned with a new national identity, this could have led to wars for regional dominance. The entire place would likely have erupted before too long.
In recent times, we have seen the attempted transition to democracy in the region.
The so-called Arab Spring of the current decade was also hailed by starry-eyed pundits as the dawn of a new age of democracy, but again, we have seen those movements either fizzle, or be snuffed out.
The reason both failed so miserably comes down to the nature of Arab identity: the majority of the Arab world sees itself as tribal.
The journey of the West from tribalism, to feudalism, to monarchies and their empires, and finally to the modern democratic nation-state took hundreds of years, punctuated by the most bloody wars and revolutions. Could we really expect the Middle East to take a “short-cut” to democracy, either through external intervention, or social media?
We don’t know if Sykes and Picot understood the tribal nature of the Middle East, but their pragmatic approach worked far better than any of the more recent Western interventions.
What can we learn from them, and from the more recent mistakes in the region?
It is evident from the rise of Islamic State that tribal and religious identities trump any sense of national identity. National borders that have existed for decades are crumbling, and that egg cannot be unscrambled. Any stable solution to the conflict in ‘the place formerly known as Syria’ does not likely go through the Assad regime. National borders may be redrawn and new leaders may emerge to maintain stability. The development of democracy in the region still has a long time to run.
Given the low appetite of the West to directly engage, will we soon see the emergence of a move to “upgrade” ISIS to a genuine state actor with defined borders as a method of “containment”?
The sooner the West recognizes the nature of Arab tribal identity rather than superimposing its own sense of national identity and social democratic values on others, the sooner they will be equipped to deal with the full array of threats in the region.
David Werdiger looks back at the Sykes-Picot agreement after World War I which was the blueprint for the modern Middle East. It put stability ahead of human rights, and managed to keep things reasonably stable because it reflected the nature of Arab identity. More recently, attempts to bring democracy to the region have failed because they didn’t understand Arab identity and tribalism.