A Century after Sykes-Picot: Strategic and Geopolitical Aspects*

By Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser
Thursday, January 7th, 2016 @ 11:47AM

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“The instability and the uncertainty that characterize the current state of affairs is best exploited, as mentioned before, by the most prominent enemies from the Radical Islamic camp – both Iran and its surrogates and the Sunni Radicals.”

The rationale behind the plan produced by British diplomat and Middle East expert Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, Francois George-Picot, and the international agreements that followed it regarding the future of the Middle East after World War I, was a mixture of British and French interests with some basic and limited understanding of the characteristics of the Middle East at the time. The new order created by the agreements had split the real control over the area (formerly part of the Ottoman Empire) between the international powers while promoting a benign version of Arab nationalism and dividing the territory between loyal Arab leaders along borders drawn by the foreign powers. At the same time, the agreements reconstituted the national homeland of the Jewish people over what was to be mandatory Palestine. The fact that 100 years later the division is still relevant is quite amazing, considering the vast changes that have occurred both politically and ideologically. There is, however, no reason to be surprised when this somewhat obsolete order is being put under such extreme pressures that threaten to redraw the map that was the product of the Sykes-Picot Agreement as a result of the turmoil in the region.

The Sykes-Picot order has faced a variety of inconsistencies with prevalent characteristics of the region, many of which were known or should have been known to the British and the French right from the beginning. Nevertheless, they were given limited consideration to enable British strategic goals at the time, foremost of which was to protect India and keep it out of Russian reach.

The pillars that were supposed to provide stability to this order according to the Sykes-Picot logic were:

  1. Arab nationalism – this concept was introduced by the British, on the basis of the common identity of many of the residents of the Middle East. Sykes himself invented the four colored Arab national flag. This concept gave insufficient weight to the role of religion, affiliation to the tribe and region, aspirations of other nationalities in the region and basic resentment towards foreign ideas.
  2. The idea of dividing the region into several nation states under autocratic rule has turned into an ongoing story though the attempt to put Sharif Hussein’s sons in power failed in Syria and Iraq.
  3. The expectation the Arabs would submit themselves to the rule or influence of foreigners in a way that will serve Western interests.
  4. The belief that in the long run, with proper guidance and training, it will be possible to establish a Western-like political system.

The British and foreign powers that later succeeded them as dominant players in the region were quite skeptical regarding the extent to which they could rely upon those pillars. They knew pretty well that Arab nationalism was too weak to enable the establishment of functioning modern states, and they were aware of all the other deficiencies that prevented the Arab states from closing the gap from the West. As the imported ideologies (nationalism, socialism, etc.) replaced each other, two elements of the regional landscape remained more or less unchanged and enabled a certain status quo. The first was the commitment of the ruling elites to the new borders that evolved into a popular support for them and for the local nationalities they represented. The second was the autocratic nature of all the Arab regimes that made sure that any leadership change will immediately produce another autocratic regime whose defining characteristic was the commitment to the state borders just as its predecessor and the suppression of any opposition to this British-French imposed order.

This was the case on the surface until the beginning of the Arab uprising in early 2011. The autocratic systems in non-monarchic states collapsed, as the lid over the volcano of religious and primordial loyalties could not withstand the eruption of these powerful forces anymore. This was the result of the corruption of the autocratic regimes, their lack of a mobilizing ideology and their latent consent to the strengthening of anti-Sykes-Picot ideologies inside that volcano, to avoid confrontation with their mass constituencies.

Following the upheaval, the new Middle East is characterized by competing approaches to the fate of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and its legacy, which reflect the rivalry between the major political trends in the region. The greatest challenge to the legacy comes of course from “Radical Islam.” All the factions of Radical Islam deny the idea of nationalism in general and local nationalism in particular. They believe in reviving the Islamic Ummah (nation) as one political entity that governs according to Islamic law (Shariah).  Whereas all radical Islamists reject the Western culture and its attempts to dominate Muslim culture and territory and are all committed to the need to establish a Caliphate over all of the Moslem-populated areas and later on over the entire world, they differ in their understanding of the way and the timing of this inevitable revolution. The “Ultra-Radicals” emphasize the need to move towards establishing the Caliphate in as much territory as possible and as soon as possible. They are represented on the Sunni side by the “Islamic State” and to a little bit lesser extent by “Al Qaeda;” and on the Shiite side by the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran and “The Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” who export the “Islamic revolution,” and boast that Iran already controls vast areas of the Middle East, including parts of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

The “Realists-Radicals” share the same goals of the Ultra-Radicals but believe that time is not ripe yet to establish the Caliphate, that some local, national identity may help in mobilizing activists and that while the West is continuously losing power, it is not yet weak enough to be defeated. The West is weak enough to rely deliberately on the Realist-Radicals to protect it against the threat emanating from the Ultra-Radicals. This is an unfortunate situation because it enables the Muslim world to gain time and the Western cooperation needed to complete the preparations for the expected changes in the region and beyond it. The “Moslem Brotherhood” (including Turkey under Erdoğan, Qatar, and many other factions) on the Sunni side cooperate with the West intensively, and so does the Shiite Realistic-Radicals, led by Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani. Their major achievement is the Western readiness to free them from all the obstacles on their way to acquire a nuclear weapons arsenal in 10-15 years and meanwhile to intensify their regional influence and efforts to threaten Israel.

On the other hand, the Arab pragmatists are the main supporters of preserving the existing boundaries and state structure in the Middle East. They favor promoting an Arab-Moslem culture that integrates some elements of Western culture, in spite of their basic resentment of that culture. These states include the allies of the West such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, most of the Gulf Emirates and, of course, Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (and Israel).

A major challenge to the Sykes-Picot status quo comes from frustrated sects and peoples whose aspirations for self-determination and self-rule were not met by the agreement and the arrangements that followed. First among these are the Kurds who are moving steadily towards independence, at least in the areas they control in Iraq and Syria.

Today, the Western powers have lost their appetite to dominate the region the way they saw as necessary during the Cold War or following the deconstruction of the Soviet Union. The United States emerged as the sole superpower, and for a short time, it sought to impose a Pax Americana in the region (that also facilitated the Oslo Agreements and peace agreement between Israel and Jordan) (not a full sentence with when). Today’s lack of appetite mainly reflects weakness, frustration, confusion, and dominance of a world view which combines a strong feeling of guilt towards the way the West treated Moslems in the Middle East in the past and optimism regarding the ability to solve all remaining disputes through diplomacy and  restoration that would lead to forgiveness from the Moslems.

This approach explains the West’s hesitant policies towards protecting the existing boundaries. On the one hand, the West is profoundly committed to this goal. In this context, it strongly opposes the Islamic State attempt to wipe away these borders, stands firmly against the Kurds’ efforts to promote their independence and continues to refer to the states in the region according to former boundaries. In this respect it continues, for example, to treat the Assad regime as the legitimate regime in what it continues to refer to as Syria, in spite of the harsh criticism of its behavior and the fact that he controls merely 20 percent of the territory known as Syria. Assad, therefore, keeps the seat of Syria in the United Nations and has the authority to issue Syrian passports, even though he does not control most of the border crossings between Syria and its neighbors.

On the other hand, the West is not ready to put its “boots on the ground” to preserve the former order. It is apparently not a high priority for the West to achieve this goal, and even after it became clear that refraining from action may encourage a huge movement of population from the Middle East to Europe, this policy has not changed. As compensation for its lack of readiness to fight, the West is ready to support the Realist-Radicals, hoping that they will do the “dirty work,” building upon their temporary commitment to the existing state order. This obviously is a dangerous policy, since those Realist-Radicals are no friends of the West and have no interest in securing Western interests in the medium and long run, or even in the short run as many of them have other priorities. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the limited assistance given to the Sunni elements will be sufficient to deal with the Ultra-Radicals.

One thing is clear, Western confusion and hesitancy pave the road for Russia to become a much more influential power in the region since it has no ambiguity in its policy and it is ready to get directly involved to protect its clients. From the point of view of the endurance of the Sykes-Picot order, Russia has become the most influential force that helps to protect and preserve it.

From Israel’s point of view, this new situation is extremely challenging and dangerous, even though most of its borders are agreed upon, well demarcated and relatively well protected, including with security fences that constitute a clear divide with a border security system.

The instability and the uncertainty that characterize the current state of affairs is best exploited, as mentioned before, by the most prominent enemies from the Radical Islamic camp – both Iran and its surrogates and the Sunni Radicals. They take advantage of the growing chaos and the inability of the former states to exert their sovereignty and monopoly over the use of force in the territories that nominally are part of the state to carry out attacks against Israel. This phenomenon may grow significantly in the future if they manage to keep eroding the pragmatic regimes control of their territories.

Moreover, as the Radicals widen their influence they may threaten the stability of the monarchies, which survived the first round of the upheaval mainly because their political system is based on the primordial loyalty that is much stronger than the artificial loyalty that was created in many of the republics. If this happens, it may create new threats to Israel and put its peace agreements under pressure.

Another source of concern is that with this new situation the Radical terroristic elements will be able to acquire much better weapons and capabilities. The ranges, payload, precision and quantities of the rockets possessed by terror groups are growing consistently, but this phenomenon is also true regarding other weapons such as missiles of all kinds and special operations capabilities. This is going to happen while a nuclear arms race may develop following the agreement between Iran and the world powers regarding its nuclear program.

Finally, Israel should be concerned about the world view difference that has widened between itself and the West in general and the United States in particular and about the perceived weakness of the United States in the eyes of regional players. It should also worry about the wave of Muslim immigrants to Europe that may make the West, even more, sensitive to what it considers to be essential concerns of the Muslim world in the Israeli context.

On the other hand, the new picture of the region also presents Israel with some opportunities. First it raises the chances of developing security cooperation with pragmatic elements in their efforts to confront the radicals, including Iran. Secondly, it makes it easier for Israel to explain that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the most important struggle in the region and that it has genuine security concerns that justify its insistence on having secured and defensible borders both on the Golan Heights and along the Jordan River. It also makes it easier for Israel to convince the West of its strategic value in defending the West itself.


* This article was published on January 7, 2016, by JCPA

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