sykes-picot is 100 (with a nod at fanon at the end)

As we approach the 100th anniversary of Sykes-Picot, some interesting analysis (and defenses) from around the web:

From the Economist (they have a larger section but you have to be a subscriber):

A second wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and sects can change from one village or one street to the next. A new Sykes-Picot risks creating as many injustices as it resolves, and may provoke more bloodshed as all try to grab land and expel rivals. Perhaps the Kurds in Iraq and Syria will go their own way: denied statehood by the colonisers and oppressed by later regimes, they have proved doughty fighters against IS. For the most part, though, decentralisation and federalism offer better answers, and might convince the Kurds to remain within the Arab system. Reducing the powers of the central government should not be seen as further dividing a land that has been unjustly divided. It should instead be seen as the means to reunite states that have already been splintered; the alternative to a looser structure is permanent break-up.

From The New Yorker:

For a century, the bitter reaction to the Sykes-Picot process has been reflected in the most politically powerful ideologies to emerge—Nasserism, in Egypt, and Baathism, in Iraq and Syria—based on a single nationalism covering the entire Arab world. For three years, Egypt and Syria, despite being on different continents, actually tried it, by merging into the United Arab Republic; the experiment disintegrated after a 1961 coup in Damascus.

Even the Islamic State seeks to undo the old borders. After sweeping across Syria and Iraq in 2014, Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced, “This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”

From The New York Times:

That Western imperialism had a malignant influence on the course of Middle Eastern history is without a doubt. But is Sykes-Picot the right target for this ire?

The borders that exist today — the ones the Islamic State claims to be erasing — actually emerged in 1920 and were modified over the following decades. They reflect not any one plan but a series of opportunistic proposals by competing strategists in Paris and London as well as local leaders in the Middle East. For whatever problems those schemes have caused, the alternative ideas for dividing up the region probably weren’t much better. Creating countries out of diverse territories is a violent, imperfect process.

From Foreign Policy:

The “end of Sykes-Picot” argument is almost always followed with an exposition of the artificial nature of the countries in the region. Their borders do not make sense, according to this argument, because there are people of different religions, sects, and ethnicities within them. The current fragmentation of the Middle East is thus the result of hatreds and conflicts — struggles that “date back millennia,” as U.S. President Barack Obama said— that Sykes and Picot unwittingly released by creating these unnatural states. The answer is new borders, which will resolve all the unnecessary damage the two diplomats wrought over the previous century.

Yet this focus on Sykes-Picot is a combination of bad history and shoddy social science. And it is setting up the United States, once again, for failure in the Middle East.

There’s a lot more.  This is an important anniversary.

The Foreign Policy article above is, at least for me, the more interesting one, especially as it ties into important sociological conversations about the invention of tradition and imagined communities.

For what it’s worth, it’s of course true that Sykes-Picot can sometimes get too much blame (or at least be given too much causal power) for the entirety of the problems in the Arab world (and the broader Middle East). For that matter, I’m quite sure there are many other borders that would have been just as bad.  Yet it’s sometimes easy to forget that even more than the lines themselves, it was the imperialist capacity to render those lines that has caused so much anger.  Someone like Fanon (and postcolonial theory more broadly) helps show there’s something important about the power dynamics in which you are named and recognized, and sometimes discussions of Sykes-Picot (and, for that matter, talk of the United States drawing up the map again) utterly ignore this distinction, framing a problem of recognition as simply a problem of categorization. Also for what it’s worth, I’ve written a bit about how Edward Said helps us think about this stuff here.

Addition: My colleague Kevan Harris pointed me to the really impressive work of Sara Pursley.  Here’s an interview with her about Sykes-Picot, among other things:

But I’m not just contesting the Sykes-Picot narrative. I’m contesting all the narratives that say Iraq’s borders were “drawn” by Europeans in the years around World  War I, whether they locate that moment in Sykes Picot, or the Paris Peace Conference, or San Remo, or the Cairo Conference. These last three tend to be more popular with scholars and Iraq experts, who often know that Sykes-Picot doesn’t really work. But actually none of them work. The supposed map the Europeans drew of the Middle East—it doesn’t exist. Iraq’s borders were created like most nation-state borders have been created, through a drawn-out of process of resolving competing claims to territory through war, diplomacy, and other uses of power. It took many years and involved many actors. To begin with, a border requires mutual recognition of the authorities on both sides—that’s what a border is. You can’t just create one by yourself.

Written by jeffguhin

May 15, 2016 at 12:22 am

3 Responses

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  1. by the way, if you got the e-mail, sorry for the typos on skyes!



    May 15, 2016 at 12:26 am

  2. Dammit. I need a new keyboard. Sykes. Yeesh.



    May 15, 2016 at 12:29 am

  3. “Yet it’s sometimes easy to forget that even more than the lines themselves, it was the imperialist capacity to render those lines that has caused so much anger.”
    I think the above is true. As for the articles mentioned…
    The New York Times article is the one I agree with most. The West’s part of the blame, or whatever one may call it, starts not with a specific agreement, but with the lack of understanding of the Middle East. But judging the quality of the achieved results depends on the perspective. Is it of indigenous humans, or is it of national interests of foreign actors who won the power to decide?
    I think that dividing a region ruled by an opponent who lost, according to interests, is what any influential power(s) would do, especially upon winning a war as important as WW1 was. On the other hand, not being able, or willing, to more sensibly account for local identities, while at the same time betraying a promise made to locals who proved to be good allies, is where the West went wrong at the time. But this is not so surprising either. Western knowledge of the region was far less profound than it is now, and the region itself was indeed (in parts) significant for trade and providing access to an important colony. It was yet to be discovered as the big oil reservoir requiring a more sophisticated kind of approach. That approach was allowing or tolerating autocratic regimes coming to power while retaining and applying influence where and when it mattered. Undeniably, it was counterproductive at times, but it worked well enough in the long run, as far as Western interests were concerned. The growing margin for error enjoyed by the West due to its overwhelming power on all levels made such management not only possible, but also quite convenient.
    Today the West is more powerful than ever, despite some appearances of fracturing alliances and rise of its opponents. That means it has unprecedented both capabilities and margin for error. It also has priorities developing in other regions, partly related to the appearances I have mentioned. I believe it will focus its attention elsewhere once it creates convenient conditions for temporarily leaving North Africa and the Middle East. (I actually wrote a few short thoughts regarding that here , if you care to take a look in the geopolitics section.)
    After all, these are not the only regions that were dealt with according to the interests, capabilities and knowledge pertaining to each period, with tumultuous transitions from one to the next. It will be that way in the future too and therefore I doubt any enduring solutions are possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    V. T.

    May 15, 2016 at 8:04 am

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