The intensity of the civil war in Syria, combined with the continued upheavals in Iraq and the endemic instability of Lebanese politics, has naturally led to speculation that the famously “artificial” borders in the eastern Arab world, drawn by Britain and France in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, are on their last legs. Are the state entities created by European colonialism in the 1920s about to collapse? Are we about to see a grand redrawing of the borders in the Middle East? The short answer to this question is no. While none of these three states will be able to claim effective governance within their borders anytime soon, the borders themselves are not going to change. They are devolving into what the political scientist Robert Jackson perceptively referred to as “quasi-states,” internationally recognized de jure as sovereign even though they cannot implement de facto the functional requisites that sovereignty assumes – control of territory and borders. Real governance in the eastern Arab world is certainly up for grabs, but the borders themselves will be the last things to change, because almost none of the actors, either regionally or internationally, really want them to change.
“The end of Sykes-Picot” is the tagline used by those who argue that the borders themselves are on the verge of substantial change. This is something of a misnomer. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 made a preliminary division of the Arab (and some Turkish and Kurdish) territories of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France, but the final borders were determined by the two powers at the San Remo conference in 1920. Sykes-Picot, for example, gave what is now northern Iraq to France and foresaw an international regime for the Holy Land. San Remo gave League of Nations approval to the borders that France and Britain subsequently worked out – Lebanon carved from the French mandate of Syria, Transjordan separated from the British mandate of Palestine, and the British mandate of Iraq created from the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. It would be more accurate historically to refer to the prospective collapse of the regional order in the Fertile Crescent as “the end of San Remo,” but that is not a semantic fight worth fighting.
Google returns 14,700 results when queried on “the end of Sykes-Picot.” Former diplomats, respected journalists and academics have all recently used the phrase to express their doubts that the territorial state status quo can be sustained. But we should be leery about jumping to the conclusion that the geopolitical dispensation created by France and Britain nearly a hundred years ago is not much longer for this world. These “artificial” entities have had remarkable staying power. Their borders are basically unchanged from their post-World War I creation. Transjordan is now Jordan, and the old mandate of Palestine is now completely under Israeli control (with Gaza a partial exception and the West Bank in an uncertain limbo regarding sovereignty). Iraq, Lebanon and Syria (with the exception of the cession of Alexandretta/Hatay by France to Turkey in 1939) remain as they were created.
The prospects that the map will continue to look as it does now remain strong. First, no one questions the longevity of either Israel or Jordan. Palestinian statehood, which would have been a major shift in the map, looked closer to realization in 1999 than it does now. If anything, the British-drawn border between “Palestine” and “Transjordan” seems more stable now than it has been for years. Second, the deconstruction of the Iraqi state began not recently, but back in 1991 with the establishment of the Western-protected (under a United Nations Security Council resolution) Kurdish region in the north and northeast of the country. That soft partition of Iraq became a constitutional element of the post-Saddam Iraqi state, with the establishment of the Kurdish Regional Government. The KRG has had most of the attributes of statehood – effective control of territory, its own military and an ability to conduct foreign relations – for more than 20 years, yet the map of the Iraqi state remains unchanged.
The anomalous status of the KRG, effectively sovereign but lacking international recognition, leads to the third and most serious weakness of the “end of Sykes-Picot” argument. The international powers constructed the post-Ottoman eastern Arab world. They created territorial shells in which colonial authorities, local elites in league with the colonialists and then independent state rulers, tried, with varying degrees of success, to build real states. But the success or failure of those efforts has not determined whether outsiders grant diplomatic recognition to those entities or not. The Lebanese government has not been able to claim effective control over all its territory since the civil war began in 1975. Yet not a single state granted diplomatic recognition to any sub-state Lebanese entity during the civil war, nor did a single state withdraw diplomatic recognition from Lebanon as a state. The KRG effectively governs a good chunk of Iraq, but no foreign government has recognized it as a state or limited its recognition of the Iraqi state to the territory that Baghdad effectively controls. Knowing that it is unlikely to receive international recognition, the KRG will very likely continue to maintain the fiction that it is a part of Iraq, despite the fact that most Kurds would rather have an independent state. Syria might end up, like Lebanon in its civil war, in a state of de facto partition, but it does not look like any foreign power would be willing to recognize the independence of any of those Syrian statelets. Nor is it clear that the Syrian leaders of such statelets would claim formal independence.
This is the ultimate analytical flaw of the “end of Sykes-Picot” argument. Outsiders drew those borders. No outsiders seem to have any interest in redrawing them, or recognizing the redrawing of them, at this time. The United States certainly does not. It has patronized the KRG for nearly 25 years while never encouraging the Kurds to declare independence. No Russian, Chinese or European leader has suggested an international conference to remake the Middle Eastern map. The states themselves might fragment internally. De facto governing authorities might emerge. But the international borders themselves do not look like they are going to change. All the action in the Middle East is bottom-up, as various domestic and regional groups fight for control of these states and regional powers aid their allies in these fights. But these fights look to remain, at least formally and in terms of international law, within the borders that the French and the British drew nearly a hundred years ago. “Sykes-Picot” lives, as fragile as governance within those borders is.
This piece was originally published in The Washington Post. You can find it here.