- One hundred years ago on Monday, Britain and France signed a secret agreement carving out “spheres of influence” that ultimately created the modern Western Asia.
- West Asia lies in tatters.
- Parts of the border between Iraq and Syria have been virtually erased by the Islamic State.
- Syria itself is divided among multiple groups.
- Iraq’s government has no control over at least a fourth of its territory.
- Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region, has demanded freedom from Baghdad.
- The Syrian Kurdistan region is being run by the Kurds themselves for the first time in several decades.
- The regional map is fractured in many more ways.
What triggered this crisis?
- Part of the blame lies with a century-old agreement between Britain and France that is viewed as the source of the modern map of West Asia.
- When the British and French signed the Sykes-Picot pact a century ago — on May 16, 1916 — to divide the huge land mass of the Ottoman Empire between themselves, their primary concern was to retain their colonial interests.
- In the process, the map prepared by diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot ignored local identities, leaving several ethnic and social contradictions unaddressed.
- Out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the British ultimately obtained mandates over Palestine and Iraq; the French got what is now Syria. Areas experiencing some of the hardest-fought battles now, like Mosul, were attached to the Kingdom of Iraq.
- Even when actual boundaries were identified after the First World War, the focus was on colonial and regional interests, not on the political preferences of the people.
- Against this background, it may not be a coincidence that over the years the most powerful political ideologies that emerged from the region directly or indirectly challenged the Sykes-Picot system.
- Both Nasserism and Baathism sought to transcend the territorial nationalist boundaries.
- Egypt and Syria even went ahead to declare a United Arab Republic, an experiment that collapsed after the 1961 coup in Damascus.
- And now, even Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the IS, calls for an end to the “Sykes-Picot conspiracy”.
Decentralisation of power
- When the State Department offered up a senior official to preview the talks for reporters here on Monday afternoon, the official insisted that splitting up the country was not under discussion.
- He allowed for the possibility of a form of decentralisation in which different groups — the Kurds, Mr. Assad’s government and the opposition — receive some autonomy. But the goal, he said, was an intact Syria.
The modern map of the region may not bear any great resemblance to the original lines drawn by Sykes and Picot. What matters more now than the actual Sykes-Picot map is the legacy of the agreement: foreign interventions.
- From the colonial carve-up to the Iraq war or the fight against the IS, foreign involvement in the region continues, and often exacerbates the crises rather than solving them.
- Equally problematic has been the failure of West Asia’s leaders to live up to the challenges of their respective states.
- Over the years, they resisted reform and ran largely oppressive systems rooted in social conservatism and patronage.
- They showed no interest in tackling the problems the Sykes-Picot pact failed to address, such as the Kurdish question.
- Their authoritarianism simply sharpened the social contradictions in their states, while intra-regional rivalries made peace elusive.
- The rise of the IS is a result of these external and internal problems.
- If the Iraq war unleashed sectarian and jihadist demons, they found a battlefield in Syria where President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship triggered a civil war, which was in turn worsened by his regional rivals.
- Both the interventionists from abroad and the warring dictators at home should rethink their approaches. Else, the ghosts of Sykes-Picot will continue to haunt West Asia.
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