Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Dammit, It Is NOT Unravelling: An Historian’s Rebuke to Misrepresentations of Sykes-Picot

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 30 December 2013 2:25

I have long maintained that Western commentary on the Middle East is driven as much by trends in journalese as by realities on the ground and historical facts. For example, for much of the past decade we have been told that the country of Iraq is about to “implode”, given that it was “cobbled together” after the First World War from three “disparate” provinces whose centrifugal forces have continued to “fuel” and “stoke” conflict between “embattled” Iraqi “factions” in the period after 2003, making it quite impossible for them to justly “divvy up” the country’s revenue derived from the “oil-rich Shiite south” and the “Kurdish north”. All of this is misleading, and if these clichés hadn’t been employed by Western journos and pundits in the first place it would perhaps have been easier to understand the survival of Iraq as a nation despite pressures from the outside that can hardly be described as other than extreme.

With the recent shift of attention to Syria, a new artificial focus of discussion has emerged among Western pundits, namely, whether the Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and the French during the First World War is in the process of “unravelling”. Most commentators seem to think it is, with a particular emphasis on the supposed role of Sykes-Picot in determining the modern boundary between Iraq and Syria. As a consequence of this perspective, the ragtag of bandits and terrorists that is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) end up being portrayed, explicitly or implicitly, as the implementers of some kind of deep-rooted popular urge for pan-Arab and pan-Islamic unity that supposedly pulls the Syrian and Iraqi peoples towards each other.

Here is why the current focus on Sykes Picot is misguided.

1. The Sykes-Picot Agreement Is Not What Many People Think It Is. When it was concluded in 1916, the main idea behind the agreement was to secure annexation of certain coastal areas that were deemed to be of particular interest to the allies, especially Basra for the British and the coastland between Lebanon and Cilicia for the French (the Russians were accorded control of the Straits for similar reasons). The truly important aspect of the Sykes-Picot map were therefore the areas of exclusive control along the coasts – British in Acre/Haifa and Basra (naval interest playing a key role); French in Lebanon and north to Alexandretta in Turkey (the location of Christian minorities was accorded much importance). By way of contrast, the details of demarcation in the interior – where a more informal form of British and French influence was envisaged – was accorded less importance at the time. Furthermore, scholars such as Eliezer Tauber and Nelida Fuccaro have convincingly demonstrated that local politics, not the rough lines of Sykes Picot, governed the final details regarding the disposal of border areas between Syria and Iraq like Abu Kamal and Jabal Sinjar during the 1920s. Conversely, local resistance against Sykes Picot at the time was mainly framed as a protest against the way in which the agreement  divided what was perceived as  “historical Syria” by isolating the coastal fringe including Lebanon and the Alawite lands from Damascus. The desire for union between Iraq and Syria, by way of contrast, was not such a central theme. By December 1918, the Covenant society loyal to the Hashemite princes, probably the most pan-Arab force of the day, had itself fragmented into Syrian and Iraqi branches, quite without the help of foreign officers. To the extent that cross-border irredentism continued to survive in the 1920s and the 1930s, it mostly had the character of local regionalisms rather than popular movements for Syrian-Iraqi unity. In particular, the territory along the Euphrates from Ana in Iraq north to Raqqa in Syria remained the subject of some turbulence, with Raqqa often enumerated among Iraqi nationalists as a maximum objective of western expansion. Similarly, Hanna Batatu identified a degree of interwar regionalism linking Mosul in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria as a result of the way new borders cut across that old trade region. At no point, though, did any viable separatist or irredentist party emerge.

2. The Central Features of the Post-1918 Map of the Middle East Had Local Antecedents. Sometimes Sykes-Picot is being construed as a complete armchair project by willful European strategists. What is often not realized is the extent to which the agreement merely put on the map patterns of special administrative arrangements that had been in the making under the Ottomans for decades, if not longer. Thus, special Ottoman arrangements for Palestine and Lebanon date back to the nineteenth century: the special administrative district of Lebanon dating to 1861 and the special district of Jerusalem established in the 1870s. As for Iraq, it had been separated entirely from Syria in administrative terms almost since the beginning of Islam – and had for long periods been ruled from Baghdad as a single charge. Again, the only real exception pertains to the Raqqa-Ana borderlands which in brief intervals had gravitated towards Baghdad rather than Damascus. All the talk that these boundaries are a mere hundred years old and that everything was designed by a couple of European colonial strategists is utter unscientific nonsense that collapses immediately upon confrontation with contemporary primary documents, where terms like “Syria” and “Iraq” were in widespread use long before Sykes and Picot even knew where these areas were located.

3. The Bits of Sykes-Picot That Were Actually Implemented Are Very Few. It is often forgotten that most of the Sykes-Picot agreement was never implemented. Stipulated French control in Mosul was soon reversed. Alexandretta (Hatay)reverted to Turkey whereas the Alawite lands of Syria fell to Damascus during the decades of the French mandate before World War II. Sykes-Picot, by way of contrast, had prescribed territorial unity between what was seen as the “minority lands” of Lebanon, the Alawite areas of Syria and the mixed areas of southeastern parts of Turkey. What remains is the rough line of division between Syria and Iraq, but again that broadly reflected indigenous patterns of administrative subdivision and was not really implemented to the letter in any case.

4. Things Aren’t Unravelling Completely Anyway. OK, so we have hordes of ultra-radical Islamists occupying points on either side of the Syrian-Iraqi border. They talk pan-Islamic and sometimes act pan-Islamic. Isn’t that decisive proof that the borders of the past, whatever their exact historical origins, are falling apart? Far from it. They are receiving more attention today because everyone’s eyes are on Syria, but back in 2005 pan-Islamic movements also operated in this area, including an Islamic emirate in al-Qaim near the Syrian-Iraqi border. In the face of that challenge, the Sunni population of western Iraq rose in protest through the sahwa movements. Today, there is once more a tug-of-war between pan-Islamism and Iraqi nationalism, but by no means has the local population universally sided with the Islamist rebels. Despite continuing squabbles among Iraqi leaders, a considerable segment of local Anbar politicians have rushed to support the Iraqi army in its efforts against pan-Islamist elements, showing that the people of western Iraq are once more sceptical about getting too intimately connected with political movements aiming at union with Syria. As for the continuing confrontations between Iraqi PM Maliki and individual Sunni leaders in Anbar, there are two ways of looking at them: True, Maliki’s rather overt use of the Iraqi judiciary to selectively target political enemies comes across as tendentious and often reckless; yet at the same time the apparently bottomless supply of Sunni tribal leaders prepared to continue to do business with him testifies to a degree of popular aversion to the alternative of all-out revolution. Finally,  note also that even ISIS in all their pan-Islamism couldn’t resist the differentiation between Syria and Iraq when they named their organization! The territorial spread of ISIS itself in Iraq and Syria with a core area along the upper Euphrates around Raqqa could even indicate that it resonates most strongly with a more limited historical legacy of regionalism in what was historically the Jazira borderland between Syria and Iraq (rather than with grand schemes for Fertile Crescent union) – and that this regionalism, in itself, ultimately remains subordinated to century-long patterns of administrative differentiation between Syria and Iraq that Sykes-Picot merely served to confirm.

Nothing in this should of course be seen to deny the validity of stories emphasizing the bitter fate of individual families living in borderlands affected by Sykes-Picot. But borderlands are always different, and European towns and farms with similarly heartbreaking stories about borders tearing families apart are legion. That does not mean Europeans need to urgently revisit past territorial agreements arrived at in places like Versailles (1919) or even Vienna (1815).

In sum, the current fixation with Sykes-Picot is just another case of Westerners being misrepresented as the omnipotent force in the Middle East. Today, the thing that appears to be in the greatest danger of unravelling is our fragile historical knowledge of the Middle East.


4 Responses to “Dammit, It Is NOT Unravelling: An Historian’s Rebuke to Misrepresentations of Sykes-Picot”

  1. Salah said

    Reidar, very interesting and thank you for bringing this matter here.

    Just a quake note here when you said:

    the country’s revenue derived from the “oil-rich Shiite south” and the “Kurdish north”

    Although the oil wealth huge in this time but I don’t know if you knowing other areas and Iraqi land had wealth also but not the oil, you deftly agree they are valuable as accommodates for the world.
    Western Iraq had Phosphate, huge reserve there and the production and earthwork was huge during mid-1970s and later but Iraq/Iran war caused huge setback for developing those reserves, also the was as far I remember that the trains running all the times from west Iraq through Bagdad goes to Basra for exporting this martials even during the war as my family in law were close to main railway that caring those materials.
    Also I heard that there was RED Mercury, Gold mine these are close to Salah- Aldeen province….

  2. Salah said

    Oops, apologies for broken link, here it is:

  3. Hi Salah, I was being ironic. I tried to poke fun of Western commentators who seem to believe all of “Shiite Iraq” is swimming in oil. Which isn’t the case, since the oil is mainly in the far south around Basra/Maysan/Dhi Qar. I wrote a lot about this in the past, e.g.

  4. Update: The Washington Post was kind enough to include some comments reflecting the contents of this blog piece in its latest “40 maps that explain the world” article.
    The WaPo had previously published probably the most insightful article within the “Sykes-Picot is unravelling” genre (linked in the article above).

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