With the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Treaty passing last week, much ink has been spilled discussing its impact on the modern Middle East. Many influential historians and pundits argue that Sykes-Picot represents everything wrong with Western imperialism: artificial state borders, the mixing of sectarian groups, and thoughtless imperial competition at the expense of local inhabitants. Ultimately, though, this is a myth. Of course Sykes-Picot was imperfect as an agreement, and of course European imperialism was destructive and, in hindsight, a tragic period of human development. That being said, the modern Middle East is a disaster primarily because of modern problems, many of which originate within the Middle East itself. European colonialism and imperialism certainly played a major role in creating the forces of disruption now retarding regional development, but European borders are no longer, and never were, an excuse for the region’s failures.
It’s important to remember that the borders established in the treaty were not all that arbitrary. While there was certainly some creativity involved in generating borders that matched the British and French spheres of influence, the general outlines were similar to those used by the Ottoman Empire. Thus, one cannot argue that the borders were completely without precedent. Indeed, they had existed for hundreds of years in some form or another. It’s also fallacious to argue that creating borders along ethnic and sectarian lines significantly reduces conflict. For example, consider India and Pakistan. Originally, both countries were unified, emerging from the British Raj. However, disputes between Hindus and Muslims led to a partition, with Pakistan splitting off as a separate, Muslim-majority country. Despite creating borders to better represent sectarian lines, there is very clearly still enmity between India and Pakistan. There have been three major conflicts, hundreds of border disputes and a number of grizzly terrorist attacks since Pakistan became an independent country. Redrawing the borders obviously did not create a new era of peace and cooperation. If you aren’t persuaded by this example, however, just look at South Sudan or Ireland. It’s the same every time: Borders are redrawn, but conflicts live on.
The borders argument is also unpersuasive because it’s far from clear which factors matter. Should borders be determined by religion? Maybe. How about language and tribal groupings? Perhaps. The point is that there are an infinite number of variables which might be used to divide up the region, but it’s not at all clear which ones matter. Yugoslavia existed for many decades as a unified, pan-Slavic country. Then, over the course of a decade, it broke down along religious and ethnic lines. What happened? It’s easy to say that religious tensions between Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim groups were the trigger, but then why were these groups able to coexist so peacefully for so long? A constant cannot explain a variable, so it is intellectually lazy to simply assert that spikes in sectarian tensions are inevitable due to ethnic or religious divides.
On top of the questionable efficacy of redrawing borders, advocates of redrawing borders forget the power of path dependency. Once countries and institutions have been around for a while, it is particularly difficult to uproot them. Let’s consider a minor adjustment to Iraq. Instead of one diverse country, we would create a smaller Shiite Iraq in the east, Sunnistan in the west, and a fully independent Kurdistan in the north. Would this actually work? Would Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey rally together and create a unified country? Would Sunnis be happy that their new country is located in a desert wasteland with almost no oil or infrastructure? Would the Shiites in eastern Iraq be pleased by the loss of significant chunks of territory? It’s unclear, but the evidence suggests the answer to all of these questions is probably no. This shouldn’t be shocking. After all, Arabs care about things beyond simply religion and ethnicity. It is naive and reductive to think otherwise. They want power, they want wealth, and they want to have a stake in the world. While many might prefer to live in more homogeneous communities, if this requires living in a politically and economically impotent micro-state located in the middle of a barren desert, they would probably stick with the status quo.
As Fareed Zakaria has pointed out, the real problem with the Middle East is its authoritarian and corrupt governments. Both Jordan and Syria are recently created states, based on Western borders, and home to diverse populations. While Syria burns, Jordan is a paragon of stability and liberal values, at least by Middle East standards. Obviously, then, the problem is not poorly designed European borders. Instead, it is ineffective and oppressive governments that are triggering much of the conflict and violence in the Middle East. Strongmen like Assad are massacring civilians and inflaming sectarian tensions, not arcane treaties drawn up by long-dead Europeans. Blaming the borders for every woe denies Arab agency. It’s been 100 years since Sykes-Picot. Arabs have had time to learn to live with each other and create liberal, modern political systems. It is, therefore, ridiculous to blame every problem their region has on some borders drawn at the beginning of the 20th century.
To be clear, I am not absolving Europeans of blame. Their constant interference in Middle Eastern politics is in large part responsible for the dysfunctional and brutal dictatorships that currently stand in the way of Middle Eastern development. However, I am far from convinced that borders have had much impact at all on the political development of the region. Most countries are made up of diverse sets of people. While there is almost always some degree of inter-racial tension, the Middle East is worse than most regarding its sectarian violence. For this, the people who live there must take some responsibility.
In sum, the Middle East is a disaster. Many factors have contributed to this mess. European and American meddling, corrupt and autocratic governments, and a failed civil society have all played a role in generating the current regional fiasco. One factor that has not contributed meaningfully is the borders. And, even if the borders have played a role, it is far from clear that redrawing them would stabilize the region. The Middle East is a complex place, so let’s stop the intellectual laziness of using inane, monocausal explanations to explain its problems. As Cook and Leheta point out, this is simply bad history and shoddy social science.