It has become something of a cliché to blame the Sykes-Picot treaty—signed 100 years ago today—for the woes of the modern Middle East, and to assert that the current disorders signify its death. However, argue Steven A. Cook and Amr T. Leheta, such claims are ill-founded, and not least because the agreement was never fully enacted and it took a decade for the region’s borders to coalesce in their present form. And that’s not the only reason:
On a deeper level, critics of the Middle East’s present borders mistakenly assume that national borders have to be delineated naturally, along rivers and mountains, or around various [pre-existing] identities in order to endure. It is a supposition that willfully ignores that most, if not all, of the world’s settled borders are contrived political arrangements, more often than not a result of negotiations among various powers and interests. Moreover, the populations inside these borders are not usually homogeneous.
The same holds true for the Middle East, where borders were determined by balancing colonial interests against local resistance. These borders have become institutionalized in the last 100 years. In some cases—such as Egypt, Iran, or even Iraq—they have come to define lands that have long been home to largely coherent cultural identities in a way that makes sense for the modern age. Other, newer entities—Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for instance—have come into their own in the last century. While no one would have talked of a Jordanian identity centuries ago, a nation now exists, and its territorial integrity means a great deal to the Jordanian people.
The conflicts unfolding in the Middle East today, then, are not really about the legitimacy of borders or the validity of places called Syria, Iraq, or Libya. Instead, the origin of the struggles within these countries is over who has the right to rule them. . . .
The weaknesses and contradictions of authoritarian regimes are at the heart of the Middle East’s ongoing tribulations. Even the rampant ethnic and religious sectarianism is a result of this authoritarianism, which has come to define the Middle East’s state system far more than the Sykes-Picot agreement ever did.