On May 16, 1916, the diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot—representing Great Britain and France, respectively—made an agreement to divide up the Middle East in the event that their countries defeated the Ottoman empire in World War I. The treaty, which created the modern borders of the Middle East, has often been blamed for the region’s problems. Michael Rubin begs to differ:
To look at the map of the Middle East might be to conclude that Sykes-Picot, the agreement which led to the drawing of so many contemporary borders, also created artificial countries. But just because a border is artificial does not mean that the resulting country is.
Iraq, for example, became independent in 1932, twelve years after the League of Nations demarcated its borders, but Arabic literature has spoken of “Iraq” for a millennium. Likewise, Syria—under its current artificial borders—became a League of Nations Mandate in 1920, but a notion of Syria as a region existed at the time of Muhammad. . . . Mount Lebanon has always had a unique identity, not least because of the Maronite Christian presence. Syria itself . . . never recognized the Lebanese identity; but the divisions of Sykes-Picot enabled the Lebanese among others to win freedom. . . .
Is it possible to rectify past mistakes? Certainly. . . . But is discussion about reversing the legacy of Sykes-Picot counterproductive? Absolutely. . . .
There is no way to divide borders and create homogeneous states. Even to try to is to conduct ethnic and sectarian cleansing. To create new borders and new states with minority populations, meanwhile, is simply to reshuffle the deck, not to change the game.