The Sykes-Picot Agreement Didn’t Create the Borders of the Modern Middle East—and Redrawn Borders Won’t Fix Its Problems

A common refrain of Western commentators writing about the Middle East is that its problems stem in part from the supposedly artificial borders drawn up by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in the 1916 agreement that bears their names. However, David Siddhartha Patel explains, not only was the agreement never implemented, but the order that existed prior to 1914 was neither wholly imposed from without nor wholly artificial:

Europeans did not draw borders willy-nilly, without regard to local factors. Local actors and historical precedents played important roles in determining not only what borders were drawn but even which proposed states survived and which did not. The Sykes-Picot agreement, for example, awarded much of south-central Turkey . . . to the French zone of direct influence; these and later efforts to carve up Anatolia were stymied by [the Turkish ruler] Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Local actors and politics [also] heavily influenced the specific location of the Iraq-Syria border. . . .

Local precedents for seemingly “artificial” states also mattered more than analysts often recognize. For example, scholars have demonstrated the extent to which the modern state of Iraq had Ottoman administrative roots.

As for erasing the established borders, writes Patel, the idea is nothing new. But while many Western observers have proposed the creation of new and smaller national or sectarian states as an antidote to current conflict, many residents of the Middle East envision the opposite:

Islamic State’s rhetoric of erasing borders is similar to that of other post-Ottoman supra-nationalist movements in the region, including the Baath parties of both Iraq and Syria, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism, and the Syrian Social Nationalist party, which advocates a Greater Syria encompassing the Levant and Mesopotamia, from Lebanon to Kuwait. . . . In [a] sense, Islamic State’s transnational Islamism echoes Arab nationalists’ calls, with “Muslim” substituted for “Arab.” . . .

For most Arabs, the true “end of Sykes-Picot” would mean the end of imperial-era divisions created deliberately to ensure the region’s long-term dependence on and subordination to the West. Existing states would not collapse down to atomistic ethnic and sectarian groups; rather, populations would unite. . . . Arabs, and perhaps the wider Islamic world, would cease to be divided into distinct [political] entities. Both the Western and Arab views see the borders of the Middle East as artificial, but they differ considerably in their expectations of whether those borders would dissolve through expansion or retraction.

Read more at Crown Center for Middle East Studies

More about: History & Ideas, ISIS, Middle East, Sykes-Picot Agreement

The IDF’s First Investigation of Its Conduct on October 7 Is Out

For several months, the Israel Defense Forces has been investigating its own actions on and preparedness for October 7, with an eye to understanding its failures. The first of what are expected to be many reports stemming from this investigation was released yesterday, and it showed a series of colossal strategic and tactical errors surrounding the battle at Kibbutz Be’eri, writes Emanuel Fabian. The probe, he reports, was led by Maj. Gen. (res.) Mickey Edelstein.

Edelstein and his team—none of whom had any involvement in the events themselves, according to the IDF—spent hundreds of hours investigating the onslaught and battle at Be’eri, reviewing every possible source of information, from residents’ WhatsApp messages to both Israeli and Hamas radio communications, as well as surveillance videos, aerial footage, interviews of survivors and those who fought, plus visits to the scene.

There will be a series of further reports issued this summer.

IDF chief Halevi in a statement issued alongside the probe said that while this was just the first investigation into the onslaught, which does not reflect the entire picture of October 7, it “clearly illustrates the magnitude of the failure and the dimensions of the disaster that befell the residents of the south who protected their families with their bodies for many hours, and the IDF was not there to protect them.” . . .

The IDF hopes to present all battle investigations by the end of August.

The IDF’s probes are strictly limited to its own conduct. For a broader look at what went wrong, Israel will have to wait for a formal state commission of inquiry to be appointed—which happens to be the subject of this month’s featured essay in Mosaic.

Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Gaza War 2023, IDF, Israel & Zionism, October 7