When the French diplomat François Georges-Picot and his British counterpart Mark Sykes met in 1916 to divvy up the soon-to-collapse Ottoman empire, they drew arbitrary borders that severed areas linked for centuries by ties of clan and commerce, and lumped together disparate peoples and sects in unworkable and artificial states. Many of the woes of the Middle East over the past century have their roots in this act of colonialist arrogance. This, at least, is what conventional wisdom would tell us. But this story isn’t supported by the facts—first of all, because the Sykes-Picot agreement was never implemented. But even more accurate accounts of the origins of today’s borders still put too much blame on those who created them, writes Nicholas Danforth:
[I]t would be a mistake to assume that these borders sprung fully formed from the heads of the colonial officials and nationalist leaders who drew them, with barbed wire, checkpoints, and minefields inevitably following their pens across the map. To a surprising extent, the political regimes that built the new borders of the Middle East after World War I acknowledged and tried to mitigate, if only for their own cynical reasons, the potential for disruption. In the 1920s and 1930s, many of the region’s borders were considerably more open than they are now. It was not merely the creation of borders that proved disruptive but, more crucially, the political tensions between governments on both sides that subsequently led to their closure.
As to how these agreements played out, it seems that across the British-French frontier that divided Syria and Lebanon from Palestine, the impact of the new border was initially minimal. [For instance, the historian] Asher Kaufman describes Zionists freely crossing the border between the French and British mandates in order to hike Mount Hermon and notes that as of 1941, according to one participant, “these trips did not require cross-border permits because the border was wide open, and they never met a Lebanese or Syrian policeman.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this happy situation was brought to an end, in part, by the war to drive the Jews from their homeland:
In 1938, the British built a fence to stop gunrunners following the outbreak of the Arab revolt. Then, in 1941, they deployed the Transjordan frontier force to stop Jewish immigration to Palestine. Finally, in 1948, two-and-a-half decades after its demarcation, the border closed more dramatically, taking on the impassable and militarized character it has today. The Turkish-Syrian border experienced a similar transformation.