No, the Sykes-Picot Treaty Isn’t the Cause of the Middle East’s Ills

Dec. 15 2020

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.

Read more at Newlines

More about: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East, Postcolonialism, Sykes-Picot Agreement


Why President Biden Needs Prime Minister Netanyahu as Much as Netanyahu Needs Biden

Sept. 28 2023

Last Wednesday, Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu met for the first time since the former’s inauguration. Since then, Haim Katz, Israel’s tourism minister, became the first Israeli cabinet member to visit Saudi Arabia publicly, and Washington announced that it will include the Jewish state in its visa-waiver program. Richard Kemp, writing shortly after last week’s meeting, comments:

Finally, a full nine months into Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest government, President Joe Biden deigned to allow him into his presence. Historically, American presidents have invited newly installed Israeli prime ministers to the White House shortly after taking office. Even this meeting on Wednesday, however, was not in Washington but in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

Such pointed lack of respect is not the way to treat one of America’s most valuable allies, and perhaps the staunchest of them all. It is all about petty political point-scoring and interfering in Israel’s internal democratic processes. But despite his short-sighted rebuke to the state of Israel and its prime minister, Biden actually needs at least as much from Netanyahu as Netanyahu needs from him. With the 2024 election looming, Biden is desperate for a foreign-policy success among a sea of abject failures.

In his meeting with Netanyahu, Biden no doubt played the Palestinian issue up as some kind of Saudi red line and the White House has probably been pushing [Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman] in that direction. But while the Saudis would no doubt want some kind of pro-forma undertaking by Israel for the sake of appearances, [a nuclear program and military support] are what they really want. The Saudis’ under-the-table backing for the original Abraham Accords in the face of stiff Palestinian rejection shows us where its priorities lie.

Israel remains alone in countering Iran’s nuclear threat, albeit with Saudi and other Arab countries cheering behind the scenes. This meeting won’t have changed that. We must hope, however, that Netanyahu has been able to persuade Biden of the electoral benefit to him of settling for a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia rather than holding out for the unobtainable jackpot of a two-state solution.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Joseph Biden, Saudi Arabia, U.S.-Israel relationship