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

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


How America Sowed the Seeds of the Current Middle East Crisis in 2015

Analyzing the recent direct Iranian attack on Israel, and Israel’s security situation more generally, Michael Oren looks to the 2015 agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. That, and President Biden’s efforts to resurrect the deal after Donald Trump left it, are in his view the source of the current crisis:

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Barack Obama’s singular foreign-policy achievement.

In order to achieve that result, the administration has repeatedly refused to punish Iran for its malign actions:

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran repeatedly to assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one.

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. . . . Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity.

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

Read more at Free Press

More about: Barack Obama, Gaza War 2023, Iran, Iran nuclear deal, U.S. Foreign policy