For a long time, I looked back at the division of the former Ottoman Empire by the British and French following World War I, and saw a process that was corrupt and driven by self-interest, and which contributed significantly to the ongoing conflict in the region. But with decades of hindsight and the region now in turmoil, perhaps we should judge Sykes and Picot more favourably?
They reshaped the Middle East into a collection of regions/states that were each a very diverse collection of tribes and ethnicities, ruled by the minority, as indicated by the table below. Note that the figures are not exact as they are collected from a variety of sources, and there is not always agreement on the definitions of groups or estimates of their size. Nevertheless, the pattern is clear – a clever “divide and conquer” strategy, which all but guaranteed the repression of the majority ethnic group in each region/state.
|Syria||Alawite 12%||Sunni 74%, Druze 3%|
|Saudi Arabia||Salafi/Wahabi 25%||Sunni 70%, Shia 5%|
|Lebanon||Various||Sunni 27%, Shia 27%, Maronite 21%, Orthodox 12%|
|Jordan||Hashemite 1%||Palestinian/Sunni 60%, Bedouin/Sunni 35%|
|Iran||Shia 90%||Sunni 10%|
|Iraq||Various||Shia 50%, Sunni 30%, Kurd/Sunni 10%|
|Yemen||Houti||Sunni 56%, Shia 44%|
You could rightfully condemn Sykes-Picot as the seeds of ongoing repression and violation of human rights for decades through the dictatorships that inevitably emerged. But the other thing it achieved was relative state of stability for some eighty years, and in a volatile region like the Middle East, that is some achievement. After the Great War, the greatest imperative was not human rights, it was avoiding another world war.
Consider two alternate scenarios: Firstly, if instead divisions were made largely along ethnic lines. That would likely have led to large scale ethnic cleansing of the minorities in these newly formed ‘countries’, and wars between nascent ethnic nation-states – where ethnic identity was aligned with a new national identity – for dominance in the region. The entire region would likely have erupted within a decade or so.
The second scenario is one we have seen play out in recent times in a number of ways: the attempted transition of various countries within the region to democracy.
The neoconservatives sought to transform Iraq by overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003. Instead of democracy breaking out to fill the leadership vacuum, the country descended into anarchy, and no-one has any meaningful strategies to repair that country.
The so-called Arab Spring of the current decade was also hailed by starry-eyed pundits as the dawn of a new age of democracy, but again, we have seen those movements either fizzle (Egypt), or be snuffed out (Iran).
The reason both failed so miserably comes down to the nature of Arab identity. The majority of the Arab world is still trapped in the stage of ‘tribalism’. By that I don’t mean tribalism as opposed to universalism, but the original meaning of the word. The Arab world has been composed of a large number of small tribes, and it still is.
What is now known as the Western world also began as a large number of small tribes. But consider the journey of the West from tribalism, to feudalism, to monarchies and their empires, and finally to the modern democratic nation-state. This journey took hundreds of years, punctuated by the most bloody wars and revolutions. Could we really expect the Middle East to take a ‘short-cut’ route to democracy, either as a result of external intervention, or the miracle of social media? Of course not.
The only democracy in the Middle East is Israel. The Jewish national identity was one of the oldest enduring identities. It was forged thousands of years ago with the Exodus from Egypt, yet still carried with it a secondary tribal identity (the twelve tribes, the Priests and Levites). But after years of exile and Diaspora life, the tribalism fell away. To their existing Jewish values, the Zionist founders added socialist values that were already well-developed in Europe, and used them as the basis for the modern state of Israel. What remained of Jewish tribalism was the fracture between ethnic Sephardim and Ashkenazim, which has indeed troubled Israel since its inception as a state, but has been overshadowed by bigger issues like threats from external enemies.
One has to wonder if Sykes and Picot truly understood the tribal nature of the Middle East as they sliced and diced it to create the artificial nation-states that still exist today. In any event, their pragmatic approach worked far better than any of the more recent Western interventions.
What can we learn from them, and from the more recent mistakes in the region?
It is evident from the rise of Islamic State that tribal and religious identities trump any sense of national identity. National borders that have existed for decades are crumbling, and that egg cannot be unscrambled. That means any stable solution to the conflict in ‘the region formerly known as the country of Syria’ does not go through the Assad regime. National borders likely need to be redrawn and new leaders emerge to maintain stability. The development of democracy in the region still has a long time to run.
Given the low appetite of the West to directly engage ISIS militarily, one must wonder if we will soon see the emergence of a move to ‘upgrade’ ISIS to a genuine state actor with defined borders as a method of ‘containment’.
The sooner the West recognizes the nature of Arab tribal identity rather than superimposing its own sense of national identity and social democratic values on others, the sooner they will be equipped to deal with the full array of threats in the region.