Middle East Notes and Comment: The Middle East's Centenarian

One hundred years into the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a growing chorus of voices is asserting its imminent demise. Skeptics say that few of the Arab states’ borders ever made any sense, and the uprisings sweeping through Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere represent the long-overdue death rattle of the post-colonial order in the Middle East.

Erasing states isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, though, and proto-states that had only shallow rationales in 1916 have sunk deep roots in the century since. They cannot simply be swept away, and breaking them up will do little to promote the domestic harmony that they have failed to provide. When the dust settles, whenever that is, we are much more likely to see new kinds of states within the same borders that we see now in the Middle East than we are to see new states inside new borders.

The Anglo-French pact to divide the post-Ottoman spoils into spheres of influence was never anything more than arbitrary, the argument goes, and the erasure of the Syrian-Iraqi border by the Islamic State group (ISG) in 2014 was a harbinger of the collapse of the whole system. It isn’t quite that simple.

The states that Sykes and Picot created were based on the Ottoman provincial borders, which themselves were based on the areas surrounding major cities. Jerusalem, Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad were each the focus of different provinces, and they play similar roles as the centers of modern states today. Ottoman rule wasn’t uniform throughout the empire. It was often tight in the cities but looser in the countryside, and largely absent in desert areas populated by nomads. Ottoman law wasn’t all-encompassing, either. It preserved the rights of religious communities to regulate much of their own civil codes, and tribal laws and customs prevailed in tribal areas. Control of some regions was essentially farmed out to tax collectors, and Constantinople—now Istanbul—maintained tight control of others. The entire system ebbed and flowed, and provincial borders shifted, as conditions changed and the empire embarked on periodic efforts at reform.

The original Arab nationalist dream wasn’t changing the Ottoman provincial borders, and it certainly wasn’t making smaller states within the post-Ottoman borders, as people now entertain with modern Iraq and Syria. Instead, it was to unite the Arab lands into a single country, as the ISG seeks to do.

But in the century since that Arab dream was launched, modern states have arisen which created rules and order from one side of their territory to the other, seeking to impose uniformity and rationality where once there was ambiguity. In the process, these modern states have built entire structures of expertise, in addition to structures of patronage and loyalty. The expertise in many cases was never as good as had been hoped, and the loyalty and patronage have been fraying. But this is the important part: Even in an impaired state, the states in the Middle East are stronger than anything that seeks to replace them.

Part of states’ strength lies in the fact that existing states around the world are still better at dealing with states than non-states, and states generally work to strengthen fellow states against non-state actors. Another facet of strength lies in the fact that they retain the loyalty of many of the people with the most expertise in the operations of the state. They also have money, intelligence services, police, and the other instruments of statehood. Non-state actors increasingly challenge their monopoly on these things, but the states’ advantages in absolute terms are likely to prove durable.

An easy answer that is proposed to the problems states are facing is simply to break them down into constituent parts. That is, if one were to split off minorities who are challenging the central state, then tensions would resolve.

It is not so easy. In part, many of the new states would have problems in state-building, as they suddenly tried to replicate the functions formerly performed by the central state. The more profound issue, though, would be that they would be doing state-building while undergoing their own internal struggle for power and influence. Often lost in proposals for Kurdish independence, for example, is the fact that there are at least three groups competing for power in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are united now by a common external challenge, but the case of South Sudan should be a cautionary tale—immediately after independence from the North, it descended into a savage war between formerly allied groups. Lebanon is another cautionary tale. Created in part to protect the Maronite Christian minority from a surrounding Sunni sea, Lebanon’s various sects have been locked in battle, not only falling into a bloody civil war that lasted more than a decade, but more recently being unable to agree on a president after 39 rounds of parliamentary balloting over two years.

The answer to the challenges of the modern Middle East isn’t smaller states but more resilient ones, with greater tolerance to diversity and difference, and greater devolution of power and expertise from the center to the periphery. Achieving this will be difficult. The pattern of the twentieth century was the opposite trend, as mega-capitals emerged that often contained a quarter or more of the national population and most of the wealth and economic opportunity of the country.
While this change will take time, it will be accelerated by the fact that states everywhere are being knocked from their pedestals. Businesses and other non-state actors are growing in strength and have their own global ties, as the complexity of modern life makes it impossible for any government to maintain complete control. At the same time, governments are finding they need strong government partners in order to maintain their security. The mark of government strength is no longer how much a government can control, but how wisely it chooses what it seeks to control.

A century into Sykes-Picot, the future of the Middle East will not rest on where the borders of states are drawn, but instead on what happens within them.
Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program