The Legacy of Sykes-Picot

The Views columnists take a closer look at this important anniversary as they set out to explain the impact of the Sykes Picot agreement and its relevance today – from Iraq to Palestine.

Gulf News columnists and readers share their thoughts on the Sykes-Picot agreement one hundred years later.

Mark Sykes and George Picot: Unforgettable names in the region

Apart from cursing them morning and night, Levantines know very little about the two European statesmen who shaped the modern Middle East


Complicated web of international treachery

The legacy of Sykes-Picot has been a century of discord and war in the Arab world, but the West is not finished


The use and abuse of Sykes-Picot

The risk of seeing the region’s problems through this lens is that it gives way to the conclusion that the borders simply need revision.  If foreign powers take this initiative they risk duplicating the errors of the past


Undoing the colonial creation of Iraq?

Drawing borders that would support the creation of a viable, sovereign state was not in the forefront of the minds of the colonial mapmakers, despite vague promises of eventual self-rule


Mark Sykes and George Picot: Unforgettable names in the region

Apart from cursing them morning and night, Levantines know very little about the two European statesmen who shaped the modern Middle East


Seasoned US historian David Fromkin once said: “Europeans visited the Middle East largely to see the past.” There is nothing “modern” in the Levant worth visiting; all the mosques and churches are ancient, and so are the markets and monuments. So are the sectarian feuds, rivalries, and names that pop up in any intellectual conversation, whether covering politics and history or infrastructure, economy, trade, and culture. Mark Sykes and George Picot rank high on the list of course, authors of the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Apart from cursing them morning and night, Levantines know very little about the two European statesmen who shaped the modern Middle East.


For starters, Mark Sykes takes credit for popularising the term ‘Middle East’. It was originally invented — then forgotten—by American historian Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1902, designating the area between Arabia and India. He used it extensively in the Arabian Report, a London forerunner of Cairo’s Arab Bulletin, which he edited in the pre-war years. Sykes used his extensive knowledge of the Arabs to position himself as a senior expert on Levantine affairs at the start of the Great War, marketing himself in writing to Colonial Secretary Sir Winston Churchill.


In 1911, he was elected to the British Parliament. The entire idea of funding an Arab uprising to bring down the Ottoman Empire from within was his brainchild, and he moved mountains to make it happen. Diverting resources from the western front for such an offensive was not an easy task as it required approval of the French Government. The French were reluctant to commit as in early 1916 Germany had just attacked Verdun in what was to become the biggest battle in world history. Seven hundred thousand men on both sides were to be killed, wounded, gassed, or captured at Verdun in 1916. It was not a year where Europe could afford to send money or arms elsewhere. In terms of winning the war, however, Sykes believed that the Arabs at this stage were more important to Great Britain than the French. Thanks to him Britain spent an equivalent of $11 million on funding what came to be known as the Great Arab Revolt of Sharif Hussain, the emir of Makkah. He even designed the revolt flag, a tricolour of black, green, and white with a red triangle. It inspired the flags of Syria, Iraq, and Jordan.


Thanks to his flawless French, Mark Sykes was despatched to London to negotiate the future frontiers of Ottoman Syria with his French counterpart, George Picot, a seasoned diplomat and celebrated lawyer. Sykes was just 37, Picot 46. The talks started at the French Embassy in London on  November 23, 1915. We don’t have minutes for those meetings — none were taken by both sides and neither diplomat kept record of the secret discussions. As a Roman Catholic, he was not prejudiced against France’s goal of promoting Catholic interests in Lebanon. He had lived and travelled in the East with his father and knew the Arabs and their history exceptionally well. Picot was the scion of a colonialist dynasty in France; his father was founder of the Comite de l’Afrique Francaise and his brother was treasurer of the Comite de l’Asie Francaise. The Chambers of Commerce in Lyon and Marseilles were supportive of his mission; they saw huge wealth in Ottoman Syria and wanted France to possess it. Syria and Palestine formed one country that for centuries had been influenced by colonial France, he argued. In fact, it formed “France of the Near East.” He of course was referring to the Crusades and the establishment of Latin Crusader kingdoms in Syria and Palestine. It was France’s “mission historique.”


Picot also wanted to take Mosul in present-day Iraq and his British counterpart was more than willing to give it to him, despite the oil riches it was suspected of holding. They wanted the French sphere of influence to extend from the Mediterranean coast on the west all the way to the east so that it paralleled and adjoined Russian-held zones; the French zone was to provide Britain with a “shield” against Russia. Sykes feared Russian ambitions in British India and wanted to cut their routes to the Far East. France and Russia would be balanced one against the other so that the French Middle East, like the Great Wall of China, would protect the British Middle East from “Russian barbarianism” in the north. According to the British War Office: “From a military point of view, the principle of inserting a wedge of French territory between any British zone and the Russian Caucasus would seem in every way desirable.”


In the end, Sykes and Picot obtained what they wanted from each other. France was to rule a Greater Lebanon and to exert its exclusive influence over the rest of Syria. It included Damascus, Aleppo, the port city of Beirut, and even Mosul. Basra and Baghdad would go to Great Britain. They quarrelled over Palestine; both wanted it for themselves. A compromise was reached were the British were given control over the ports of Acre and Haifa, rather than Alexanderetta in the Syrian north. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, officially called the Asia Minor Agreement, was approved by the French and British cabinets in early February 1916. Its terms were kept secret and those who knew about it were not pleased. The common British complaint was that it gave way too much to colonial France, thanks to Mark Sykes.


The British diplomat died before partition saw the light at his hotel room in Paris, near the Tuileries Garden in February 1919. He was only 39, suffering from a deadly Spanish Flue while attending the Paris Peace Conference. Ironically, taking part in his funeral was Emir Faisal, the post-Ottoman ruler of Syria who was toppled by the French mandate one year later — thanks to the Sykes-Picot Agreement — and made king of Iraq. Picot lived far longer, becoming French High Commissioner first to Palestine and then to Bulgaria, and finally, ambassador to Argentina. He died at the age of 80 in 1951, five years after his country was ejected from Syria and Lebanon, thereby ending the Sykes-Picot Agreement for good.


Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015).




Complicated web of international treachery

The legacy of Sykes-Picot has been a century of discord and war in the Arab world, but the West is not finished


I was born in a refugee camp in Gaza two years after my parents had been forced to flee Ashdod, the village their families had inhabited for generations. They left their olive groves, goats and their house by the sea because the Israelis had arrived armed with guns, threatening the villagers with death if they did not immediately leave.


The ‘state of Israel’ had been declared by the Zionist movement in Palestine only weeks before, but my parents knew these were no idle threats – Deir Yassin cast a long shadow and was only one of more than thirty massacres armed Zionist gangs committed in this first rush of ethnic cleansing which saw 750,000 Palestinians displaced.


Where was the rest of the world when the 1948 Nakhba (catastrophe) was underway? Where was the newly created United Nations (UN) which had been established to uphold international law and prevent any repetition of the horrors of the Second World War? Where were the British who had been given a mandate to rule over Palestine at the 1920 San Remo conference?


The answers lie in a complicated web of international treachery and deceit which began with the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement.


Conducted during the First World War by two relatively minor officials - Mark Sykes was a British MP while Charles-Georges Picot (a forebearer of French president Giscard d’Estaing) was the former consul general in Beirut – the agreement’s main aim was to incentivise the ongoing bloodbath by dividing up one of the most likely spoils of war: The Ottoman Empire.


The Arab lands which the Ottomans had held since 1516 were strategically important to the British, lying between two key colonies – Egypt and India. The Sykes-Picot agreement drew a diagonal line from the Mediterranean coast to the Persian frontier: the northern areas would go to France while those to the south would come under British control. Pre-revolutionary Russia endorsed the plans which only became public knowledge when the Bolsheviks, having seized power a year later, found copies of the ‘treacherous’ documents.


At the same time as Sykes was dividing up the Middle East between the great powers, another British official -- Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Cairo --  was busy promising it to someone else. Sharif Hussain Bin Ali of Makkah had been assured that, if he provoked and led an Arab uprising against the Ottomans, he would be made emir of a new Arab confederation comprising much of the Empire’s Arab lands; significantly, it was implied that this Pan-Arab state would include Palestine. Hussain gathered a militia of a few thousand tribesmen - which the British labelled ‘the Arab Army’, providing a flag for it too - and in June 1916, launched the revolt which would significantly weaken the already failing Ottoman Empire.


It is unlikely that the British ever intended to allow the creation of an Arab ‘superstate’ since their colonial policies were predicated on the principle of ‘divide and rule’, but the hypothesis was water and sunshine to the seeds of Arab nationalism that had been planted in the late 19th century.


In 1917, the British army wrested Palestine from the Ottomans. Now another secret plan for my homeland was revealed, not from minor officials but from the home secretary himself: in November, Arthur James Balfour issued a declaration to the British Zionist Federation (BZF) that the government supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The BZF having assured Balfour, months earlier, that the Zionists in America could influence the Woodrow Wilson administration to join the war – a decisive factor in the allied victory.


Three significant, contradictory and opposing projects for Palestine now existed: none made any mention of, or consulted, the Palestinian Arabs themselves.


The 1920 San Remo conference saw the Middle East carved up under British and French mandates, more or less along the arbitrary lines of Sykes-Picot, with no reference to existing geopolitical circumstances, tribal, ethnic or religious groupings or the wishes of the region’s inhabitants.


As for Hussain, despite his ambitions being betrayed, he ensured allied interests would be maintained locally - one son, Faisal, accepting the throne of British-mandated Syria and Iraq, while another, Abdullah, became King of Jordan.


Jewish migration to Palestine was now permitted by the British with numbers initially limited in order to prevent a full scale Arab revolt. Zionist terrorism, which had been ongoing since the 1930s, escalated after the Second World War. One of the deadliest terrorist attacks - led by Menachem Begin, later prime minister of Israel – was the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (home to the British administration and army) which killed 91 and injured 46.


The British decided to pull out of Palestine, washing their hands of the mess they had helped to create. In November 1947, the UN partitioned Palestine into two states, one for Arabs and one for Jews. As the final British troops left on May 14th 1948, the Zionist movement in Palestine declared the establishment of the state of Israel.


And this brings us back to the beginning of my story, for, within days, the Zionist terror groups repackaged themselves as the army of the fledgling state and turned their guns on the Palestinians whose homes and lands they now sought to occupy.


As Israel grew in strength and gradually expanded its illegal borders through colonies and war, the Arab world sought unity to challenge the Zionist state and reclaim the Palestinians’ legitimate rights. Pan-Arabism, or Arab Nationalism, flourished for decades with the Palestinian cause at its heart. Equally pertinent, the Pan-Arab project, if successful, would also erase the artificial borders imposed by Sykes-Picot and challenge the legacies of colonialism.


Unsuccessful wars against Israel by the Arab armies in 1948, 1967 and 1973, galvanised the drive towards Pan-Arabism which marched alongside the Palestinian resistance and produced a generation of secular, autocratic leaders on a specifically nationalist ticket: Jamal Abdul Nasser in 1956, Muammar Gaddafi in 1969, Saddam Hussain de facto from the early 1970s and Hafez Al Assad in 1971. Paradoxically, during the so-called Arab Spring revolutions, the clamour for pan-Arabism returned to the streets, along with its nearest competitor, the Islamist call to the Umma.


The decline of the Palestinian resistance and the current authority’s pliability have seen even the compromised position of a Palestinian state evaporate since there is no longer any land to house it. Israel’s illegal colony building continues unhindered and the entire Occupied Areas - the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza - make up only 22 per cent of Israel/Palestine. In the Arab world, the Palestinian cause has been relegated to the political back-burner, and with it, Pan-Arabism.


In 1995, the newly-signed Oslo Accords meant that I could visit my family in Gaza for the first time since I left as a teenager in 1967. While I was in Palestine, I decided to go to Ashdod to see if I could find my parents’ old house. I was deeply shocked to find myself among the skyscrapers and thundering traffic of Ashdod, Israel’s main sea port which had devoured the original Palestinian village. I was unable to find any trace of Ashdod except, on a hilltop, one wall of what used to be a café with the menu still legible in painted Arab characters on the crumbling mud bricks. The hope afforded by Oslo faded long ago, and the Israeli authorities have not allowed me to return to Palestine, not even to bury my mother.


The legacy of Sykes-Picot has been a century of discord and war, but the West has not finished with us yet. US Secretary of State John Kerry recently presented a ‘Plan B’ for Syria - a project which is already in place, de facto, in Iraq and looks likely in Libya and Yemen, if not the whole region – the federal model, with mini states within states for Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.


Divide and rule round two?


Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor-in-chief of digital newspaper Rai Al Youm. He is the author of The Secret History of Al Qaeda; A Country of Words, his memoirs; and Al Qaeda: The Next Generation.





The use and abuse of Sykes-Picot

The risk of seeing the region’s problems through this lens is that it gives way to the conclusion that the borders simply need revision.  If foreign powers take this initiative they risk duplicating the errors of the past



In George Antonius’ 1938 study of emerging pan-Arab solidarity, The Arab Awakening, the diplomat and author referred to the Sykes-Picot agreement as a “startling piece of double-dealing”.  The book was one of the first to include the texts of previous British letters to Arab leaders pledging to support an Arab state in exchange for rebelling against the Ottomans.  This, Antonius wrote, was later contradicted by the secret deal between the British and French diplomats which essentially divided the predominately Arab portions of the Ottoman Empire between their own colonial administrations. This “shocking document” demonstrated “greed allied to suspicion,” Antonius wrote.  As a direct breach of faith, he argued, it undermined the prospects of Arab nationalism.


Citing Antonius now, for the centennial of the Sykes-Picot agreement, is appropriate because his narrative of the plan as a broken promise has become engrained within Arab political memory.  Critics of American policy in the Middle East and many Arab commentators not only remember the original betrayal, but see it as exemplary of a longer pattern of western countries’ destructive interventions in Arab politics.  Yet, many of those writing in the US from the viewpoint of power depict it as a historical episode that explains why the region’s states are in tatters, and, dangerously, call for new border-making led by outside powers.


American conservatives deploying Sykes-Picot

For some conservative American media figures and former officials, the Sykes-Picot agreement is a shorthand for an unravelling Arab state system.  The arbitrariness of the border-drawing originating with British-French conspiracy explains why the Arab states are so fragile, failing and in crisis, they claim.


This sentiment is captured in the visual idiom that the region’s boundaries are merely drawn “lines in the sand.”  This is a tempting phrase because it seems apt and expresses an impermanence.  Sand has an inherent imagery as a fleeting substance that blows away in the wind.  This phrase almost seems poetic, but it calls on an over-used Orientalist trope, lazily relating the desert to the Middle East.  More problematic is the implication that Sykes-Picot, and the resultant borders, is the singular cause of the region’s travails.


American TV and radio personality Glenn Beck discussed the agreement at length in a meandering and unintentionally entertaining episode of Blaze TV.  He said the agreement was the foundational “root of the current Middle East conflict,” and that it explains “everything that is happening today.”  All the political crises in the region were due to this “British betrayal.”


The convenience of American policy hawks attributing regional strife to a 100 year-old agreement was apparent in a 2012 Washington Post op-ed by former US secretary of state and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.  The former Bush administration wrote the states of the region are a “modern construct, created by the British and the French, who drew borders like lines on the back of an envelope, often without regard for ethnic and sectarian differences.”


Coming from an architect of the US’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, this appears a disingenuous distraction from American responsibility for the rise of Daesh and the ways in which the “war on terror” empowered the region’s despots to become even more repressive.  Rice ignores the US government’s role in boosting the divisions exacted by the borders by bolstering authoritarian regimes and supporting Israeli expansionism, both of which have been destructive forces.


It is much more expedient to blame the French and the British. In this way, linking the Arab world’s current malaise to this old regional design is a simplistic analysis that obscures more than it reveals.  This historical reference strategically displaces other vital factors, such as American foreign policy.


Arab observers see Sykes-Picot everywhere

For Arab commentators and critics of western foreign policy, the agreement survives as a metaphor for continued meddling by foreign powers in Arab affairs.  The phrase “new Sykes-Picot” captures precisely this point.  It proposes that what is going on in the region today is reminiscent of the colonial era in which foreign hands seek to engineer a new imperial order.


A common refrain about the American invasion of Iraq was precisely that the world superpower was going to author a new order.  In 2003, Edward Said predicted the Iraq invasion would result in “a redrawn map of the whole region” -- a “new Sykes Picot.”  This perception was only furthered by various American senators, including current Vice-President Joe Biden, who proposed to split Iraq into three states.  Though this exact plan was never executed, Iraq remains split between the Arab, Daesh and Kurdish autonomous zones due to the efforts of multiple actors, not just western.


As a historical metaphor, Sykes-Picot is approaching cliche.  It is applied sloppily to many, incongruent phenomena.


In 2011, while in the world prematurely celebrated the series of uprisings termed “the Arab spring,” Muhammad Hassanein Heikal, the prominent, recently deceased Egyptian commentator, warned of not just one, but several new Sykes-Picot plans.  He said on Al Jazeera that “there are three and a half plans on the scene now”: Western, Turkish, Iranian and Israeli plans.  The latter he found to be a crude, half-plan.  Unlike the original agreement, “the new maps aren’t divvying up the inheritance of the Ottoman caliphate, but rather the inheritance of the Arab national project that managed to expel Western colonialism in the previous stage and which tried to fill the void and failed.”  He said the protests are being exploited by outside actors to reap the “inheritance” from the Arab project.


The notion of a new Sykes-Picot is often projected outside of the area covered in the original accord.  Heikal used it to characterise a secret deal in Libya that was aimed at securing access to its oil after the 2011 uprising, for example.  A Sudanese militant group, Hizb ut-Tahrir complained that the Darfur crisis was another means by which foreign actors would intervene in the Sudan to “dismember the Islamic lands according to a new American ‘Sykes-Picot.’”


The Syrian War

The war in Syria and the diplomatic maneuvering by large powers around it, put into sharp contrast how American conservatives apply Sykes-Picot and how it remains for Arab observers a current term of reference.


The Palestinian political figure and official Jabril Rajoub described the various interventions in the Syrian civil war as a “new Sykes-Picot agreement that aimed to destroy the political and economic strengths of the region for the sake of the occupation and Israeli aggression.”  For Rajoub, the lesson of the plan is that external intervention continues to dominate and weaken the Arab states and embolden its enemies.


Others consider the US and Russian diplomacy regarding Syria in particular to be emblematic of a new power deal over the Middle East — even when there is no clear application to new borders.  Arab columnist Zein Al Abedine Al Rakabi likened the agreements between US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over Syrian chemical weapon monitoring to a new Sykes-Picot agreement.  He argued that Russia and the United States, like Great Britain and France before it, are arranging a power-sharing formula in the region.


This sentiment was shared by the former Deputy Speaker of Lebanon, Elie Ferzli. He said in a 2013 interview with Al Mayadeen that the Lavrov-Kerry deal was built on the “ruins” of Sykes-Picot.


Many bring up the agreement to frame the talk of federalism and partition of Syria coming from foreign capitals as conspiracies to re-make the political map.  There are limits to this.  As a political metaphor for geo-political intrigue around Syria today, it distracts from the responsibility of the Syrian regime for its brutal repression of the reformist protestors in the early months before the war began.  Al-Assad had the opportunity to respond progressively, but his regime reverted to its authoritarian instincts and chose the path of reactionary cruelty, which led to the division of the country.


Abusing history

Many in power use historical episodes to justify unpopular policies or repression.  The Sykes-Picot agreement is no exception. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan worked the agreement into his a talk he gave.  He said in a 2014 speech at Marmara University that each “conflict in this region has been designed a century ago.”  The region is full of what he called modern-day Lawrences of Arabia, foreign agents fomenting dissent to make life difficult for rulers not beholden to the West.  Going even further with the metaphor, he accused domestic opposition parties of “making Sykes-Picot agreements hiding behind freedom of press, a war of independence or jihad.”  This foreshadowed the Turkish government’s accelerated repression of journalists.  Particular renderings of history can be weaponised.


With even more brutal violence, the paramilitary Daesh has also appropriated Sykes-Picot as a historic symbol by promising to undo its divisive legacy and re-establish a regional caliphate.  A few years ago, it released a video of a captured border station between Iraq and Syria.  The video showed the station blowing up at the end.  It depicted its land-grab as, in its words, breaking the Sykes-Picot borders.  Yet, Daesh is determined to establish its own borders and does so with as little regard for the region’s inhabitants as the French and British diplomats did a century ago.


While these exploitative appropriations of history are worth condemning, there is another potential danger that misremembering Sykes-Picot leads to serious errors of judgment.  Some actually cite it as a reason for further transforming the outlay of borders, based on the notion that the map needs to be redrawn.  Former US Air Force general and Central Intelligence Agency director Michael Hayden said the war in Syria signified “the end of the Sykes-Picot (Agreement)” and “the dissolution of all the artificial states created after the First World War,” suggesting the US should lead in redefining the next political order.


Some calling for a new Sykes-Picot plan even forgot the betrayal of the original deal. Peter Van Buren, a former State Department official, actually called the agreement a “contract that put the Middle East together.”  It was a contract in which the region’s peoples were not party.  And as with the original, he wrote, this new one would need foreign powers, in this case the United States, Russia and Iran, to represent and commit their proxies.  It could only be carried out through foreign military power.


This view is shared by some in the region, including Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who recently echoed the notion that the “era” of agreement was over and required a fundamental new political arrangement.  The Kurds of Iraq have expanded their autonomy since the 1991 Gulf War and stand to gain the most from a new political order that could formalize their US-aided independence.


The risk of seeing the region’s problems through a Sykes-Picot lens is that it gives way to the conclusion that the borders simply need revision.  If foreign powers take this initiative they risk duplicating the errors of the past.  Any such external exercise would most likely result in de-legitimised states and only propel future conflict.  As flawed as the current state formations are, they have built-in elites and stakeholders, and have given way to various degrees of national identities.


Proposing to vastly remake the borders, likely through the creation of more, even smaller states, is a recipe for further disaster.  It promises to create a tableau of militarised micro-states supported by external patrons easily able to exploit current political and sectarian divisions.  A map drawn out of current geo-political expedience would solidify the divisions and conflicts of today, reflecting the power skews of regional actors. Far from being a solution, it would set the region on the path of further strife.  There are no easy answers, but misreading history as part of current policy analysis gives the false illusion there are; to great peril.


Will Youmans is an Assistant Professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.



Undoing the colonial creation of Iraq?

Drawing borders that would support the creation of a viable, sovereign state was not in the forefront of the minds of the colonial mapmakers, despite vague promises of eventual self-rule



The borders of Iraq that emerged as European powers betrayed promises to Arabs and Kurds might soon be erased, but the process of creating something different is likely to generate new grievances that could fuel conflict for many years.


In 1916, the French and British determined in the Sykes-Picot agreement that, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Britain would have control or influence over the area that later became Iraq. This treaty, and the subsequent treaties and policies that followed, would in the end betray Britain’s Arab nationalist allies and the Kurds. Britain eventually stitched Iraq together out of three Ottoman vilayets – Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, laying the foundation for a century of instability and violence.


Drawing borders that would support the creation of a viable, sovereign state was not in the forefront of the minds of the colonial mapmakers, despite vague promises of eventual self-rule. British geostrategic interests, on-the-ground military realities and colonial negotiators’ give-and-take were far more important. The European colonial powers sought to create territories they could directly or indirectly control.


In 1920, practically as soon as the new mandates’ borders were determined, the British faced an uprising. Anti-government instability and occasional revolts continued through the British colonial rule to 1932, the Hashemite monarchy (under British influence) to 1958, a string of military rulers and then Saddam Hussain from 1979 to 2003. While some argue that only a dictator can keep Iraq together, the monarchy, military rulers and Saddam Hussein all faced regular instability, including Shiite and Kurdish revolts.


Arguably aside from a ruling elite, it is unclear whether most Iraqis embraced a national identity. As is often the case in which a demographic minority rules a country, the Sunni rulers used brutal repression against many Shiite Arabs, Kurds and others. Once Hussein was removed following the US-led 2003 invasion, all of this boiled to the surface, with horrific violence perpetrated by various communities against each other.


Washington aimed to rebuild Iraq as a unified, democratic country that included all the major groups in a cooperative government. In theory, this was and is a good solution for the problem of the artificial creation of Iraq – one that offered the best chance at meeting the various groups’ interests while avoiding the risks associated with dividing the country. Unfortunately, it has not worked, for many reasons, including deep distrust between communities.


Today, the country seems in limbo between continued efforts to make a federal, democratic Iraq work and the reality of growing decentralisation. The Sunnis – split between Iraqi-controlled and Daesh-controlled areas – want far greater decentralisation. Daesh’s control of large parts of western Iraq and its erasure of much of the border with Syria makes a mockery of the idea of Iraq as a sovereign state. Given their largely negative experience with a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, Sunnis are unlikely to accept anything less than significant autonomy. The Shiites have less interest in dividing up Iraq, but, even in the south, some Shiite leaders advocate for greater local powers.


In the north, the Kurds do not talk of whether to declare independence but instead of when and how – with debates ranging from almost immediately to a 5-10 year time period. The Kurds are often cited as one of the world’s biggest nations without a state. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres promised autonomy for the Kurds and the possibility of future statehood. The colonial powers abandoned this promise later, dividing the Kurds between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. From the beginning, many Kurds opposed the Iraqi government, leading to brutal repression that reinforced a sense of Kurdish identity. Since the US provided a no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991 to protect the Kurds from Saddam, they have essentially self-governed themselves in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area. Today, the KRG is independent in many ways, including Kurdish security forces that have fought against Daesh, though it remains entangled with Baghdad in terms of hydrocarbons resource control and fiscal arrangements.


The Kurds in Iraq are likely to have the ability to govern an independent state soon, as long as they are able to export oil. Opinion polls and a 2005 vote in the KRG have made it clear that the Kurds want independence. There would be many positive outcomes of an independent Kurdistan in today’s northern Iraq, but there would also be complications for the region, including what this would mean for: Syria, where Kurds are working to create an autonomous area; Turkey, which battles against some of its own Kurds and strongly opposes any autonomy for the Kurds in Syria; and Iran’s Kurdish areas. Nonetheless, the historic betrayal of Kurdish aspirations may be close to being reversed, marking a major change in the colonial map of the Middle East.


The British-created conception of Iraq has failed. The US attempt to create a federal, democratic state is on life support, if not already dead. So now what?


One option for Iraqis and relevant outside powers is to keep trying to develop a unified, federal Iraq that can incentivise all major groups to participate. If this can work, it remains the best option to prevent further violence and create a functioning state. This remains official US policy. However, even the Iraqis, foreign officials and experts who want this to work often admit that it probably will not. The divisions between Shiite, Sunni and Kurd are too deep, and even within those groups, leadership is fragmented, complicating attempts to negotiate a national solution. How long should Iraqis, Americans and others invest time and resources in pursuing a goal if it is doomed to fail?


Another option is to accept the reality that Iraq is being pulled apart. The Kurds are close to independence. The Sunni Arabs are unlikely to acquiesce to being part of a Shiite-dominated Iraq, at least not without a much greater degree of autonomy. Many Shiites also want greater decentralisation. Daesh has broken the colonial state borders in a way that may be irretrievable. Is it better to accept a divided Iraq and reformulate policy to mitigate the damage?


It is possible that Iraq has moved past the point of no return and can never be put back together. This approach typically envisions the eventual creation of three new states out of the old Iraq: a Kurdish one in the north, a Shiite one in the south and a Sunni one in the middle. Baghdad might be split between the Sunni state and the Shiite state, or it might be a shared city of some sort. The Sunni state might extend well into Syria, erasing the old border and creating a relatively large new state; unfortunately, the current beneficiary of this would be Daesh.


The idea of accepting Iraq’s break-up is mostly based on a negative argument – that it is inevitable, so just accept it. There is very little positive in this. While some in Washington believe that three separate ethno-sectarian states could be formed fairly easily, this is far too optimistic. Population redistribution – or ethnic cleansing – is never easy, never clean, never just. Furthermore, many areas remain heavily mixed, and there are other minorities’ interests to consider. Redrawing the borders of Iraq would take years and be very bloody. Nonetheless, reluctantly recognising that this might happen, parts of the US government take this scenario into account in crafting potential future policies.


Another idea is to create a confederation: three entities with some form of very significant autonomy or even sovereignty that are loosely connected through a weaker government in Baghdad. Each area would have its own budget and security forces. Hydrocarbons revenues would likely be shared in some way, but each group would have primary control over policy regarding their territorial resources. This idea might be the best hope for Iraq – offering the major groups the security and autonomy they require while still providing some of the benefits of belonging to a larger state. However, this would still require negotiation and agreement on hydrocarbons ownership and revenues, foreign policy, borders and other issues that have already been critical to the failure of a federal system.


What do Iraqis want? It is hard to find reliable, up-to-date data on what Iraqis want for their country. A 2015 BBC/ORB International poll found that, while 66% of Iraqis thought their “country is going in the wrong direction,” 90% thought a diplomatic solution to national differences was possible. An ORB International pollster said that a majority of Iraqis want to keep the country together. A 2012 IRI poll found that a vast majority of Iraqis want their provincial governments to have more authority than the Baghdad government. Either way, public opinion is unlikely to be consulted in determining Iraq’s future, just as it was ignored in 1920.


Iraq is emblematic of the problems with attempting to right the wrongs of history. The country was a useful fiction created to serve the interests of foreign colonial powers. But trying to undo those sins – to redraw maps and forcibly uproot people from their homes and communities – would create new injustices and grievances that would likely drive conflict in the future.


Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 13 years experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks.



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