Living in America you get used to seeing straight lines on maps. Head west from New York and the rivers and natural features that defined the original colonies give way to lines of latitude and longitude that corral the land into perfectly rectangular states like Colorado and Wyoming.
Exactly a century ago, two European diplomats sat across a table from each other and drew straight lines on a map of the Middle East. In doing so they made an enduring contribution to the mess of interlocking religious, ethnic and political conflicts that now define the region. Negotiated nearly three years before the end of the first world war, the Sykes-Picot agreement between the UK and France dismembered the Ottoman empire – a colonial carve up that was then ratified in the early 1920s by the League of Nations. South-east Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon would come under either direct or indirect French control. Britain would take Transjordan, Kuwait and southern Iraq. Palestine would come under shared international control, while the assumed worthless desert of the Arabian Peninsula (oil wouldn’t be discovered there until the late 1930s) would be a sop to the Arab nationalists.
The original intent of the process was to create a post-war map of the Middle East that would reflect historical and ethnic boundaries, but in the end the straight lines won. When Sykes was asked by his boss Lord Balfour: 'What do you mean to give the French exactly?'. He pointed to the map in front of them and said: 'I should like to draw a line from the "e" in Acre to the last "k" in Kirkuk'. I’m sure Picot never imagined when he signed that map in May 1916 that a century later Islamic Jihadists would be killing his fellow countrymen and women in the cafes and concert halls of Paris motivated – at least in part – by their zeal to redraw those lines.
Then as now, Russian interference wasn’t helpful. Promised Istanbul and naval access to the Mediterranean, tsarist Russia happily assented to the Sykes-Picot agreement. Unfortunately, the new Bolshevik government had no desire to either claim their share of the spoils or honour their promise to keep the deal a secret. When the Russians published the details of the deal in 1917, the Arabs discovered that they had been taken for a ride by the British and French.
In 1915 T E Lawrence (acting in good faith) had delivered a letter promising that, in return for Arab military support, the allies would support an independent Arab state to include most of what is now Syria. Unbeknownst to Lawrence, the parallel Sykes-Picot discussions were drawing up a very different map. When King Faisal tried to force the issue by establishing an independent Arab state with its capital in Damascus, he was forcibly removed by the French and replaced with a puppet Emir. As if that wasn’t enough to undermine Arab trust, the surprise 'Balfour Declaration’ in November 1917 promised the Jews a 'homeland’ in Palestine. Balfour was keen to point out that there was a difference between a 'homeland’ and a 'country’, but that linguistic subtlety never got traction beyond Whitehall.
At the root of the current Middle East mess is the fact that the made-up countries that emerged from this spasm of colonial diplomacy bore little relation to the complex reality on the ground. Lebanon was originally intended as a Christian safe haven, but ended up a combustible mix of Sunni, Shia, Christian and Druze enclaves shoe-horned into a single political entity. The religiously diverse but ethnically homogenous Kurds found themselves a stateless and scattered minority in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, while Iraq (named by Sykes) was a brand new Shia, Sunni and Kurdish layer cake. Despite these arbitrary boundaries, the Sykes-Picot map survived relatively unchanged for a century, sustained first by the colonial powers who authored it and then by a series of regional strongmen, each of whom had a vested interest in the status quo. When underlying demographic and sectarian forces did bubble to the surface, they were brutally crushed. In the early 1980s when the Sunnis sought to assert their rights in Syria, Assad the Elder earned his 'vicious dictator’ stripes by literally bulldozing the opposition.
In the last decade this autocratic but relatively stable regional balance has been undermined first by the US-led regime change in Iraq and then by the broader Arab Spring process and the resulting civil war in Syria. So we are now in a period where the central question facing both the West and now Russia is whether Humpty Dumpty should be put back together again? If there is the political will, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can clearly defeat ISIS, but the challenge is what happens next. Specifically, does re-establishing a political map drawn by a Yorkshire baronet and a French bureaucrat serve any useful purpose in today’s Middle East?
The entropy of artificial political entities has been a familiar theme in the post second world war world. In Europe Yugoslavia was torn apart by ethnic violence while Czechoslovakia managed a velvet divorce. Occasionally the polarity is reversed, with Ireland one example of a violent campaign to try and recreate a larger political entity, but the trajectory is clearly towards fragmentation. In the last 40 years the membership of the UN has grown from 140 to 193 countries, and despite Vladimir Putin being in 'Empire Strikes Back’ mode, the country count is likely to grow to over 200 within the next decade. The challenge in the Middle East is that if you start erasing the Sykes-Picot lines, the next layer of stable political boundaries is by no means clear.
Political scientists will tell you that nation states emerge when the gravitational forces drawing people together are strong enough to overcome the factionalism that pushes them apart. At the most basic level, political gravity is genetic and manifests itself in the bonds of tribal and clan unity that go back to pre-civilisation times. But functioning nation states need to find an equilibrium at a level above shared DNA. Whether it is geography, a common language, religion, culture, or shared fear, there needs to be something strong enough to form the basis of 'us and them’.
The US likes to think of itself as sitting at the apex of nation state evolution, with Founding Fathers who created a country built on shared values rather than religion or ethnicity. However, George Washington appreciated the inherent fragility of this foundation. In his farewell address he cautioned Americans to 'properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness and cherish a cordial, habitual and immovable attachment to it'. Yet only 60 years later, the single issue of slavery was enough to temporarily tear the country in two. As Scotland discovered in 2014, even in a stable peaceful democracy, any attempt to create a new political entity through a process of bottom-up self-determination can be fraught with difficulty.
As the body count mounts in the Middle East and beyond, what is the future political settlement that stands a chance of its citizens having a 'cordial, habitual and immovable attachment’ to it? With the West no longer as reliant on the Middle East’s oil, should we let Iraq atomise into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia areas, with the absorption of the latter into Iran a far more likely outcome than a stable Federal Iraq? Should the Iraqi Kurdish enclave absorb parts of northern Syria and what then happens to the Kurds currently in open revolt against the Turkish government? Rather than getting dragged into the proxy wars between the Saudis and Iranians in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere, should we just let a Sunni/Shia equilibrium emerge that doesn’t require constant international policing?
The political end game in the Middle East has become an interesting and important fault line in the US presidential election. On one side you have Kissinger-like realpolitik from Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and to an extent Hillary Clinton who see the lines of the Sykes-Picot map as the devil we know, and that maybe a return to regional strong men like Assad and Saddam who can keep the peace and supress the jihadists isn’t such a bad outcome. On the other hand there are the strange bedfellows of Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders who would happily take a step back, lock the door that is the Middle Eastern saloon and let the bar brawl sort things out, with the one caveat that the fighting doesn’t spill out into the West. Implicit in this worldview is the idea that maybe the Middle East needs its equivalent of the 16th- and 17th-century religious wars in Europe to reach a stable equilibrium. Unfortunately, anyone who has ever been in a bar fight can attest to the difficulty of both containing the scope of it and moderating the behaviour of the participants.
Maybe if George Sykes didn’t have a ruler, the Middle East wouldn’t be quite the mess it is today, but then again maybe it would be worse. Regardless of the history, General Colin Powell’s 'Pottery Barn Doctrine' still applies: 'If you break it, you own it'. Despite the isolationist rhetoric coming out of the US, the West has had a pivotal role in breaking the Middle East and has to be part of the solution; but unfortunately it may be too much to expect stable nation states to emerge to which the traumatised population of the region has a cordial and immovable attachment.