The Middle East’s fading frontiers

Posted April 29th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


A detail of a Royal Geographical Society map signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in 1916.

As the Sykes-Picot agreement turns 100, the borders it delineated are crumbling.

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

ONE OF THE Islamic State’s first gestures after conquering a vast portion of the Syrian and Iraqi deserts was to bulldoze the sand berm delineating the official border between the two states. In one of its first propaganda videos from the summer of 2014, “The end of Sykes-Picot,” a bearded fighter walks solemnly through an abandoned checkpoint in the former no-man’s land. “Inshallah this is not the first border we shall break,” the fighter declares in English.

Many Westerners taking their first notice of the toxic Al Qaeda offshoot were mystified: Wait, the end of what?

But the historical reference was not obscure in the Middle East, which for exactly a century has suffered the consequences of borders drawn by two diplomats who had orders from the top but weren’t considered the best informed Middle East experts in their respective governments — Sir Mark Sykes, an Englishman, and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot.

Since then, the Middle East has suffered a profound cognitive dissonance between the official state, often demarcated by unnaturally straight borders, and the human geography of how people live and who wields power in the lands stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the Sykes-Picot agreement has been blamed for many long-running catastrophes, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the violently thwarted national aspirations of many Kurds, Arabs, and other groups.

Yet for all the rancor, the Sykes-Picot borders are already crumbling. The orderly national borders they drew — mostly to please the interests not of the people who lived on the land but of colonial masters Britain and France — have been superseded, though not necessarily in the manner that anti-colonial critics would like.

SYKES AND PICOT’S era was roiled by the Great War, the deadliest conflict the globe had known until that time, and defined by American President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic notion of self-determination. People across the world were supposedly going to be free to choose their own borders and shape their own nations.

That might have been the case in parts of Europe but not in the Middle East. More interested in destroying what remained of the Ottoman Empire and thwarting each other’s imperial aims, France and Britain agreed in secret on May 17, 1916, to carve up the region heedless of the human and political realities on the ground.

The Sykes-Picot agreement was leaked a few years after it was brokered. It enraged not only the people in the Middle East who had been promised self-determination but even experts in the British foreign office who had warned exactly against this sort of expedient and destabilizing imperialist border-drawing.

“All borders in the world are, in their own way, artificial,” says Joost Hiltermann, who runs the Middle East program for International Crisis Group and has written a book about the Kurds. He believes the instability in the Middle East today reflects pressure from groups like the Kurds and the Islamic State who feel the current state order doesn’t accommodate them. “Over time, sometimes a long time, the internal contradictions will explode the prevailing order,” Hiltermann said. “What the new order, or series of orders, will look like is anyone’s guess.”

Sykes-Picot has had a doubly poisonous legacy. First are the borders themselves, which have continually been contested by groups convinced they didn’t get a fair shake, from the Kurds and Palestinians to Shi’ite and Sunni desert tribes. Second is that they were dictated in secret by outsiders, forever enshrining the suspicion that schemers in Western capitals fiddle with the region’s maps, which of course, they did.

Kurds, who call themselves the world’s largest nation without a state, are planning an independence referendum this year. Some originally hoped to hold a vote on May 17, the Sykes-Picot centennial, to drive home the symbolic point that the old colonial order is dead.

It’s high time to take stock of the de facto new states operating in the Middle East and stop pretending that the Sykes-Picot borders are even in operation.

The Middle East is full of borders that don’t appear on official maps.

AGAINST THE ADVICE of many of their better informed colleagues, Sykes and Picot fashioned a new Middle East, literally drawing new nations out of whole cloth and truncating millennial aspirations for nationhood with a clumsy stroke through a map. Their map created the made-up new Kingdom of Jordan, which ended up displaced by the house of a twice-displaced monarch, the Sherif of Mecca, who had supported the British during the Great War and had originally been promised the throne of Syria. Wags of the day called the British approach to the state-building in the Middle East “everybody move over one.”

Lebanon was carved out of Syria. Mosul and Baghdad were cobbled into Iraq. Palestine was given to the British, who already had promised the territory to the Zionists. The biggest losers were the Kurds, a distinct ethnic and linguistic group who weren’t given a state at all. Today the Kurdish heartland stretches into corners of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.

British historian James Barr wrote a lively chronicle of the diplomacy of the Sykes-Picot era called “A Line in the Sand,” which is still wildly popular in Beirut bookshops five years after its publication. Barr unearthed secret British foreign office memos that correctly anticipated most of the terrible spillover from the Sykes-Picot agreement, including prescient predictions of the violence and instability that would follow the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

It is because of this history that even today random maps scribbled on napkins or published on blogs drive Middle East conspiracy theorists into a tizzy. After the United States occupied Iraq, many experts in the region were convinced that there was an official plan to divide Iraq into separate Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish states. Comments in support of partition by long-retired US diplomat Peter Galbraith were cited as proof that a conspiracy was afoot. Similarly, after the Egyptian popular uprising in 2011, supporters of the deposed dictator believed they were actually the victim of an American-Israeli plot to cut up Egypt’s territory into smaller, more easily cowed mini-states.

It’s common to hear cosmopolitan analysts in the Middle East speak matter-of-factly about unknown, but in the common view, utterly plausible, secret plots to divide the region in the service of someone’s agenda: Iran, the United States, the Zionists, or some other culprit.

“The Sykes-Picot agreement was only revealed in 1917 after the Communists took power in Russia,” wrote Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi, head of a think tank, the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research. “So the fact that there are no current plans that have been publicly announced by certain powers to divide the region does not mean that such plans do not exist — perhaps the details will become evident at a later time.”

It’s a version of that old saw: “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.” There’s no arguing with the dirty facts of the secret map a century ago. It doesn’t help that Western powers have never stopped meddling even after the colonial era. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq are fresh in the region’s mind, as is the ongoing war in Syria with all its foreign sponsors and military advisers.

As a result, any chitchat about drawing new borders can instantly become a sensation. A map published by the Armed Forces Journal in the United States imagined what new borders would look like if they were redrawn by ethnic and sectarian group; it remains one of the publication’s top viewed articles even a decade later.

FOR ALL THE unwarranted conspiracy-mongering, however, a new Middle East is, in fact, taking shape — and it’s not the product of a map scribbled on a napkin by jolly Western agents (at least, not so far as we know!).

“This region, and Kurdistan in particular, was divided without regard to the will of its indigenous people, which in turn led to a hundred years of troubles, war, denial, and instability,” the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, said earlier this spring. Barzani has promised an independence referendum this year during the Sykes-Picot centennial. He presides over the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has functioned in most ways as an independent nation since the United States established a protectorate there in 1991 to shield Kurds from retribution by Saddam Hussein. Kurdistan has its own military and gas fields, but it still depends on the central government in Baghdad for revenue and trade.

Travelers who fly into Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, don’t need visas from the central government in Baghdad. Kids growing up there are often educated in Kurdish and might learn English as a second language before studying any Arabic. While Kurdish officials are still organizing their referendum, a few weeks before the Sykes-Picot anniversary they announced the next best sign of sovereignty in the digital age: an Internet domain, “.krd,” which went online the first week of April.

“The same way that Scotland, Catalonia, and Quebec, and other places have the right to express their opinions about their destiny, Kurdistan, too, has the right, and it’s non-negotiable,” Barzani said.

His statelet is one of many Middle Eastern de facto nations you can find in the world but not yet on an official map or the list of member states at the United Nations.

Palestine was accorded “nonmember observer state” status at the United Nations in 2012, and its flag now flies over the UN headquarters in New York. On the ground, however, geography is even more complicated. Parts of the West Bank are supposedly under control of the Palestinian authority, but the land crossings are all controlled by Israel. Gaza has functioned as an effective state since 2005, when Israel withdrew its settlements. Access to the Gaza Strip is controlled entirely by outsiders — by Israel in the north and Egypt to the south — but inside, Hamas holds sway over a de facto city-state.

Rojava, a Kurdish-controlled statelet in northern Syria, declared official autonomy last month. Because of its precarious location on a strip of land bordering Turkey, which resolutely opposes its existence, Rojava might seem unsustainable. But the Kurdish party that controls it has managed to woo support from both the United States and Russia, for complicated reasons having to do with the war in Syria.

The Sinai peninsula, popular with sunbathing and scuba-diving tourists, was briefly occupied by Israel after its 1967 war with Egypt. It returned to Egyptian sovereignty in 1982 but arguably never to its full control. Today, the Sinai is an unruly place, with powerful tribal leaders and vibrant Al Qaeda and Islamic State franchises.

Hezbollah, the Party of God, is the single most powerful movement in Lebanon. It has its independent military, ministers, and members of Parliament in the Lebanese government, and wide swaths of territory that everyone in Lebanon recognizes are under Hezbollah control. Hezbollah polices sensitive areas, like borders and military training areas, sometimes in tandem with national authorities, sometimes on its own. The movement sees no interest in making the arrangement more formal; power on the ground serves it better than any official designation.

One shorthand for figuring out the real borders is to ask who could protect you effectively if you were traveling in a certain area. If the answer is “no one,” you could be talking about an area of failed governance like Sinai, or a contested border zone like the front lines between the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army, and the Syrian government.

If, on the other hand, the answer is some entity that’s not the official government, then you’re probably looking at one of the post-modern, post-Sykes-Picot regions that has emerged heedless of the rule-making of cartographers and international bureaucrats — like Hezbollah, the Islamic State, or Hamas in Gaza.

In fact, one of the most interesting developments a hundred years after Sykes-Picot is that many of the most dynamic, independent groups in the Middle East are accommodating their thirst for autonomy without any redrawing of official borders. The Kurds in Rojava are careful to describe their regional government as part of a federated Syria, and even the vociferous Barzani, in Iraqi Kurdistan, has made clear that even after a referendum he wouldn’t formally declare independence unless neighboring countries supported the move, which they are unlikely to do.

Hiltermann, who has followed the twists and turns in the Middle East for more than three decades, says it’s unwise to make predictions: “All we know is that what used to be will not return in exactly the same form. It might even look radically different: a brave new world.”

The maneuvering of groups who don’t fit neatly into the existing nation-states suggests that the map of the Middle East is already been redrawn. This is how sovereignty changes today: through human geography — or bulldozers — which changes not maps, but facts on the ground.

A World of Messy Borders? Get Used to It

Posted September 6th, 2012 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

Concern for the sovereignty of nations runs like a drumbeat through almost every debate on foreign policy. Are corporations exerting too much influence on sovereign governments? Is a larger power pulling the strings of a smaller one; are international bankers putting too much outside pressure on some nation’s treasury? Is a humanitarian crisis severe enough to warrant breaching a border?The idea of the world as a perfect patchwork of self-ruled nations is so essential to our understanding of how the world works that we’re rarely aware of it. When we worry about wars, or trade disputes, or multinational companies throwing their weight around, we’re worried in part because we see these as disruptions of an otherwise neat and stable system of sovereign states.
To experts, this is called the “Westphalian” system, and it has a date of birth: 1648, when a series of treaties collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia transformed an unruly war-torn Europe into a network of cleanly delineated nations. Since that time, the basic notion of Westphalian sovereignty has become an organizing principle for scholars and statesman, policy makers and generals. And as the global map changed in the 20th century from a system of colonies and territories to a world of mutually recognized nations, it is the Westphalian model that prevailed.
But now, in a provocative paper, a young scholar has suggested that it might also be a chimera—that such a cut-and-dried international system has never really existed, and that the normal order of the world looks more like a shifting network of influences that operate across and within borders.In a paper published in the International Studies Quarterly, Sebastian Schmidt, a University of Chicago doctoral candidate in political science, argues that today’s idea of sovereign statehood arose as a convenient fiction after World War II. Under the pressures of that time, he says, scholars looking to build a functional international system following two global wars began to ignore the muddy and complex historical realities of statehood—and instead adopted the Westphalian ideal as a kind of useful shorthand for thinking about the world’s proper order.The primary target of Schmidt’s work is scholars, who he hopes will acknowledge that modern policy making relies on an oversimplified version of the Westphalian story. But his argument also offers a helpful way to think about the world now. In his conception, much of what worries observers today—globalization, intervention, power plays—is built into the way the world works, and always has been.“These challenges we face have been around before, in other forms,” Schmidt says. “I want to take a little bit of the bogeyman out of globalization.”
The more consistent version of the world order, which Schmidt describes as a fluid “society of states,” is one in which governments have always jockeyed for power with private interests, outside powers, or meddling clerics; in which borders and lines of influence are much fuzzier than we might like to think.It is at once messier and more enduring than the static ideal that has driven our understanding of states for centuries. Schmidt’s argument suggests that there is less cause for alarm than we often think in threats to sovereignty, and also that the past may be a richer source than we realize for useful experiments to resolve the problems of today.
The primacy of sovereign nations, in the long view, is a recent development of history. In Europe, before the Peace of Westphalia, the continent’s city-states competed with larger kingdoms and the Holy Roman Empire in a perpetual violent struggle for territory and resources. It was hard to distinguish among different kinds of authority. In some places, the pope held sway; in others, a monarch; in still others, a family or group of families whose power stemmed less from their territory than from the wealth they created through commerce or industry.
In this welter of influence, 1648 undeniably marked a watershed. The Westphalian Peace took shape during four years of negotiations and congresses, culminating in a series of peace treaties that gave states more authority at the expense of the Vatican. It marked the maturation of a method of state-to-state negotiation that already existed in inchoate form then, and which today continues to be the basis of diplomacy.But, Schmidt points out, that moment did not mark as clear-cut a change as the history books often have it. The Holy Roman Empire, whose influence was rooted in faith rather than territory, persisted as a power in Europe for 150 years afterward. Religious and ethnic strife continued, and Europe hosted a long parade of wars right into the contemporary era. Economically speaking, Schmidt argues, an international gold standard bound the world’s treasuries much more tightly than they are connected today, while in the colonial era joint-stock ventures like the British East India Company had influence that dwarfed that of their descendants such as the contemporary oil giant BP.
Schmidt traces the intellectual history of Westphalia among political philosophers, and argues that until the 20th century, scholars and policy makers retained a much more accurate view of its historical context and ambiguous legacy. Some argued that Westphalia had created the first international order; some that it pioneered a fledgling notion of sovereignty. Some went so far as to claim it was a precursor of the League of Nations. But all of them saw Westphalia as a murky transition point along a continuum, a historical moment as complex and inconclusive as the Treaty of Versailles in 1918.
After World War II, however, the idea of inviolable sovereignty took on new importance because of the imperative to stabilize a deeply shaken international system. In crafting a new world order, it was to the Westphalian ideal that leaders and their advisers turned. A new, almost purist view of Westphalia undergirded the design of the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions, and the norms of non-intervention that kept Cold War conflicts from mushrooming.The world had good reasons to embrace such an ideal. A half century of wanton intervention and blood-letting created a desire for stability; now, only under narrowly defined conditions spelled out in the United Nations charter could nations intervene in the affairs of others—and they could only do so with the blessing of the UN Security Council. The goal was practical: to end a horrific era of wars. The means was abstract: the adoption of an ideal form of national sovereignty.Even the promoters of this new, ahistorical view of Westphalia noted that it vastly simplified the real history of state-to-state relations. Richard Falk, a giant in the fields of international law and international relations, argued in a seminal 1969 paper about the emerging 20th-century international legal order that is was more “convenient” to refer to the concepts of Westphalia than to its actual history.During the Cold War and the subsequent surge of “globalization,” Schmidt argues, “Westphalia” and “sovereignty”devolved into lazy placeholders for thinkers struggling to make sense of an economically interconnected world straddled by expansive American and Soviet militaries. And today they represent a simplified view that misleads us into seeing old dynamics—like porous borders, free trade pacts, humanitarian interventions, and failing states—as new bogeymen.“Especially with globalization, ‘Westphalia’ just got used as a contrast to what people saw as new trends,” Schmidt says.
I n part, Schmidt’s argument offers historical comfort. If problems such as international monetary crises and clerical incursions into politics have been around for a half a millennium (or more), and we’ve survived—even prospered—then we’ll probably survive today’s threats as well.It carries some risk of indifference, of course—of deciding we shouldn’t worry when we see China accumulating US debt, or Iranian clerics trying to pull the strings in Iraq. But his insight also carries the promise that we can mine the past for solutions to today’s problems. If we’re concerned with managing today’s international financial system, for example, we can look at how 19th-century economies weathered fluctuations caused by the international gold standard. If we’re trying to figure out how to manage failing states and the violence they spawn, we can look at the late stages of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. If we want to think realistically about ways to intervene in Syria, or reasons not to, we can look at France’s misadventures in 1860 when it sent its military to defend the Maronite community in Lebanon, then an Ottoman province.
Though Schmidt’s research runs against the grain of the dominant thinking among policy makers and international relations scholars, who often treat sovereignty and the state system as nearly sacrosanct, it echoes the work of other scholars who believe the world needs to be understood in more dynamic terms. The Stanford University political scientist Stephen Krasner, for example, has explored the idea of “shared sovereignty” to promote better governance in poorly ruled or failing states: Arguing that sovereignty can be treated almost as a commodity, he suggests that nations can, and should, be convinced to share sovereignty over some sector when needed, as Europe did with its security when it joined a US-led NATO.If we grow comfortable with a more realistic image of the world as a “society of states,” rather than the idealized version in which every nation is a separate castle, we will be more adaptable in a multilayered, globalized world. Just as private influence-peddling and transnational insurgencies are less new threats than old phenomena, so contemporary progressive ideas like “shared sovereignty,” “the responsibility to protect,” and the International Criminal Court are simply new incarnations of time-honored practices.All these things might not be the breakdown in the proper political order of the world that they seem, in other words: They might actually be an integral part of that very order.