The Nakba, Sykes-Picot and Today’s Arab World

On May 16, precisely one hundred years ago, two British and French politicians signed the now infamous ‘Sykes-Picot’ agreement, which, according to one view, was responsible for setting in motion turmoil in the Arab world. Those two names of ‘Sykes’ and ‘Picot’ would probably have passed away into history with few people noticing, except that conventional wisdom dictates that they were responsible for carving up the region with little regard to anything except Western interests. The supporters, and detractors, of that view may yet be missing the point. It isn’t that the Sykes-Picot agreement was responsible for the turmoil of the region – nor that it had nothing to do with it all. Rather, that there are far more pressing issues to tackle – issues that should have overridden any effects from Sykes-Picot, and which still override that agreement today.

Sykes-Picot is famed for dividing up the remainder of the Ottoman domains into zones and states that were conducive to Western interests. Except, of course, that’s not quite accurate. As the New York Times reminded us earlier this week, the current borders emerged a few years after Sykes-Picot altogether, and “were modified over the following decades.” They reflected “not any one plan but a series of opportunistic proposals by competing strategists in Paris and London as well as local leaders in the Middle East.”

The truth is that while Sykes-Picot failed to define the subsequent political reality of the Arab world after its signing, Sykes-Picot was symptomatic of a genuine issue that did define the region: prioritizing the supremacy of big powers outside of the region, and small powers within the region, rather than the people of the region themselves.

In that regard, Sykes-Picot isn’t that relevant as an agreement itself – but it shows that powers outside of the region had no compunction about drawing lines in territories that did not belong to them. That’s not all that unusual in the context of the early to mid 20th century European powers – France and the UK, after all, were imperial, colonial powers. Indeed, the British Empire only officially came to an end less than twenty years ago, with the handing over of British Hong Kong to China in 1997 (certainly Prince Charles of the UK deemed that to be the ‘end of Empire’).

The early 20th century saw the empowering of certain groups in the Arab world and the broader ‘Middle East’ – itself a term that lent itself to Euro-centric notions of the world (‘middle’ to what, precisely?). But it was not the empowering of all groups in the region – not by far. The empowering of national groups, and the establishment of nation-states for those national groups, was highly dependent on the ‘big powers’ of the day – and those big powers were generally white and Christian. The autonomy of Muslim peoples in that region – some of whom may have looked white (and even considered legally as such for a time in the United States), but certainly were not deemed as such by European powers. It would be several more decades before there was a genuine international law governing relations between nations and peoples, beyond the law of might and power – and by that time, the dispossession of the people of Palestine would have been accomplished. It is one of history’s bitter tragedies that the anniversary of the Palestinian dispossession, what Palestinians call ‘the Catastrophe’ or ‘al-Nakba’, is marked only one day before the anniversary of Sykes Picot.

The Nakba is perhaps far more demonstrative of the region’s current reality than Sykes-Picot, in that it represents a true ramification on the ground to ordinary citizens. The realization of the Zionist dream in Palestine, as a consequence on a people that had nothing to do with the repugnance of the Holocaust in Europe, meant that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven systematically from their homes. There are now several million refugees as the result – and their fate is also a testament to the reality of the region. The machinations of world powers notwithstanding, which surely contributed to the occupation of Palestinian territory by Israel, the fate of Palestinian refugees that did not live under Israeli occupation or siege in 2016, at different points between 1947 and now, has much to do with another crucial issue altogether.

When the peoples of the region consider the ramifications of the Palestinian Nakba, there is, of course, the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the engagement (often rather self-serving and utterly unjust) of external powers to consider. But there is also something far more localized to ponder – which relates to those pressing issues that override the importance of Sykes-Picot. Those pressing issues are the abuses that take place by authoritarians and dictators themselves of the region – which play out in how, for example, Palestinian refugees continue to be treated in the region. That does not absolve Israel for the occupation, siege, and dispossession of the Palestinians – but neither does Israel’s actions absolve how Palestinians are treated outside of their zones of control. Authoritarian regimes, more often than not of their own volition, even while they pronounced themselves supportive of the ‘Arab cause’, failed to adequately support the fundamental rights of Palestinians on their territories.

The borders of the region could be drawn and redrawn – but the fate of the refugees of Palestine would remain the same. The fate of the people of Darfur in the north of Sudan would remain the same; the fate of the people of Syria suffering under Bashar al-Assad would remain the same. And herein lies the rub, which is why the Sykes-Picot distraction is indeed just that: a distraction.

The region is going through a demographic shift of monumental proportions; where the average age of an Egyptian, for example, is 24, and dropping; where the majority of Arabs writ large are under the age of 35; and where development is a critical challenge which few of the leaders of the region seem focused on addressing. The Arab Development Challenges Report of 2011, even taking into account any flaws therein, makes for deeply sobering reading.

When we consider the revolutionary uprisings of that same year of 2011, we ought not to see it as a blip on the historical radar – but rather, a historical consequence of these major issues in the Arab world over the past century. Sykes-Picot was a denial of the right of peoples in the region to enjoy their own autonomy, as groups and as individuals – but it wasn’t simply external powers that failed to uphold that fundamental right.

Within the region itself, authoritarians and dictators of different hues, have often paid only lip service to the need to engage in genuine development; and in 2016, many of them simply prioritize a warped sense of security over the fundamental civil rights of their citizens. That type of prioritization only, in the final analysis, means eventually the need for power structures to continue over fundamental rights. If we learn anything about those revolutionary uprisings of 2011 – the effects of which remain in the region and the final outcomes of which are yet to be determined – then it ought to be that the yearning of autonomy that the peoples of the region have had for so many decades is yet to be extinguished, or satisfied. And authoritarians in the region have as much to answer for – if not more to answer for – than any external force.

Neither in Washington DC, in Cairo, in London, in Damascus, or in any other capital in the West or in the Arab world, should the processes that led to Sykes-Picot, or followed it, ever be ignored. To do so would be simplistic indeed – but nor should Sykes-Picot or any unjust move from Western powers aimed at the region, be used as an excuse by indigenous powers to nullify their duties and responsibilities to their own citizens. Far too often, authoritarian regimes use the flaws of Western policy in the regime as a foil against indigenous claims of maltreatment. Sykes-Picot may well be a symbol of the abrogation of Arab autonomy at the turn of the 20th century – but that agreement between Sykes-Picot is only as relevant – or irrelevant – as those in positions in authority in the region make it.

With every unjust trial, detainment, imprisonment or example of abuse that takes place at the hands of authoritarians in the region itself, an abrogation of Arab autonomy at an even higher level takes place, as the fundamental rights of individual citizens are ignored. That will continue to take place, until those leaders, and world powers still intent on engaging in the region, recognize the fundamental right of the peoples of the world to live in dignity and free.

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. He is also Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

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