With a massive invasion by U.S. ground troops ruled out — for now — the debate in Washington over what to do about Islamic State militants has shifted into the realm of diplomacy and “soft power.”
President Obama, in his recent op-ed announcing a summit targeting “violent extremism,” declared that the struggle was “ultimately a battle for hearts and minds.” In a similar vein, James Fallows and Kenneth S. Brower have suggested in the Atlantic Monthly that a military solution should be ruled out in favor of a political one, which, as Brower writes, would “entail having the U.S. come out against the Sykes-Picot borders,” by which they mean supporting a “break-up of Iraq into Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni countries,” with the new “Sunni” state also incorporating areas of Syria now ruled by Islamic State.
Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot are in the news again, 99 years after their agreement helped define the modern Middle East. As Islamic State militants continue to redraw the borders of Syria and Iraq, we are reminded almost daily that it is the work of these two diplomats being undone. Sykes-Picot has become a cliche, an all-purpose lament for the unjust and ill-thought-out carving up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, which ushered in the endless crises of the modern era. Undo this perfidious legacy, as Brower and Fallows suggest, and those Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Muslims now flocking to join Islamic State (or quietly acquiescing in its rule) will have something better to aspire to, namely, a (presumably less theocratic) state of their own.
Putting an end to Sykes-Picot is a seductive idea. It is also a nonsensical one, betraying the most basic sort of historical illiteracy. To begin with, none of the current borders now in contention involving Syria and Iraq were drawn in the 1916 agreement, nor were others of more recent or ongoing disputes, such as those separating Iraq from Kuwait, or Israel/Palestine from (Trans)Jordan. To take the most famous example from recent headlines, the northern city of Mosul, which was captured by Islamic State in June 2014, and prompted cleric Abu Bakr Baghdadi to announce that a new caliphate had been born, was actually placed in the French “Syrian” zone in 1916, only for Britain to seize it in November 1918.
The myth of Sykes-Picot borders has done great violence to historical understanding. Even on paper, the 1916 agreement has been repeatedly revised, first to accommodate claims by Italy and Greece (in 1917), then to deny Russia its spoils after the Bolsheviks signed a separate peace in March 1918, then to assign the old Russian zones to the United States (in 1919), only for these “American mandates” to go up in smoke when the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the postwar treaties in 1920. The lands now comprising Syria and Iraq were bitterly contested in a complex struggle involving not only diplomats but British, French, Arab, Armenian and Turkish troops. The borders were settled by arms, only for Syria to be truncated further still when Turkey annexed Hatay province in 1939.
Farther north, the “Russian” zones were variously assigned to Greece, the U.S. and then-independent Armenia. Other contested territory was promised to France, before the Turkish nationalist forces under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk retook almost everything, forging the borders of today’s Turkey in blood — without the slightest reference to Sykes-Picot.
Palestine, meanwhile, saw an even more dramatic see-saw struggle in the years after 1916, with clashing British, Zionist, Hashemite and local Arab claims settled ultimately by force of arms, where they remain balanced, ever precariously, to this day.
Just as misleading as the myth that today’s borders were settled by two diplomats in 1916 is the notion that redrawing the Middle Eastern map now to match ethno-religious groupings would right this historical “wrong.” In fact, this idea was part of the negotiation over the Ottoman partition. In No. 12 of his “Fourteen Points,” President Woodrow Wilson stipulated that “the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life,” i.e. self-determination. Pursuant to this idea, Wilson established a fact-finding commission in 1919 to canvass opinion among formerly Ottoman peoples.
The updated Ottoman partition agreement, signed at Sèvres in August 1920, was effectively Sykes-Picot updated to fit the Wilsonian self-determination principle, with large new territorial entities assigned to Ottoman minorities such as Greeks, Armenians and Kurds. Like Sykes-Picot, Sèvres was overturned almost immediately on the field of battle.
An argument could certainly be made that the Sèvres-self-determination borders could have endured, had the United States not declined its Ottoman mandates in 1920 and withdrawn from the region. That is, if the invalid President Wilson, and his even less interventionist successors in the White House, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, had committed hundreds of thousands of troops to police the post-Ottoman borders indefinitely. But this possibility, to anyone familiar with American history, lies in the realm of fantasy.
Soft power, unfortunately, has never counted for much in the Middle East. In the Islamic world, even supreme religious authority, such as that now claimed by “Caliph” Baghdadi of Islamic State, has always rested ultimately on temporal power. The Ottoman caliphate died in 1924 not because of Sykes-Picot or Wilsonian self-determination, but because World War I and the subsequent Greco-Turkish war destroyed the sultan’s power and prestige. The fate of Baghdadi’s caliphate, likewise, will depend not on what clever ideas westerners come up with to peel off his Sunni supporters, but on the success or failure of his armies. The borders of tomorrow’s Middle East will be settled by force, as they always have been.
Sean McMeekin, a professor of history at Bard College, is the author of “The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923,” forthcoming in November.