How Lines in the Sand Determined the Fate of the Middle East (Opinion Piece)

by Hana Đogović

In May 1916, two statesmen, the Englishman Sir Mark Sykes and Frenchman Francois Georges-Picot, met in secret and almost arbitrarily divided the Arab peninsula into what later became known as “the spheres of influence.” The fate of this area, the birthplace of all monotheistic religions, was sealed, and the Arab feeling of betrayal guaranteed that peace would not last. Instead of gaining independence and a free state, as promised for their help against the Ottoman Empire in the Great War, an artificial composition of new states under foreign protectorates was created—borders, which the Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria want to erase today.

Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916 © Wikimedia Commons

Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916 © Wikimedia Commons

Endless riots, wars, terrorism and extremist groups have been tearing apart the Middle East for more than a hundred years now. A lot of this has to do with energy, as a third of all natural gas, and oil reserves are buried there—an object of interest to the Great Powers since the 1830s. But the story of how several new states emerged in the region of the Arab peninsula actually began about hundred years ago. The Allies realized that Arabs could help them win the war, while the Arabs, discontent with their status in the Ottoman Empire, dreamt of fulfilling their dream of sovereignty and independence. Unfortunately, the Great Powers—mostly Great Britain and France—had different plans, and none of them included a free Arab state. As a result, a feeling of betrayal spread across the area, the consequences of which can be seen playing out to this day.

The two western-European arbiters awarded Syria and Lebanon to France, while the British would get Jordan and Palestine. Jerusalem was left to international rule and modern-day Iraq was created. The Russians would receive the Kurdish and Armenian lands in the north. As argued by many historians, the plan was geographically absurd, disregarding natural borders and interests of ethnic and religious groups, thereby creating fertile ground for violent nationalism. For example, in the Suez Canal region in Egypt, the population of British expat communities motivated nationalist Arab sentiment, which emerged as an effort to maintain Egyptian culture in the face of strong British influence. This led to the founding of the Muslim Brothers, a party nowadays enjoying significant political support.

Meanwhile, a dysfunctional government in Iraq still fails to unite the country, setting the stage for IS and other extremist groups. After hastily drawing the borders during World War I, Britain merged three Ottoman provinces around Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. They imposed a Hashemite (Sunni) monarchy on former Mesopotamia, causing Shia-dominated discontent and an insurgency that soon broke out in the Kurdish-populated part of Iraq. Nowadays, the government is mostly dominated by the Shia majority, which additionally deepened the discontent of the marginalized Sunni minority and the Kurdish people.

The demographic map of the modern Middle East reveals an important fact: the Arabs form the majority of peoples in all Middle Eastern countries except Afghanistan, Turkey, Israel and Iran. The most ethnically diverse countries mark the “belt” on the northern part of the Arab peninsula, from Turkey to Afghanistan, and it is clear that today’s borders do not indicate the borders between the different peoples. History has proven many times that minor events and decisions can turn into time bombs. The policy of the Great Powers after 1918 neglected interests and opinions of the Middle Eastern people. Instead of letting the Arabs chart their own course, the Great Powers drew the borders that in turn drew the consequences that could not be foreseen. It would be excessive to claim that all ongoing conflicts and wars stirring up the Middle East originated from the diplomacy of the Great Powers, but it undisputedly contributed to regional instability. Although the future of the Middle East is still unclear one thing is certain: It could have been different.

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