Monday marked the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret treaty between Britain and France defining their proposed spheres of influence in the post-Ottoman Middle East. The agreement has been the subject of public debate for a long time. After the Bolshevik revolution, Leon Trotsky, then commissar for foreign affairs, made the treaty public to showcase the imperialists' hidden agenda. Over the years, Sykes-Picot has been a common point of reference for scholars and politicians.
To be clear, the Sykes-Picot agreement came to represent something bigger than itself. Although the secret treaty did not exactly shape the borders of the modern Middle East, the misconception has effectively become fact. In truth, the Balfour Declaration, U.K. Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour's 1917 letter to Walter Rothschild reiterating his government's support for the establishment of "a national home for the Jewish people," had a much bigger impact on the region. Likewise, the Treaty of Sevres, which was signed in 1920, effectively partitioned the Ottoman Empire and granted autonomy, with an eye on eventual independence, to Armenians and Kurds – only to be annulled after the Turkish war of independence. Nonetheless, the Sykes-Picot agreement remains significant as the first attempt in recent history to partition a piece of land among allies.
If the Sykes-Picot agreement had limited practical implications, why has the world started talking about it again? It all started when DAESH effectively erased the Syria-Iraq border in June 2014 and claimed that "the Sykes-Picot order has collapsed." At a time when two major countries face an uncertain future, people across the Middle East are worried that they will suffer the consequences of another grand design. In particular, regional players suspect that the United States and Russia have struck a secret deal to redraw the map of the Middle East. A small minority, including Kurdish nationalists, hope that the rumors are true.
The main problem with the Sykes-Picot debate is that commentators tend to exaggerate the influence of great powers over the Middle East – which borders on conspiracy theory. Another issue relates to the convenience of blaming regional problems on outsiders. Still, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Russia's desperate efforts to keep Bashar Assad in power and the People's Protection Units' (YPG) quest for an independent Kurdish state in northern Syria inevitably fuel fears across the region.
During World War I, Britain and France approached the Middle East with an imperialist road map geared toward the partitioning of sovereign states. The regional order they created gave rise to oppressive regimes, widespread terrorism, proxy wars and sectarian clashes. Keeping in mind how much the Middle East endured over the past century, it only makes sense for people to ask whether Washington and Moscow are taking another crack at developing a regional order. To make matters worse, the Obama administration's actions – and inaction - in Syria, coupled with Washington's willingness to allow Russian interference in the civil war and eagerness to fuel a bitter rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, raise questions about the future.
What distinguishes great powers of today, at least the United States, from Britain and France in the early 1900s is that they outsource the fighting to regional and local actors. This is no time to complain about imperialist powers. Instead, regional players must carry their weight to end ongoing conflicts and create a new order. If they fail to reflect on their choices, regional powers will be the driving force behind the next Sykes-Picot.
About the author
Burhanettin Duran is General Coordinator of SETA Foundation and a professor at Ibn Haldun University. He is also a member of Turkish Presidency Security and Foreign Policies Council.