The present-day borders of the Middle East are the legacy of a hasty agreement signed almost 100 years ago. This has become the cause celebre for the turmoil besetting the region ever since.
The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret treaty signed by Great Britain and France, aimed at portioning off the collapsing Ottoman Empire into mutually agreed spheres of influence. Britain was to control what is today southern Israel and Palestine, Jordan and southern Iraq. France was to get southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
During the early days of pan Arab nationalism, there was a realisation that this Balkanisation had irrevocably damaged Arab identity. Two ideologies emerged which called for a single Arab nationality across the entire Middle East - namely Nasserism and Baathism. However, domestic political compulsions ensured these sentiments soon faded away.
In 2011 Syria, under President Bashar al Assad, descended into what is now an eight-year-long civil war. What started as a peaceful pro-democracy movement inspired by the “Arab Spring’’ quickly transformed into an armed rebellion when confronted with crushing state repression.
Concurrently, the Islamic State (IS) began to rise due to the instability in Iraq and Syria. By 2014, it had established a “caliphate” stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq. The IS saw in itself a true successor to the Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire. The “artificial” boundaries created by western imperial powers did not match its vision of a pan Islamic caliphate. Its self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared, “This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”
The Sykes-Picot Agreement created "artificial" borders in the Middle East, "without any regard to ethnic or sectarian characteristics, [which] has resulted in endless conflict”.
Syria, like many other countries in Asia and Africa, is a victim of colonial expediency. The ethnic and religious makeup of the population and their cultural and social harmony was never a consideration in the process of demarcation. Before relinquishing colonies, the colonists planted, perhaps deliberately, seeds for eternal disharmony and conflict, ripe for future exploitation. India- Pakistan, Sudan, Angola, DRC and Rwanda are some prime examples which continue to suffer from illogical boundaries.
The Syrian conflict is representative of the larger geopolitical game being played out in the Middle East. The US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies back the anti-Assad forces while Assad is supported by his traditional ally -Russia and the doyen of Shiites, Iran.
As an ethnic group, the Kurds were the biggest losers of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which drew a “line in the sand” without taking into account the ethnic makeup of the area. As a result, Kurds are now spread over Turkey, Iraq and Syria. It is not surprising, that aspiring for a Kurd homeland, they are a key participant in the Syrian war. The Kurd led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is an alliance of Arab, and Assyrian/Syriac militias, as well as smaller Armenian, Turkmen and Chechen forces.
While the US, UK and France had originally supported anti-Assad groups, their policies took a turn when IS started expanding its footprint over the Syrian conflict. US-led coalitions since 2014 have backed the SDF. SDF has been largely instrumental in turning the tide against ISIS and in March 2019, it announced the defeat of ISIS as a cohesive fighting force in Syria. IS has retreated into the Levant and is reported to retain 14000 to 18000 members scattered over Syria and Iraq. It remains active over social media.
Turkey has supported anti-Assad rebels since the beginning to block SDF which it considers an extension of Kurdish nationalism. Whatever may be the final outcome in Syria, Turkey will never allow an independent Kurd homeland on its doorstep.
In 2019 the US National Security Advisor visited Ankara carrying a colour-coded map highlighting zones that Turks were prohibited from entering. The maps indicated areas in Eastern Syria, where Turks had to share control with Kurds. Turkey rejected the US proposals calling it a repeat of the hated Sykes-Picot plan.
Iraq and Syria have been the battlespace for its two regional hegemon powers-Saudi Arabia and Iran. The recent drone attacks on key Saudi oil facilities, which have threatened global economic stability, show how this regional rivalry has impacts far beyond its boundaries.
Russia, with a significant military presence in Syria, has been vital in turning the direction of the civil war in favour of Assad.
- To comprehend the undercurrents sustaining the conflicts in the Middle East, an impartial analysis of its past is imperative. Syria is a definitive representation of the larger Middle East canvas. The prevailing tensions, caused by their historical and social offsets and big power games, will continue to keep the region on the boil.
- The Kurdish problem is like a festering sore. Strongly advocated by the US and its allies, the idea of a Kurdish homeland is not acceptable to any other country in the region. Any move initiated by external powers to make it a reality will be strongly resisted.
- Groups like IS have fully exploited the fault lines created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement as they tried to bring down the so-called “artificial” borders to create their Islamic Caliphate. While IS has been crushed, for the time being, they retain their ability to spring back when the situation permits.
- The reconfiguration of Syria, as is demanded by doing away with Sykes-Picot created boundaries, will be almost as bloody as the war itself. As seen in Yugoslavia, Sudan, Angola and India, re-structuring of borders has caused a mass exodus, ethnic violence and led to new conflicts.
- Assad, with Russian and Iranian backing, is here to stay despite the bloodshed and destruction inflicted on Syrian people under his regime. However, physical, emotional and human devastation in Syria undermines its credibility as a viable state in the near future. With one out of five people having fled, the incentive to return to a stable life is still very low.
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