Getting Sykes-Picot sort of right but also kind of wrong

Jennifer Thea Gordon at National Interest has an important corrective (it’s a little old; I found it via this Lawfare piece) to the recent spate of “Sykes-Picot is meaningless” chatter (something I’ve delved into here in the past), but she unfortunately beats up the history of the Syrian-Iraqi desert to get there:

ISIS is not alone in viewing Sykes-Picot as obsolete; some Western commentators view the Sykes-Picot map as a colonial contrivance that has passed its expiration date. British diplomat Paddy Ashdown wrote in The Guardian last month that it is “better, surely, to face up to the realities of the post–Sykes-Picot Middle East.” However, both Middle Eastern history and cartography existed long before 1916, and Syria and Iraq were distinct entities, not only in the pre-WWI Ottoman era, but also before and after the rise of Islam in the seventh century, even though the exact borders were not always clear or in their present-day form. Therefore, Western governments should not be too quick to accept ISIS’ wish to write off existing borders.

This underlying point is undeniably true; whatever the provenance or desirability of the current Syria-Iraq border might be, there’s no question that “Syria” and “Iraq” have been distinct political, cultural, and later national entities for at least a couple of millennia now. They were separate way back in the second millennium BCE, when most of modern Syria (the heavily populated spots, anyway) was part of the Hittite Empire and Iraq was divided between the Assyrians and the Babylonians. They were united under the Achaemenid Persian Empire, then also under Alexander and the Seleucids, but when the Romans conquered the Eastern Mediterranean in the second and first centuries BCE they were only able to hold on to Syria; what we know as Iraq was controlled by the Parthian, then later Sassanian, Persians. This brings us up to the immediate pre-Islamic period, and this is where Gordon starts to go off the rails a bit:

Modern-day Syria and Iraq both have antecedents in the pre-Islamic world. In the sixth century, the Arab tribal kingdom of the Ghassanids was located in much of the same area that is now Syria, while the Lakhmid kingdom was based in Iraq. These tribes fought each other as proxies for the two great world powers at the time: the Byzantines and Sassanians. With the establishment of Islam as a political and religious community in seventh-century Arabia, Muhammad briefly managed to unite disparate Arab tribes under the banner of Islam. However, many of the old divisions reappeared after Muhammad’s death, when Islam continued its expansion out of the Arabian peninsula.

Again, the underlying point here is accurate; the Ghassanids were mostly based in Syria and the Lakhmids were mostly based in Iraq. But “Syria” in the 6th century meant something different than “Syria” means today, and in fact the Ghassanids are a historical argument against the viability of Sykes-Picot — their kingdom covered parts of modern Jordan, western Iraq, and into the eastern Syrian desert (in other words, it straddled the current border between the two countries):

Map - Middle East 6th Century

Anybody who’s kept up with Islamic History knows that Gordon is right when she writes that “many of the old divisions reappeared after Muhammad’s death,” and when she continues on past Muhammad’s death:

The reality is that Syria and Iraq have often been ruled by distinct regimes, despite the supposed unification of the Islamic world under the caliphs. When the Umayyad caliphate ruled in Damascus, Iraq was a hotbed of dissent. And when the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750, they deliberately moved the capital out of Damascus and into the newly-built Baghdad. Thereafter, the two territories were often ruled separately, including when Syria was dominated by Crusader kingdoms and Iraq by the Seljuqs. Although the Ottomans restored a measure of unity, the territories remained distinct administrative units within the empire. ISIS envisions a return to a time before the creation of modern nation-states, imagining the Middle East as a borderless desert that caliphs ruled in the name of Islam. However, it is ISIS’ vision of past unity that is falsely constructed.

But, again, none of this is actually a defense of the specific Sykes-Picot border, because “Syria” and “Iraq” didn’t mean back then what they mean today. It’s overly simplistic to say that Crusaders “dominated” medieval Syria while the Seljuqs dominated medieval Iraq, because it ignores the Zengid Dynasty that ruled everything from southern Palestine to northern Iraq during most of the 12th-13th centuries:

Zengid_dynasty,_1127_-_1183

The Zengids were draped right across what would eventually be Sykes-Picot. Later the Mongols would control Iraq while the Mamluks controlled Syria, but those two empires more or less divided at the Euphrates River, which has nothing to do with the borders between modern Syria and Iraq. The Ottomans did control the entire Levant and Mesopotamia at their height (though they contested Iraq on occasion with the Persian Safavid Empire), and Gordon is again correct to note that there were separate administrative divisions within the empire for “Syria” and “Iraq.” But at the risk of beating a dead horse, those administrative divisions really had very little in common with the modern borders of the two countries:

Administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire c. 1900 (via)
Administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire c. 1900 (via)

If you can figure out how these Ottoman administrative divisions are preserved in the Sykes-Picot borders, you’re better at this kind of thing than I am.

In fact, through all of this history, one of the few constants in the region has been the lack of a definitive border running through the Syrian desert, which is a significant geographic barrier between the populated areas of Iraq and the populated areas of Syria but which was never delineated before Sykes-Picot. The rise of the nation-state demands defined borders, but historically the empires of the region never had much cause to parse out this section of the desert to one, that section to another. They tended to leave the whole thing to the Bedouin who were the only folks who could carve out a living there, and it’s the modern descendents of those Bedouin tribes who are straddling the Sykes-Picot line today and are the reason why Syria’s civil war and Iraq’s Sunni unrest are impossible to separate from one another.

So yes, Gordon is right to conclude that it is ahistorical to talk, as ISIS often does, about reunifying Syria and Iraq or to say that any border between the two nations is illegitimate; these are clearly two distinct historical regions. But it’s also ahistorical to argue that this particular border between the two countries is an accurate representation of that distinction. Sykes-Picot and the resulting Mandate system erased long-standing borders, created new ones that had never existed before, and generally haven’t served the region or its people well in the decades since they were implemented. I’m not arguing for redrawing the borders, and Gordon is also correct to note that any attempt to do so risks getting the thing just as wrong, albeit wrong in a different way, as Sykes-Picot did. I just think it’s OK to acknowledge that these borders are pretty lousy, even if there’s no obvious way to do anything about it.

Author: DWD

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