The Sykes-Picot Agreement, a Hundred Years Later
The rationale behind the 1916 plan produced by British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, Francois George-Picot — and the international agreements that followed it about the future of the Middle East after World War I — was a mixture of British and French interests, with some basic understanding of the characteristics of the Middle East at the time.
The problematic pillars that were supposed to provide stability to this order were: Arab nationalism — though this pillar underestimated the role of religion, tribal and sectarian affiliation; the aspirations of other nationalities in the region; resentment towards foreign ideas; dividing the region between several invented nation-states under autocratic rule; and the expectation that the Arabs would submit themselves to foreigners in a way that would serve Western interests.
The Western powers were aware of the deficiencies that prevented the Arab states from functioning in a way that guaranteed stability, but supported the status quo, which had been surprisingly kept, due to the commitment of the ruling elites to the new borders and the autocratic nature of the Arab regimes.
This was the case until the Arab upheaval in 2011. The autocratic systems in non-monarchic states collapsed, and the Middle East witnesses to this day a fierce battle over the fate of the Sykes-Picot legacy, between “radical Islam” and the “pragmatic” forces. All factions of radical Islam deny the concept of nationalism, and believe in reviving the Islamic nation as a single political entity governed by Islamic law. But while the “ultra-radicals” (Islamic State and al Qaeda on the Sunni side, and radical leadership of Iran on the Shiite side) call for establishing Islamic rule as soon as possible, the “realist radicals” (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Rouhani camp in Iran) believe that the time is not ripe to establish the caliphate, since the West is not yet weak enough to be defeated.
However, these “realist radicals” consider the West sufficiently weak to need to rely on them to protect it against the threat from the ultra-radicals. The realist radicals’ major achievement is Western readiness to enable them to acquire a nuclear weapons arsenal in 10-15 years while intensifying their regional influence.
On the other hand, the Arab pragmatists — such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, most of the Gulf Emirates and Egypt — support preserving the existing boundaries and state structure in the Middle East.
A major challenge to Sykes-Picot comes from frustrated sects and peoples whose aspirations for self-determination were not met. The Kurds, for example, are moving steadily towards independence in Iraq and Syria.
The West lost its appetite to dominate the region the way it deemed necessary during the Cold War. This reluctance reflects weakness, confusion and ascendancy of a world view which is based on a feeling of guilt for the way Muslims were treated in the past, and baseless optimism regarding the ability to solve all remaining disputes through dialogue and contrition that would reap forgiveness from them.
This leads to a hesitant policy towards protecting the existing order. Though the West is seemingly committed to this goal (it opposes the Islamic State, contests the Kurds’ efforts and continues to refer to the states in the region according to former boundaries), it is not ready to invest real assets in this context, even after realizing that refraining from action may encourage huge Muslim immigration to Europe.
This Western confusion enables Russia to gain power in the region.
For Israel, this situation is challenging. The instability is exploited well by its enemies from the radical Islamic camp. If the radicals widen their influence, they may threaten the stability of the monarchies, which survived the first round of the upheaval. Radical terrorist elements may use this instability to acquire better military capabilities, while a nuclear arms race may develop in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal.
Finally, Israel should worry about the different world views that have developed between itself and the West, and about the perceived weakness of the United States in the eyes of regional players. The wave of Muslim immigrants to Europe may make the West even more sensitive to what it considers to be concerns of the Muslim world regarding Israel.
But the new situation also presents Israel with opportunities, like developing security cooperation with the region’s pragmatic elements, making it easier to explain that its dispute with the Palestinians is not the key obstacle to regional stability, and that it has genuine security concerns that justify its insistence on having secured and defensible borders. It also makes it easier for Israel to convince Western countries of its strategic value to them and their interests.