from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Erasing Sykes-Picot

May 17, 2013

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Much has been written about whether the instability in Iraq, the warfare in Syria and the crises this causes for Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, the Kurdish drive for autonomy (at least) in Iraq and Turkey, will at some point combine to unravel the Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and England in 1916. Put another way, the question is whether the borders established in the context of the First World War will stick.

Here is one answer: they are effectively gone already, whether as a legal matter they disappear or remain. After all, when Iran can send any amount of arms through Syria and Iraq to its allies and proxies in Lebanon--ignoring the Lebanese government and Lebanese border--what is left of borders? Iran has in effect an open space running from the Afghan border to the Mediterranean, where it can place arms and soldiers almost at will. We know that Iranian IRGC forces are in Syria, and we know that Hezbollah forces from Lebanon are fighting there too. We know that just as jihadis from all over the world crossed from Syria into Iraq, ignoring that border to fight the Americans, today they are arriving across borders into Syria, now to fight the Assad regime.

Other examples can be cited. The border between Gaza and Egyptian Sinai is breached and mocked by hundreds of smuggling tunnels. The huge flow of Syrian refugees, now probably 1.5 million, moves across borders to seek safety. In fact it seems the only real, stable borders still existing are those of Israel. And that is in good part because Israel has built elaborate security barriers north, east, and most recently south, to demarcate and defend them. Israel’s borders exist on the ground, and the great irony is of course that they are the only boundaries in the region that do not exist on maps and are viewed as temporary until a peace agreement with Syria and with the Palestinians is achieved.

Most of the lines Sykes and Picot marked on maps still remain, but they have less and less reality. Changing national borders formally, with the approval of all parties and the United Nations as well, seems nearly impossible. But ignoring them, breaching them, and erasing them on the ground, where actual human beings live, seek refuge, make war, survive, or die--well, that has already happened to a very striking degree.

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