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Laith Saud

The myths around Sykes-Picot

Dividing Arab peoples along these lines is a politically strategic, colonial tactic [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 May, 2016

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Comment: The argument that Iraq and Syria are false entities, clumsily constituted by Sykes-Picot is at best lacking in judgement, and at worst malicious in its intent, writes Laith Saud.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement and since anniversaries often provoke reflection, we are likely to see a host of editorials insisting on the 'destructiveness' of the accord. 

Steve Cook points out that a Google search yields 8,600 mentions of the 'end' of Sykes-Picot over the last three years.

Rather than offer another analysis of whether Sykes-Picot was destructive or constructive, I want to address a few common myths associated with Sykes-Picot, with special emphasis on Iraq, as it is where was born. 

Myth one: Sykes-Picot brought together too many 'distinct ethnic' groups

The idea that a state like Iraq, for example, is failing because it 'coercively' brings together distinct - and for some reason, incompatible - ethnic groups is the most pernicious myth that is associated with Sykes-Picot.

This narrative is decidedly false. In 2003, as the US prepared to illegally invade Iraq, media pundits flexed their 'expertise' by claiming Iraq to be made up of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.

In fact, Arab Sunnis and Shias are of the same ethnic group: They speak Arabic, subscribe to the same culture and history. In 2003, before the invasion, 50 percent of Baghdadis were intermarried between Sunni and Shia.

Kurds, on the other hand, do form a distinct ethnic group from Arabs (if we choose to invest heavily in the idea of ethnic groups), but they are overwhelmingly Sunni. 

Kaplan refuses to acknowledge the findings of the King-Crane Commission of 1919, wherein the population of Greater Syria demonstrated an overwhelming sense of unity and commonality

So it seems the only reason for dividing Arab peoples along these lines, is that it is a politically strategic, colonial tactic.

Myth two: Sykes-Picot brought about 'artificial' states

Intimately linked to 'Myth one' is the claim that Iraq, Syria and other states in the region are 'artificial'. This argument rests on the idea that the people populating these states are in fact 'different.'

Robert Kaplan, argues that Syrians and Iraqis "have identities that were invented by European imperialists". 

Again, simple logic renders this claim childish. The vast majority of Iraqis live in Iraq's three major cities. Baghdad and Basra are over 1,200 years old, Mosul is even older; they have been populated for centuries by diverse peoples who traded with one another, worshipped together and intermarried. Should the creation of Iraq have demanded these people be separated? Or these cities evacuated? And on what basis? In opening a discussion on the implications of such a short-sighted observation, the fatuity of the claim becomes clear.

Damascus may literally be the oldest city on earth, home to diverse peoples. But what brings these diverse peoples together is the fact they are all equally and naturally home.

Kaplan refuses to acknowledge the findings of the King-Crane Commission of 1919, wherein the population of Greater Syria demonstrated an overwhelming sense of unity and commonality.      

Analysts like Kaplan would never argue there is no such thing as Germans because Germany is equally split between Protestants and Catholics. Such judgments are reserved for Arab and Muslim peoples.

Myth three: Violence in the region is due to these 'false states'

This myth is easy. 

Violence in Iraq is due to the US invasion and their (illegal) dismantling of the Iraqi military and police force.

Violence in Syria is due to the defection of many in the Syrian army who refused to kill their own people to save a dictator's seat. 

Violence in the region is perpetuated by the generous delivery of weapons to the region by the US and Russia.

Yet, for Kaplan, Goldberg and every other analyst making this cliched claim, Israel never manages to qualify as an artificial state

Some have argued that a place like Iraq should be divided to prevent violence. Have you ever seen an instance of partition that did not result in violence? Again, it is something that may 'sound' right, but is obviously wrong.  Partitions cause the most violence and, in fact, Syria and Iraq are undergoing enforced partitions, facilitated by US, Russian and Iranian 'talks'.

Myth four: Claims regarding the "artificial states" are based on genuine historical disagreement

Jeff Goldberg insisted that American policy, after 9/11 brought to into relief "the intrinsically artificial qualities of several states". He of course lists Iraq, Syria and Libya as examples.

Yet, for Kaplan, Goldberg and every other analyst making this cliched claim, Israel never manages to qualify as an artificial state. It was however, in Israel where the national language - Hebrew - had to be reconstructed precisely because it was a dead language. Iraq, Syria and Libya, did not require massive immigration campaigns (such as Aliyah) to change the demography of the landscape, as Israel has.

Those who argue that Iraq or Syria are false entities, clumsily put together by Sykes-Picot are either lacking judgement or malicious in their intent.

Either way, their claims should be disregarded.


Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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