The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, written at the height of the First World War, had a significant impact on the Middle East throughout the twentieth century. And it still has far-reaching consequences today – particularly for stateless ethnic groups like the Kurds.
The deal saw Britain and France draw up their spheres of influence and control in the region in anticipation of the Ottoman Empire’s downfall, respecting an agreement made in 1915 between Britain and Russia.
The justification for intervention, says James Reinl at Middle East Eye, was that the colonialists considered the Arab communities and their neighbours to be “better off under the yoke of Europeans”.
The majority of northern Kurdish communities (currently within Turkey) were initially set to become part of the Russian Empire. With the 1917 Revolution in Russia, however, the imperial policies of the Tsar were abandoned. So France and Britain were left with almost a free rein in western Asia.
Turkish nationalists put up a fight, though, seeking to take advantage of Russia’s withdrawal from northern Kurdistan and secure their own future. They rallied Kurdish communities behind a call for unity against foreign occupation (of Britain or France) and, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, forced the European colonialists to agree to the creation of the Republic of Turkey in the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923.
This treaty, which was signed without Kurdish representation, left Kurds without a state of their own – which became more and more of a problem as the Turkish nationalists began to exert political dominance.
Britain and France, meanwhile, went ahead with the arbitrary division of former Ottoman territory as outlined in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. New Arab states (like Syria and Iraq) were created under colonial control, and ethnic minority groups (like the Kurds) were simply absorbed into these artificial nations. As time passed, they were oppressed, sidelined, and subjected to assimilation campaigns.
Today, the Sykes-Picot Agreement is remembered largely for its ignorance towards ethnic differences in the Middle East, and for its denial of self-rule to the people of the region. In spite of the largely negative impact of the deal, however, political elites (both locally and globally) are largely opposed to the idea of giving ethnic minorities more power over their own destinies. The USA has done its utmost to protect the ‘territorial integrity’ of Iraq, for example, and Russia appears to want the same in Syria.
But what is territorial integrity? Forcing people who are sick of sectarianism to keep putting up and shutting up? Dooming a territory to civil conflict indefinitely? Preventing communities from governing themselves and determining their own futures?
Even accepting the weak and dubious premise that nation states are necessary, the fact is that stability and unity depend very much on citizens having their voices heard and their rights respected. Where citizens are disempowered, disenchanted or desperate, it is impossible to have any of that. Where ethnic or religious chauvinists determine the political agenda with little to no opposition, it is impossible to have any of that.
For stability and unity, the voices of all citizens – and all ethnic and religious communities – must be heard. But these voices must not only be ‘heard’. They must matter. For they are the only voices that should determine the future of each village, each city, and each region of the Middle East.
If the nation states created by Sykes-Picot are to survive, the self-interested, unrepresentative and anti-democratic elites in their capital cities must stop passing down diktats from above. As this doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon, however, calls for Sykes-Picot to be overturned altogether have arisen in some sectors.
Some may claim that redrawing Middle Eastern borders would somehow amount to “imperialism 2.0”. But it wouldn’t necessarily be like that. In the hands of the region’s inhabitants (and not those of self-interested foreign powers), such a process could be an act of true democratisation. Far from another outbreak of disease, it would be a dose of much needed medicine to heal the wounds inflicted by imperialism 1.0.
The cure to the Sykes-Picot disease is already being cultivated in the democratic, pluralistic, and gender-egalitarian communities of Rojava. But the treatment must continue. To ensure the inhabitants of the Middle East are those who determine their own futures, we must step up our solidarity with the Rojava Revolution and the alternative future it is nurturing from the ground up.
Featured image via The National Archives (United Kingdom)/Wikimedia Commons