The words ‘Sykes-Picot’ must have been bandied around more than at any time since 1916 over the past few months. The sense that the region is in the midst of a reshaping of borders, identities, nationalities has been evolving since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the blatant appeal to sectarianism by the occupying powers. That shouldn’t be a surprise because foreign powers, anywhere, have always played the policy of divide-and-rule. That’s what Sykes-Picot, with its spheres of British and French interests – was all about. The Middle East subsequently featured areas of British and American influence in the Gulf, Russian interest in a range of states including Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq et al. with varying degrees of longevity, and the establishment of a Jewish settler state in Palestine. None of that was part-and-parcel of the Sykes-Picot arrangement per se, but it still accorded with the general principles.
For that reason I don’t think it’s accurate to talk of the collapse of Sykes-Picot. The fundamentals remain the same: a nation-state division of the region along lines that serves Western interests. What has changed is that sectarian and ethnic identities have come to the fore, partly as a result of foreign meddling, but always at the least managed in order to maintain the same aims of distant powers. Two states of the ‘Arab system’ were sectarian configurations in any case: Israel and Lebanon. Another, Iraq, was conceived as a Sunni state; Empire switched sides in 2003 and has since become alarmed at the Sunni bonding among Jihadists in Anbar and Syria over the past year. Syria as a state may well still confound analysts with the determination to cling to a Syrian identity, a sentiment strengthened by the fact that for Syrians Syria is in any case a malleable all-Levant concept, Syria is the Levant, the kernel of a Levant divided by imperial meddling.
If borders were to change – and who knows, as I’ve said myself before – that does not mean the end of Sykes-Picot as a hegemonic framework. It’s just being tweaked. In fact it’s interesting to note that in this current metamorphosis of S & P one can note the emergence of the autonomous almost-state whose best interests are served by not becoming a full state. Iraqi Kurdistan is a case in point. It’s neither possible nor desirable at present to transform this entity into a fully-fledged U.N.-recognized state. Why would it be when it derives so many benefits as is?