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The end of Sykes-Picot

By Marika Sosnowski - posted Thursday, 19 September 2013

In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia effectively legitimised the nation-state as the sole master of international political and legal relations. Until relatively recently this state of affairs has not been profoundly challenged.However, current events in the Middle East are changing that. As the Syrian civil war grinds on, violence flares in Lebanon and sectarian casualties in Iraq continue to mount, the nation-state foundations upon which the modern Middle East is based are crumbling.

Shortly before the end of the First World War, Englishman Sir Mark Sykes and Frenchman François Georges-Picot negotiated the details of an agreement on behalf of their respective governments concerning the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The Sykes-Picot Agreement as it came to be known, along with the Hussein-McMahon correspondence and the Balfour Declaration, is a seminal document in Western-Arab relations. The Great Powers of the day, disregardingethnic and religious demographics, ignoring, bending or absolving agreements they had made with others, divided up the region in a geo-political power grab for natural resources and influence. Since the Sykes-Picot Agreement came into effect, the nation-states that it formed – Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan - have constantly struggled to maintain the legitimacy of those boundaries. Today, events in Syria and across the region are redefining the notion and role of the nation-state and altering national boundaries into increasingly sectarian ones.

Currently in Syria, much like Iraq since 2003, there is a process of Balkan- or "Syrianization" taking place. Ethnic and religious groups are isolating and fortifying themselves in specific areas: the Army that, at heart, has become an Alawite militia, controls the Mediterranean coast-line and a swathe of land between Homs, Hama, Damascus stretching into the south, Kurds control a small section of the north-east between Iraq and Turkey, while a diverse group of predominantly Islamist rebels control the north including Aleppo, extending into the east and Deir ez-Zor. As Syrian analyst Joshua Landis put it, 'there is no Syrian nation left'. De facto partition of the state into three sections has already occurred and what is evolving is, as yet, undefined.


One issue with the fragmentation of Middle Eastern states is that until relatively recently only nation-states have had international legal personality to the fullest extent. While there is little doubt that the participants of international law are diversifying, the position of states as sovereigns with primary control over the creation and development of international law sets them apart from all other international legal participants.

Many in the Middle East are speaking with joy about the chance to fix 'the mistake of Le Grand Liban' that occurred when the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented. However, it remains to be seen whether the end of an artificial construction imposed by outside forces a century ago on the Middle East is really a reflection of people's desire or will necessarily ensure more stability than the map drawn up by the European diplomats.

It looks fairly certain that violence between Syria's competing groups will only increase in the medium to long term. Negotiations at a proposed Geneva II conference are based on the premise of a politically negotiated settlement upon which an official federation may emerge. Alternatively, separate countries could be established. The case of Iraq is worth noting here, for although it remains one country on paper, in many respects it functions as three discrete entities. Such negotiations and White House spokesman Jay Carney's comments that 'Assad will never rule all of Syria again' imply that a formal breakup of the Syria we have known since its independence in 1946 has already occurred, with unknown and presumably unwelcome consequences for all Middle Eastern states.

In 1949, shortly after the founding of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice stated in an Advisory Opinion that: 'The subjects of law in any legal system are not necessarily identical in their nature or in the extent of their rights, and their nature depends upon the needs of the community.' The Arab Spring has fundamentally altered these needs and will necessitate a restructuring of the international system to one not primarily based around the nation-state.Not only are borders likely to be redrawn as a result of what is currently happening in Syria, but the very nature of how diplomacy is conducted and business done is also likely to fundamentally change. The Syrianization model will not be restricted to Syria, but is likely to be replicated in some fashion in the Middle East, and most likely elsewhere in the world. This implies the creation of new state-like entities based on religious and ethnic affiliation, rather than as a result of borders that were predicated on the whims of foreign powers.

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About the Author

Marika Sosnowski currently works at the Jewish Museum of Australia and has taught Middle East politics at Monash, Melbourne and La Trobe Universities. She has just finished a season hosting a show about the Middle East on community radio.

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