Tablet Magazine

Getting Rid of National Borders in the Middle East Won’t End Sectarian Warfare

The new vogue for blaming the century-old Sykes-Picot Agreement for today’s woes ignores history, and reality

Former Senior Fellow

If you didn’t know any better, you might think that democracy was flowering all over the Middle East. Syria has a presidential election scheduled in June; today, Lebanon’s Parliament will have a second round of voting to choose a new president, while Iraqis are heading to the polls to choose a parliament that will in turn be responsible for selecting a prime minister.

But in reality, all three countries are in danger of coming apart at the seams. Syria is in the midst of a protracted and vicious civil war that has, in turn, added to Lebanon’s own instability. Iraq, now free of American influence, has gone from being an authoritarian state under Saddam Hussein’s nominally secular control to an authoritarian state under the auspices of Nouri al-Maliki, who will almost certainly be given a third term as premier, having cemented his control by pursuing openly sectarian policies favoring Shiites and targeting Sunni Muslims.

Thus, Maliki has enlisted Iraq in the larger regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites being fought in Syria and, increasingly, in Lebanon, where Iran and its proxies are squared off against Saudi Arabia and its own allies. More than three years after the Arab Spring, Arabs throughout the Middle East are now plainly more beholden to their confessional sects or tribes than they are to the larger, national polities they inhabit—that is, to their states.

The obvious question, then, is whether the Arab state system, established nearly a century ago in a secret deal between the British and the French, is falling apart. Have the borders imposed on the Arabic-speaking Middle East in 1916 by the French diplomat François George-Picot and his British counterpart Mark Sykes amid the demolition of the Ottoman Empire by World War I outlived their usefulness?


The mythology surrounding the Sykes-Picot lines is rich. The essential case against them is that they are artificial boundaries that served, and continue to serve, the interests of the Great Powers but are consequently bad for the actual people whose citizenship, and identity, is supposed to be contingent on them. Indeed, many argue that the Sykes-Picot agreement is the primary cause of Middle Easterners’ woes. Frontiers randomly separating parcels of land, families, tribes, and most important, it now seems, confessional sects have not only divided the Arabs and kept them politically weak, but set them murderously at each other’s throats.

That’s the assessment offered by a number of regional experts as well as journalists. It’s a narrative premised on a number of dubious assumptions—primarily, that the Arabs were once long ago in the misty past a nation united. The legend of Arab nationalism holds that it was only foreign conquerors and occupiers who neutralized the Arabs by dividing them, starting with the Mongols in their 1258 invasion of Baghdad.

The reality of course is somewhat different. Shiite and Sunni jurists and clerics have conducted a long-running rhetorical war against each other, characterized by slurs and pamphleteering, that is evidence of sectarian conflict that long predates the Mongols, let alone the British or the Americans. Indeed, tribal warfare in the region predates the advent of Islam, the spread of which was partly encouraged to put an end to tribal conflict by uniting the Arabic-speaking tribes, from the Arabian peninsula to the Fertile Crescent, under the banner of a tribe designated not by its blood but its faith in one God, Allah, and his prophet Muhammad.

But just because tribe or faith often resonate more plangently than secular citizenship for Middle Easterners doesn’t mean that states, or their borders, don’t matter any more. Indeed, it is because many of these states have relied on tribal and religious affiliation to build legitimacy that national identities today register, sometimes deeply. For instance, one of the titles of the king of Saudi Arabia is guardian of the two Holy Shrines, which, by asserting sovereignty over Mecca and Medina, ties the modern kingdom to the origins of Islam. Syrian borders may have been drawn by the European powers, but Syria, what Arabs call Bilad al-Sham, or “country of the north,” is also revered as the capital of the first Arab empire, the Umayyad caliphate of 661 to 750, and hence the historical heartland of Sunni Arabism. Conversely, Baghdad, long a rival of Damascus, was the seat of the Abbasid empire, from 750 to 1258, and that history in turn confers legitimacy on modern Iraq.

Indeed, even those jihadists who would seem to be least invested in the Arab state system have a stake in preserving the borders drawn by the despicable infidels. Sunni extremist groups in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, may be content for the time being to have wrested some cantons from the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his allied forces. However, the war they are waging against what in their opinion is a heretical regime is not simply for the purpose of imposing sharia law in selected hamlets in the Syrian desert. What they want is Sykes-Picot Syria—that is to say, Syria as we know it today, with Damascus as the capital.

This is true even of the one regional nation-state that has done most to upset the Westphalian order: the Islamic Republic of Iran. The wars Tehran fights are typically waged through clandestine means and most often through terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, its long arm in Lebanon. But the reality is that the Islamic Resistance is incapable of functioning without Lebanese institutions. Not only does Hezbollah help itself to parts of the country’s budget through various schemes and ministries its members and allies hold. It has also infiltrated the Lebanese Armed Forces—which it tasks with performing delicate functions, like arresting and firing on Sunnis, for which the party of God wants plausible deniability.

But what Hezbollah can’t possibly live without—and, accordingly, what matters to its patron state Iran—are Lebanon’s borders and the status they confer in international forums. Imagine if Hezbollah, governing its own little statelet on the eastern Mediterranean, fired a barrage of rockets on Israel: The Israeli Air Force would turn Hezbollahstan into a parking lot in a matter of minutes. What prevents Israel from doing so now is the rest of Lebanon—the more than 3 million people who are effectively captives of Hezbollah.

Borders aren’t moving. Rather, populations are moving to accommodate borders. We all know about the exodus of Arab refugees from Israel in 1948 and 1967, as well as the often forced emigration of Jews from Arab lands to Israel in the years after the Jewish state was established—but Christians have been in flight from Lebanon since that country’s 15-year-long civil war, from 1975 to 1990, and the subsequent Syrian occupation, from 1990 to 2005, one of the aims of which was to disempower the Christian community. In Iraq, Assyrian Christians fled in large numbers after the fall of Saddam, largely to Syria, and then on to the West.

But the Christians’ trail of tears pales in comparison to the departure of Sunnis from Syria. Conservative estimates show that there are more than half a million refugees now in Turkey and Jordan and nearly a million more in Lebanon, which is still home to another 450,000 Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967. It’s not difficult to imagine how this crisis may come to shape the region. Take Lebanon: With roughly one-third of Lebanon’s population now made up of Syrian refugees, the vast majority of whom are Sunnis, the country’s sectarian balance between Shiites, Christians and Sunnis is now tipped in favor of the Sunnis, perhaps irrevocably. That in turn may force Hezbollah to move in the other direction, from what is certain to be a Sunni-majority Lebanon to a Syria or Iraq ruled by Shiites.

Even if, or when, Assad falls, the Syrian conflict hasn’t erased borders. What it’s done is destroy homes and families—and confessional communities with longstanding and in some cases ancient ties to the lands they’re now leaving. The real Middle East crisis isn’t about the failure of democracy in its nation-states, but the private disasters its citizens are facing.