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Creating failed states in the Middle East

August 19, 2016 at 2:33 pm

Five-year old Omran Daqneesh sits silently and in shock in the seat of an ambulance. This poor little child looks so defeated, traumatised and empty that it’s enough to bring anyone to tears. He wipes his head with his hand, looks down and realises its covered in blood. Instead of reacting, he simply places his hand back on his lap. This is the latest image to encapsulate the horror of the civilian suffering in Syria.

Why are there so many conflicts ongoing in the Middle East? There is no single, simple answer to this question. However, when looking at the past 100 years since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, we can see that many of the troubles in the Middle East have arisen due to the lack of a single power with overall control, as was the case when the Ottomans were in charge. We have seen in the past two decades just how quickly a lack of control is taken advantage of by dissident groups if legitimate and organised governance does not replace what went before.

It is clear that the fall of this once mighty empire has given rise to violence, ethnic clashes, political instability and religious fervour, all of which have created a fertile breeding ground for dictators and terrorist groups to grow and exert their power in a political vacuum. The fall of the Ottoman Empire is the key to the shaping of today`s Middle East; indeed, we can go back before that, when two Western officials — one British, one French — sat together in 1916 and drew lines on the map which have, to all intents in purposes, had a great deal to do with today’s troubles.

The Middle East has been strategically significant for many great leaders and empires, from Alexander the Great to the Mongols; the Romans, Napoleon and Ottomans. The region sits in a vital geographical position for control of the Mediterranean and, consequently, the world. It also contains much of the world’s oil reserves, making regional politics so important, particularly for the powerful West.

Despite many attempts by external powers to bring peace to the region the current chaos demonstrates that it has still not found a solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. For hundreds of years, Sunnis and Shia, Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Christians in Greater Syria and Mesopotamia had few territorial disputes, as all fell under the rule of an imperial sovereign in Istanbul, who protected them from external threats and each other. That system was abolished 100 years ago, unleashing the demon of national, ethnic and sectarian disputes over who controls which territory at what border.

History is important to understand the roots of the current conflicts. Why, for example, did the Ottoman Empire start to lose its territories in the Middle East in the 19th century? Even though the Ottomans ruled over stability in the region for centuries, Western interference and colonial interests paid little heed to the complex ethnic and religious divisions therein. Those interests were more important than local loyalties.

In the 19th century, the “modern world”, Western thinking, democracy and parliamentary politics entered the Ottoman states. The Ottoman Empire was very slow off the democratic mark and local peoples were encouraged by the West in uprisings against the centralised power. With the benefit of hindsight, it is reasonable to suggest that if the Ottomans had introduced democracy and parliamentary governance in the 19th century, there might have been little enthusiasm for Western interventions.

Fast-forward into the early 20th century, and that 1916 British-French collaboration on carving up the Ottoman Empire — the Sykes-Picot Agreement — played a significant role in the creation of what have gone on to become failed states in the Middle East. Messrs Sykes and Picot redrew the borders of the region into two distinct zones of influence dominated by Britain and France respectively. The deal ignored the political aspirations of Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Muslims, Jews and Christians and helped to destroy cultural ties between them, resulting in many of the disputes and divisions that we see today.

Mark Sykes was a British Conservative MP, and assistant to the secretary of state for war; Francois Georges-Picot was a junior French diplomat. Picot’s father and family were well integrated into the French diplomatic system with a natural interest in Asia. They drafted what writer David Eromkin has called, “A secret pact between the French and British to chop up the Ottoman Empire after World War 1.” Such treaties, explains the author of “A Peace to end all Peace”, “along with personal agendas and prejudices of Western officials, had a big role in drawing lines in the desert sand over which blood and oil have flowed for decades now.”

The Sykes-Picot Agreement did not take into account the interests of the indigenous people; it was based on the European perspective of the nation state but did not solve nationalist questions in the region. In fact, the nationalist issue was turned from one of a diversity of cultures in the Ottoman lands into a series of bloody conflicts.

According to the Former Prime Minister of Turkey, Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, his country has always opposed Sykes-Picot which divided the region and alienated our cities from each other. More significantly, the Arab Spring was used to prevent the implementation of Turkish plans to reverse the outcomes and effects of the agreement such as, for instance, creating an economic free zone with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

It is clear that Sykes-Picot agreement was based on racial and sectarian perspectives and required ethnic cleansing in an attempt to establish “mono-cultural” countries. These artificial constructs were unnatural and could well be the main reason for so much discord in the Middle East. Logically, therefore, they are probably also why so many of the states created by the British and French are today failing so miserably. The situation today is much worse than it was 100 years ago during the Ottoman period.

We have to live with the devastating consequences of Sykes-Picot, because there has never been any stability in the intervening century since its implementation. We now have generations of people who know only conflict and aggression, so much so that not only are peace and working towards the common good relatively unknown, but they may also be unwanted. The West has continued to approach the Middle East with rule by proxy in a very short-sighted manner, choosing its allies according to what is profitable, rather than what is right.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.