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Turkey’s operation in northern Syria signals the end of Sykes-Picot

March 6, 2020 at 1:00 pm

Turkish soldiers seen during a patrol in the Idlib de-escalation zone in Syria on 20 February 2020 [İbrahim Hatib / Anadolu Agency]

The conflict in Syria has entered a critical, completely different stage. This is the first time that Turkey has put such military weight into the war with the Assad regime. There is also a heavy Russian presence and an important role, albeit blurred at this stage, for Iran in the background.

Accelerating events and developments raise questions about the future of the whole region, not just Syria. Are we, for example, facing the end of the Sykes-Picot era and a change to the nation states established during and after the colonial period?

Analysts saw that the spread of Arab revolutions from Tunisia across the region were an attempt to change the status quo. Ultimately, that they would lead to a change in the lines on the map drawn by Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot in 1916 dividing the Ottoman territories in the interests of Britain and France respectively. After independence, the colonial spheres of influence became the modern states we know today.

This analysis has been used by three distinct groups. The first regards the nation states produced by Sykes-Picot as sacred, and uses the analysis to warn about revolutions threatening the countries as we know them. The second includes those who believe in nationalist ideals, whether Islamic or Arab, and believed – at least during the first few months of the revolutions – that they could lead to unity in the region beyond Sykes-Picot, although not by dismantling the nation states altogether. The third are orientalist Zionists, the most important of whom is Elof Bin, who demanded that the occupation state of Israel should be prepared to face this analysis.

READ: The world fiddles while Idlib burns 

Although many parties adopted this approach, they were a minority. At the beginning, revolutions were local and national, even though the slogans fit every Arab country and people. Nevertheless, the demands of each revolution were primarily local, with national or Islamic dreams in their background, of course.

The Tunisian revolution overthrew the head of the regime and Egypt followed suit. Both revolutions ended without too much blood or sabotage of the state, although repression led to the fall of hundreds of martyrs in each. The general characteristic of both was a revolution within the state, and not against the state. Things could have been the same in Libya, but the nature of the bloody regime led to the collapse of the state, not simply the fall of its head. Moreover, the Libyan state was not at the same level as Egypt’s and Tunisia’s in terms of organisation, the army and bureaucracy.

With the start of the transitional phase in Egypt and Tunisia, and even Libya and Yemen, it seemed that the chances of the analysis based on changing the characteristics of the products of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, or features resulting at the end of the French and British colonialism, were slim. New forces created by the revolutions in all of these countries have raised local and national slogans and their programmes were purely internal.

These forces, especially the Islamists, were more patriotic than those who accused them of lacking patriotism and being dependent on international ideologies and organisations. The political performance of these forces was focused on crossing the transitional phase and achieving local goals related to reform, eliminating corruption and developing the economy, democracy and freedoms, but this path was dealt a major blow by the counter-revolutions. Indeed, it is fair to say that, contrary to what was expected by some, the blow to nation states came from the counter-revolutions, not the revolutions.

Irregular migrants hold placards reading "open the border gates" as they continue to wait in Edirne, Turkey to reach Greece on 3 March 2020. [Gökhan Zobar - Anadolu Agency]

Irregular migrants hold placards reading “open the border gates” as they continue to wait in Edirne, Turkey to reach Greece on 3 March 2020. [Gökhan Zobar – Anadolu Agency]

Regional counter-revolutionary states have supported the rebel General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. This support has led the transitional phase to stop at the conflict stage between two governments, basically two states in the same country; a conflict between the Government of National Accord in Tripoli in the west, and Haftar’s parliamentarians in the east. Backed by regional states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, the conflict has brought the rebuilding of the nation state in Libya to a standstill, at least for now.

Those same countries supported a military coup in Egypt, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds or possibly thousands of citizens; the arrest of tens thousands; and the displacement of thousands more. After the coup, the state maintained its military and bureaucratic cohesion, and imposed an imaginary stability based on repression and an iron fist, but the repercussions and side effects of the coup have also led to weakened faith in the state among Egyptians.

The new regime consciously and unconsciously worked to perpetuate this image by dividing the people into two groups using politics and the security agencies to repress the population; a compliant media is managed by the state and accuses opponents of lacking patriotism. Many opposition groups now see the state as an enemy, not just a political opponent. The coup regime under Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has erased the image of the nation state as defined by the people after independence.

The Houthi coup in Yemen, with Iranian support, undermined the state. The country has been effectively divided into three: the Houthis control the capital and parts of the north; the rest of the north is under the legally-elected president; and the south is basically under the control of separatist forces backed by the UAE.

In Syria, the regime has played the largest and most dangerous role in dividing the country and destroying the nation state, although it has developed a theory which blames a global conspiracy against the state in order to counter the revolution. However, the Assad regime’s repression led to the militarisation of the revolution and to the geographical and political division of Syria. The regime allowed Iran and its militias, and then Russia, into the country, turning Syria into a free house for foreign intervention. The state has thus become the weakest link, despite all the slogans about sovereignty, the state and confronting the conspiracy.

Turkey has given Europe a choice: deter Russia from bombing Idlib, or face more refugees 

Although Syria was a failed nation state years ago, Turkey’s military operation now taking place in the north of the country represents an important detail in its collapse. Regardless of how the conflict ends, the result will be the collapse of the state, even if only for a while. If Turkey is able to impose a buffer zone under the control of the forces it backs, and enforce the terms of the Sochi Agreement in the de-escalation zones, which seems likely so far, this will mean the almost total collapse of the nation state, possibly only temporarily. If Turkish efforts fail, this will still reinforce the collapse of the state, and Russia will emerge as the biggest controller of the country, with Iran having partial control over some parts.

In addition to the geographical and political division, the Turkish operation has shown in an unprecedented way the collapse of the nation state on a demographic level. The popular blessing for the operation in Idlib, and the support for it from a large majority of displaced and refugee Syrians, does not represent a betrayal of the state as the regime and its supporters are claiming. Deep analysis suggests an end to the belief in the state held by a large portion of its people; it is perceived now as a nightmarish enemy and killer, rather than the focus of a sense of belonging and citizenship. The collapse of the state begins with the feelings which are held towards it. The state is not an idol to be worshipped, so if it fails to achieve its foundational goals in the modern sense, it’ll be writing its own downfall.

The regime in Syria could have preserved the state if only it had used a little wisdom and reform, but it insisted on being the main factor in its collapse by its aggressive response to the 2011 protests which sought social rather than regime change. Whatever the outcome of the battles taking place between Turkey and the regime and its allies in northern Syria, it surely marks the end of the nation state as we knew it after Sykes-Picot and the end of the colonial era.

Will this be in the interest of the region and its people? We cannot know for sure, and any analysis of the results will be far from accurate until calm is restored on the ground. What we know for sure is that the region was reshaped by the end of colonialism in the form planned by the colonial powers themselves, and that the Arab region as a whole is witnessing a historical movement for major changes, the results of which cannot be predicted before the end of the conflict.

Translated from Arabi21, 2 March 2020

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