Borders between countries are unnatural. What separates one country from another are artificial separation lines. Even though many countries were the authors of their fates, there are many who were subject to an external force which created such unnatural borders. So many conflicts, regional tensions, violence, bloodshed, sectarianism, wars, and civil unrest can be traced back, directly or indirectly, to that very first forced creation of unnatural borders. The region that was called “The Middle East” is a perfect example of how unnatural divisions, which are decades old, can still influence current society. The presence of the European imperialists in the early 20th century had a huge impact in defining not only the geopolitical landscape of today’s Middle East, but also its socio-cultural one.
To many people living in the heart of the Middle East, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 is synonymous with the European imperialistic intervention in the Middle East. In this secret agreement assented by the Russian Empire, the colonel Mark Sykes of the British Empire met the French diplomat François George-Picot in order to draw the borders of their influence on the Middle East. Places like modern day Iraq, Syria, and southern Turkey amongst others were divided according to the interests of both empires. The borders agreed upon metamorphosed to become the official borders of several present today countries in the region. What should be noted, though, is that such division was made without any regard to the local ethnic and religious groups of the region. What was important for the European empires was land, power and resources. This meant a complete disregard to any socio-cultural context and to any indigenous local group. Accordingly, the consequences of this action can be felt until today.
Let us take the Kurdish question as an example. The Kurds, an ethnic group with over 40 million persons, with an own culture, history, language, and hundreds of years of existence, seek to this day a non-existent homeland. Even though the right of self-determination is fundamental, the Kurds are currently divided between Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. The unnatural division of the lands led eventually to this group being divided in different nation-states, with each one hostile to any possibility of the formation of “Kurdistan”, a nation for the Kurds. For such a country to form, countries like Turkey, Syria, and Iraq would have to relinquish huge parts of land. This is fiercely fought. Kurdish separatists in Turkey, for instance, are usually labeled as “Terrorists” by the Turkish government while the turbulent situation in Syria and Iraq as a result of the Arab Spring, lead to different armed movements by the Kurds and different conflicts and clashes with the local Arab communities. The Kurdish example isn’t isolated, but a clear example of how the unnatural European play on borders, frontiers, and zones of influence created unnatural conflicts.
The Sykes-Picot was not the only agreement or action that imperialist Europe conducted in the Middle East. Yet the entire shape of the region would have never been the same without such an agreement. It is a clear example of the principal portraying the “Orient” as a savage, chaotic place which needs order and discipline. Furthermore, even though such an agreement was conducted in the early part of the 20th century, the region has always been a chess board for different powers trying to apply and spread their influence. The voices of the indigenous and the locals simply did not matter for the “creation of order”. Foreign intervention, whether it’s direct or indirect, still shapes the region’s map today. So, to conclude, the Sykes-Picot agreement, and others like it, are not the creator of this region’s identity. However, they created a context in which this region’s identities became problematic, and it even lead to blood being shed. Borders are an unnatural act, true, but the violence and tension resulting from drawing such borders was nothing but natural.
- Bertrand Badie (2014). La Fin des territoires, Biblis, CNRS.
- Edward Said (2003). Orientalism, Penguin Classics, 25th anniversary edition.
- Henry Kessinger (1994 – reprint). Diplomacy, Simon and Schuster.
- Amin Maalouf (2001). Les identités meurtrières, Le livre de poche.