Post-Sykes Picot, Revisited

Soldiers meet with tribes. Mosul, 17 September 2007.

Check out Paragh Khanna‘s new article, on the end of the nation-state. He makes a familiar argument: globalization has unleashed a devolution in state authority that will ultimately usher in new forms of governance. Although the piece has its problems, I’m most intrigued by how he foresees this playing out in the Middle East.

Cynics often read the Levant’s current sectarian issues, such as tensions with religious minorities such as Shi’a and Coptic Christians, as a social failure. The reality is much more complicated. The degree to which minorities regard each other with suspicion is usually directly related to an overall sense of instability, which pervades their lives. There have been a variety of reasons why this has been the case in the modern Middle East, from competition over limited resources, to state agitation, to the long-term social consequences of civil strife, and so on.

Regardless, today, many of these problems can only be addressed by a fundamental redefinition of nation-state in the region, and the social contracts that it helps facilitate. Khanna more-or-less agrees:

Nowhere is a rethinking of “the state” more necessary than in the Middle East. There is a sad futility to the reams of daily analysis on Syria and Iraq that fail to grasp that no state has a divine right to exist. A century after British and French diplomats divided the Ottoman Empire’s eastern territories into feeble (and ultimately short-lived) mandates, the resulting states are crumbling beyond repair.

The Arab world will not be resurrected to its old glory until its map is redrawn to resemble a collection of autonomous national oases linked by Silk Roads of commerce. Ethnic, linguistic and sectarian communities may continue to press for independence, and no doubt the Palestinians and Kurds deserve it. And yet more fragmentation and division, even new sovereign states, are a crucial step in a longer process toward building transnational stability among neighbors.

Certainly, but perhaps not in the way that Khanna is presenting it. “Autonomous national oases” could ultimately mean that cities gain control of their own commerce with limited state control, but what mechanism will facilitate that? How will decisions be made, in those cities themselves, and also more broadly? And what would the demands of long-marginalized communities, such as Kurds and Palestinians, really look like in such models? Statehood has taken on multiple promised qualities for these groups, and not all of them will be satisfied by new boundaries.

We need to look at multiethnic cities such as Mosul in particular to see how these questions are answered over the next few generations. How will social relations change in tense and divided cities operating in a crumbling state landscape? It is obvious that the Sykes-Picot agreement served the interests of imperial powers more than those of the region. It’s also true, as has been stated repeatedly in recent years (especially in Souciant) that the Middle East it made is dissolving. But it is still too early to say what we’re transitioning to, and whether it will be democratic.


Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Army. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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