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Sykes-Picot and “Artificial” States

  • Aslı Bâli (a1)


A century after they met to conclude a secret agreement dividing Ottoman territories into British and French zones of influence, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot have been back in the news. Images of an ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) bulldozer rolling over a small section of the frontier between Syria and Iraq in order to destroy the “Sykes-Picot” border shone a spotlight on the agreement. Western commentators reflecting on the centenary of the agreement have tended to share the view that colonial borders bear a share of responsibility for the ills of the region. The underlying argument is that the “artificial” boundaries drawn by European colonial powers produced faultlines that have driven subsequent conflicts.

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1 Ruthven, Malise, The Map ISIS Hates, Nyr Daily (June 25, 2014, 1:45 PM).

2 Ignatius, David, Piecing together the shattering Middle East, Wash. Post (June 17, 2014).

3 Frontier Dispute Case (Burkina Faso v. Mali), 1986 ICJ REP. 554, 565 (Dec. 22): “[Uti possidetis] is a general principle, which is logically connected with the phenomenon of obtaining independence, wherever it occurs. Its obvious purpose is to prevent the inde pendence and stability of new states being endangered by fratricidal struggles provoked by the challenging of frontiers following the withdrawal of the administering power.”

4 James Gelvin, Don’t blame Sykes-Picot, OUPBLOG (Feb. 7, 2015).

5 Among earlier significant agreements, for example, was the “Reglement Organique” that separated Mount Lebanon from Syria. An international commission composed of France, Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire came to a joint agreement that the territory would be given a semi-autonomous status. Farah, Caesar, Politics of Interventionism In Ottoman Lebanon, 1830-1861 (2000).

6 The final link in the chain came in 1939 with the cession of Alexandretta/Hatay province from the French mandate of Syria to Turkey through an arrangement brokered by the League of Nations. Jorum, Emma, Beyond Syria’s Borders: A History of Terri Torial Disputes in the Middle East 9194 (2006).

7 See, e.g., Danforth, Nick, Forget Sykes-Picot. It’s the Treaty of Sèvres That Explains the Modern Middle East, Foreign Pol’y (Aug. 10, 2015).

8 Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (2015).

9 Visser, Reidar, Proto-political conceptions of ‘Iraq’ in late Ottoman times, 3 Int’l J. Contemp. Iraqi Stud. (2009).

10 Pursley, Sara, ‘Lines Drawn on an Empty Map’: Iraq’s Borders and the Legend of the Artificial State (Part 1), Jadaliyya (June 2, 2015).

11 Peters, Ralph, Blood Borders: How a better Middle East would look, Armed Forces J. (June 1, 2006).

12 Goldberg, Jeffrey, After Iraq: A report from the new Middle East—and a glimpse of its possible future, The Atlantic (Jan./Feb., 2008).

13 Wright, Robin, Imagining a Remapped Middle East, Int’l N.Y. Times Sunday Rev. (Sep. 28, 2013)

14 There is indigenous Kurdish support for an autonomous Kurdistan. While sometimes expressed in secessionist terms, there are equally arguments in favor of autonomy in a federal arrangement—whether in Iraq ( Salih, Cale, Kurdistan Isn’t About to Leave Iraq Amid ISIS Fighting, Times (Aug. 6, 2014)), Syria ( Barnard, Anne, Syrian Kurds Hope to Establish a Federal Region in Country’s North, Int’l N.Y. Times (Mar. 16, 2016)) , or Turkey (PKK leader reiterates Kurdish confederation a ‘stateless solution’, Daily News (Apr. 8, 2013))—without new borders.

15 Goldberg, Jeffrey, The New Map of the Middle East: Why should we fight the inevitable break-up of Iraq?, The Atlantic (June 19, 2014).

16 Ratner, Stephen R., Drawing a Better Line: Uti Possidetis and the Borders of New States , 90 AJIL 590, 617 (1996).

17 Tripp, Charles, A History Of Iraq 37 (2d ed., 2002) (noting that the lands of Mesopotamia had been designated al-’Iraq since the eighth century by Arab geographers, were incorporated as an administrative unit in the Ottoman empire during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the common effects of nineteenth century Ottoman reform integrating the three provinces into a cohesive unit with a multiethnic, multiconfessional population). See also, Reider Visser & Gareth Stansfield, Iraq of its Regions (2007).

18 Pursley, supra note 10.

19 The contrast with the African experience, where indigenous populations explicitly marked postcolonial borders as artificial, is striking. See Mutua, Makau wa, Why Redraw the Map of Africa: A Moral and Legal Inquiry, 16 Mich. J. Int’l L. 1113 (1995).

20 The “Règlement Organique,” negotiated from 1860-64 granted Lebanon a semiautonomous status half a century before World War I. Farah, supra note 5.

21 For the full King-Crane report, see The King-Crane Commission Report, August 28, 1919. See also Danforth, Nick, The Middle East That Might Have Been, The Atlantic (Feb. 13, 2015).

23 ‘Senseless cycle of violence’ in South Sudan must end—Un humanitarian chief, Un News Centre.

24 Silva, Mario, After Partition: The Perils of South Sudan, 3 U. Balt. J. Int’l L. 63 (2015).

25 Gebreluel, Goitom & Tronvoll, Kjetil, South Sudan’s Post-Secession Crisis in Comparative Perspective, Yale J. Int’l Aff. (Mar. 12, 2014) (surveying the postpartition trajectories of South Sudan, Eritrea, and Somaliland).

Sykes-Picot and “Artificial” States

  • Aslı Bâli (a1)


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