The Sykes-Picot Agreement and the End of the 20th-Century Middle East. An Interview with Volker Perthes.

On May 16, 1916, France, represented by the diplomat François Georges-Picot, and Great Britain, represented by Mark Sykes, concluded a secret convention to reorder the Middle East after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. The so-called Sykes-Picot Agreement provided the basis for the geopolitical definition of the region that was ratified in the Paris Peace Treaties of 1919/20. Especially the French and British mandates in the region would last until the late 1940s. The state system of today’s Middle East, whose erosion we are currently witnessing, is a direct result of this Western master plan. A conversation with Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), about borders and orders in the Middle East during the last one hundred years and about his new book, Das Ende des Nahen Ostens, wie wir ihn kennen (The End of the Middle East As We Know It).

Your essay, published by Suhrkamp in 2015, is entitled The End of the Middle East As We Know It. What Middle East did we know?

You are right that the title also contains an epistemological question: What do we really know? Do we really know the Middle East or has our knowledge always only scratched the surface and extended to those players that were active internationally, but never to the deep structures of society or alternative players? This is an important question, especially for a research institute such as ours, and we have, in fact, already initiated research projects on new social elites in the Arab world.

Does this mean that the West, in its policy approach to the Middle East since the end of the Second World War, has, in a way, been taken in by a regional fiction by wrongly perceiving certain lines and forces of development?

I would not go that far – regional decision-makers themselves have defined the region as Middle East/North Africa (MENA), as Middle East, or as Arab world; some have tried to define it as an Islamic world. So there have always been attempts by our partners in the Middle East to tell us: “This is a region that has a certain internal coherence, and you have to respect this coherence when doing politics with us.” We were willing to do so, and rightly so. After all, the point is not us defining the region. This is something that took place before the Second World War – that is, after the end of the Ottoman Empire, when the French and the British especially tried to fashion the Middle East according to their ideas.

This leads us directly to the “cipher of Sykes Picot,” as you call it in your essay.

First of all, it needs to be said that the so-called Sykes-Picot Agreement has never been implemented as such. It was first and foremost an attempt by two great powers to reach an agreement between themselves. Parts of it were implemented after the end of the Ottoman Empire and the First World War in the Paris Peace Treaties. In my opinion, the biggest mistake at the time was that key regional players were not taken into consideration to the extent that this would happen in international politics today. Instead, the focus was on the plans and ideas of the European powers. One could say that, at the time, the progressive force was represented by the Americans; they had at least sent a commission to the region and consulted with the population. It was obvious that people in the region had enough ideas about what their region should look like, but those were generously ignored. This was definitely the historical mistake, and then we had very different experiments in carrying out the mandates, with the result that both the French and British were expelled from their mandated territories.

The French were expelled from Syria as late as 1946, and the British from their Palestine mandate even later – but all of this happened within borders that had been drawn by these powers in the first place...

Yes, you might say that the borders and much of what had been created by these states has lasted for a long time. In fact, we might even say that the borders that had been drawn and the states that had originally been formed as territorial units have shown greater stability than the European regional system during the same roughly one hundred years. Europe has seen more border redrawings and territorial conquests, even after the Second World War, for example as a result of the war in Yugoslavia. We sometimes underestimate that the system built by the colonial powers has been comparatively stable, extending also to cultural influences: Until ten, twenty years ago, it was easier in Syria and Lebanon to speak French than English. In Jordan, Palestine, and Iraq, it was easier to speak English than French.

In your book, you mention another aspect to explain the stability of states: You write that Egypt and Tunisia are rather stable states and polities precisely because their identities are not challenged to the same degree. The Tunisians have known who they are since Hannibal, the Egyptians even since Pharaonic times. Both countries draw on pre-Islamic foundational narratives. Can we conclude, conversely, that there is a specific relationship between the concept of the border and Islam?

What is interesting is that the states that cultivate these pre-Islamic identities at the same time have absolutely no problem identifying themselves as Muslim states, but they are nationalizing, as it were, their Islam. Most Egyptians are probably convinced that they have always been Muslims and that Egyptian Islam is the best. There have been similar tendencies in Tunisia, but there the gap between various political elites that have very deliberately defined themselves as secular and Islamic groups, which have at times been pushed into exile, is wider. Ultimately, however, they identify as Tunisians, which makes it possible for today’s Ennahda Party, an Islamic party, to cooperate and enter into a coalition with expressly secular forces.
I believe that this statement becomes relevant only when compared to other countries: Even if people argue over who should rule Egypt or what direction the state should be headed, nobody denies that Egypt will remain united. This is, however, not the case in Libya, this is no longer the case in Syria and in Iraq, and I am not sure whether this will be true much longer for Saudi-Arabia. If you want to have a third example, it is interesting to see that even the Islamic Republic of Iran, despite a brief deviation, continues to cultivate its pre-Islamic culture, and this is what ultimately holds the country together. Everybody knows that there is huge ethnic diversity in Iran; there are significant ideological conflicts, and still, they are all Iranian. People fight over what kind of Iran it should be, but not about whether it should be Iran to begin with.

Does this mean that as soon as a state invokes Islam, it needs to invoke an additional narrative to stabilize its polity and also its borders?

This might be a good theory, but without any further research I do not have an answer to this. My answer would be less far-reaching: I would argue that Islam is as insufficient as a national ideology as Arab nationalism, which has been tried by as many people, including Nasser and the Baathists. It is very difficult to have a social contract between a regime and its own people if you are saying that your point of reference is actually something bigger such as the Arab nation or the Islamic ummah [community of all Muslims – Ed.]. If that is the case, then to whom is a government responsible? There is simply a mismatch between the people and the community that the national ideology refers to. This was not much different with Baathism and Arab nationalism. The reference group is always something much bigger, for which you assume responsibility without, however, if necessary, asking the subjects of these other states whether they want a Baathist leader from Iraq or Syria or an Egyptian president to speak for all of them.

Wasn’t Arab nationalism ultimately a rather rickety political construction to replace the confessional and religious realities of the region with a more Western-style nationalism?

There have certainly been examples of that. In that period of awakening, in which nations try to find themselves, the Arab nationalists wanted to overcome rifts and divisions within their own societies. They tried to do so by constructing or historically reconstructing an even bigger community. This was partly an invented identity, drawing on the Arab nation as a community of all Arab-speaking peoples, who have rarely, however, been subject to the same rule or seen themselves as a community. In my view, the main problem was that the rulers represented rather narrow interests, after all – this is true especially for the Baathist rulers in Syria and Iraq –, and while they talked about the Arab nation and the overcoming of ethnic and confessional boundaries within their nations, they often used this rhetoric to veil their confessional policies. Saddam Hussein, for example, relied mostly on Sunni elites, which were removed from their positions in a Shiite act of revenge after 2003.

You call the Islamic State a “jihadist nation-building project.” When seen in connection with the failure of Arab nationalism, would it be correct to say that the Islamic State is a nation-building project without a nation?

It certainly doesn’t help that it is difficult for us to understand this “ruling organization” (Herrschaftsverband). I deliberately use Max Weber’s term, since it can do without the term of the nation. A ruling organization can take many different forms: a Hell’s Angels charter can be a ruling organization just as a nation-state or an empire can be a ruling organization. For Islamists, the term “nation” does, in fact, not exist; they have the notion of the ummah instead, consciously excluding people of different faiths. But it is, of course, possible to build a state without using the term of the nation. The Islamic State uses the term of the state; “state,” in this case, stands for an organization that organizes power and does most of the things that other states do, too, irrespective of their ideological orientation: they govern, they provide certain services, they recruit soldiers, they create a certain level of security and justice – not what we mean by justice, but they mete out and administer justice according to their standards. These are key functions of a state. The big difference is that the Islamic State is a state that rejects other states and thus is essentially different from the notion of the state as it has developed since the seventeenth century. The Islamic State does not accept other states, let alone at the same level. For them, there can only be the Islamic State.

The Islamic State in the singular.

Yes, the Islamic state in the singular. Whether it will eventually develop another idea of its relationship to other states, certainly depends on how long this so-called Islamic State will exist. In practice, it does, of course, accept the existence of states such as Turkey, Iran, or Saudi Arabia, but it does not accept them as legitimate.

At the beginning of your essay, you make use of Fernand Braudel’s concept of the “longue durée”...

I should rather say, make free with. Braudel, after all, refers to something fundamentally different, including even the flora and fauna and topography. This is something I am obviously not doing.

This perspective on the long-term development makes visible a certain form of simultaneity, e.g., when it comes to the question of the legitimate succession to the Prophet Mohammed and at the same time to the rejection of the boundaries that have resulted from the First World War. Can the Islamic State’s claim to power be seen as standing in the tradition of this longue durée?

I believe this would give too much credit to the Islamic State. If inclusivity, legitimacy, justice do not take place in the here and now, different, more long-term timelines are gaining in importance – as points of orientation and, if necessary, as points of identification. Seen from this perspective, the Islamic State is guided by a very long durée – that is, not the Ottoman Empire but rather the Abbasid Empire. Whether this will ever help them gain legitimacy – God forbid! is what I would say as a secular European – is doubtful, since it takes other things to do so. To base one’s claim on a long historical trajectory – to look to one’s forefathers, in good Salafist tradition – is not enough to build legitimate rule in the here and now.

When talking about Sykes-Picot, it is just a short step to the Balfour Declaration. Does the end of the Middle East as defined by the “cipher of Sykes-Picot” entail a threat to Israel?

I believe there are different answers. On the one hand, there seems to be a growing number of Israelis who advocate a return to the organizational forms of the Ottoman Empire – that is, to a millet system, in which every religious community rules itself. Syria, they say, would be much better organized if there was more than one state. But this is rather a view to the outside. After all, they do not want to give up their state, but to maintain their state as a state with borders, in keeping with the Westphalian model. If we rule out the possibility that the so-called Islamic State will sweep through the entire region – which would, of course, pose an existential threat to Israel and especially its Jewish population –, the big danger is that Israel will not succeed in letting go of its Palestinian territories by drawing borders. We would then have a situation where Israel would have to draw lines according to religion or ethnicity or place of residence within its own territory. This would be anything but inclusive, and it also would not be compatible with the idea of a democratic Jewish state. This, for me, is the real danger. Therefore, one needs to remember now and then that the two-state solution – which the current Israeli government thinks to be impracticable – was invented to be able to preserve Israel as a Jewish-democratic nation-state. I see the danger that this will be carelessly gambled away and that Israel maneuvers itself into a one-state, or one-ruling organization, reality.

To which would be added the nightmare scenario of eroding states at its external borders.

Yes, this is, after all, also a European mantra that we are best off if we are surrounded by a ring of well-functioning states and not by failing or even failed states.

Mr. Perthes, thank you very much for the conversation!
Interview: Lorenz Wesemann
Lorenz Wesemann lives and works as a freelance writer in Offenbach am Main.

Translated by Manuela Thurner

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V.
January 2016

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    Volker Perthes

    Volker Perthes

    Volker Perthes, born in 1958, is a German political scientist and, since 2005, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). One of the most internationally renowned experts on Middle Eastern politics, he wrote his PhD thesis on State and Society in Syria, 1970-1989. His most recent publications include Der Aufstand. Die arabische Revolution und ihre Folgen (The Rebellion: The Arab Revolution and Its Consequences, 2011) and Das Ende des Nahen Ostens, wie wir ihn kennen (The End of the Middle East As We Know It, 2015).

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