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Op-Ed: ISIS and A History Lesson on Sykes-Picot

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This commentary on the Sykes-Picot Agreement was written by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. It been republished with permission from the author. 

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Op-Ed: ISIS and A History Lesson on Sykes-Picot

by David L. Phillips

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is determined to redraw borders created by colonial powers in the early 20th Century. Its heinous terror tactics are reprehensible. Yet it has a legitimate grievance against Western countries that carved up the Middle East, with blatant disregard for tribal and sectarian affiliations of the local population.

The History of Sykes-Picot

ISIS released a promotional video entitled “The End of Sykes-Picot.” The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement is a flash-point for Arab resentment. It divided Ottoman Asia into British and French zones of influence. Britain was assigned the Baghdad and Basra districts — Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine. Modern day Syria and Lebanon were given to France.

Sykes Picot Agreement Kurdish Project

The original Sykes-Picot map.

Then-U.S. President Woodrow Wilson objected to the politics of partition by great powers. “Peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as mere chattels and pawns in a game,” warned Wilson. “Every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned.”

Lawrence of Arabia and other petitioners were invited to make their case for statehood at the Paris Peace Conference, which marked the end of World War I. The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919. It established nine new countries out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and drew lines on a map to create the modern Middle East.

The Kurdish Question

Versailles did not, however, address the “Kurdish question.” The Kurdish delegation to the Paris Peace Conference rejected being a part of Turkey. They also rejected the division of Kurdistan into British and French zones of influence. Either way, Kurds faced partition. After four long years of war, Britain lacked the troops, resources, and political will to establish Kurdistan as a unified protectorate under its control.

The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres officially abolished the Ottoman Empire. It required Turkey to renounce all claims in Arab Asia and North Africa. Turkey was reduced to a third of its size before World War I. Kurds were promised a referendum within six months to decide on independence.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who succeeded Ottoman rulers, rejected Sèvres and launched the Turkish War of Independence. His attack against French forces in Syria was a direct challenge to the post-war order orchestrated by the Allies. Britain mobilized Arab tribes in Mesopotamia to stop Atatürk’s advance.

Meanwhile, France initiated secret negotiations with Atatürk that culminated in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

Turkey surrendered its claims to former Arab provinces, but was awarded a large part of northern Syria including Kurdish lands in Cilicia, Nusaybin, and Jazira bin Umar. With support from the League of Nations, Britain kept the oil-rich regions of Mesopotamia including Mosul and the oil fields of Kirkuk. Lausanne conspicuously omitted references to “Kurds” or “Kurdistan.” From Lausanne onward, the Kurdish issue became an issue of a minority rights in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Setting the Stage for Today’s Conflicts

The Sykes-Picot Agreement set the stage for today’s violent conflict in Iraq and the Levant. Syria and Lebanon were established, with their volatile mix of ethnicities and religious groups. Sunnis were enshrined as a minority in Iraq. Kurdistan was partitioned, making the Kurds, who number 40 million today, the largest stateless people in the world.

Kurdish uprising of 1991. Credit: Richard Weyman

Kurdish uprising of 1991. Credit: Richard Weyman

ISIS is determined to right the historical injustice perpetrated by great powers. It wants to rectify a century of humiliation arising from foreign occupation. Dialogue is typically a tool for conflict resolution, but ISIS is beyond dialogue. It wants to slaughter opponents, not talk to them.

Redrawing Boundaries Through Negotiations, Not Force

ISIS is presently marching on Baghdad, but its sights are set on Jordan and the liberation of Palestinian territories. ISIS also targets the Kurds for being pro-Western, pro-American, and pro-democracy. The invasion of Iraq by ISIS is resulting in a new map for the Middle East. Today ISIS controls territory that includes parts of Syria and all of Western Iraq. Its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, is so confident in his control of the new caliphate that he appeared at the Grand Mosque in Mosul to deliver a sermon at Friday Prayers.

ISIS is rightly aggrieved by the arbitrary division of Arab tribes during the early 20th century. But redrawing boundaries should occur through negotiations — not force. Extremism takes root when there is no political process to address grievances.

Iraq’s problem was always too much power for Baghdad. Decentralization to address local concerns would reduce the appeal of ISIS. Iraqis also need to get together for historical dialogue about state-formation in Iraq, which pitted Shiites against Sunnis, and rendered Kurds a captive nation.

Commentary by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the U.S. Department of State during the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. He is also author of the forthcoming book, “The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East” (Transaction Publishers).

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