May 19 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed by diplomats Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot to help Britain and France divide the lands of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Sykes-Picot began to set the boundaries of what became countries like Iraq and Syria—and that’s been tragic for their citizens.From Time Magazine.
The modern history of the Middle East begins with the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
For a brief moment in the 1970s, this looked like a success. Liberal constitutional monarchies and republics prevailed from Afghanistan to Persia to Lebanon. But, in short order, that facade fell apart revealing the fundamentally unstable dynamics that Sykes-Picot set in motion.
When the 1970s moment passed, Afghanistan erupted into war that continued pretty continuously for the next several decades that left its people the most miserable in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa, if not worse. The Iranian revolution replaced the pro-Western Shah with a Shi'ite Islamic theocracy that hated the West with a vengeance.
In the past half century, Iraq has passed from decades of Sunni dominance under Saddam Hussein through a war with Iran, a war with the U.S., years of sanctions, another war with the U.S. . . .War in Lebanon in the early 1980s turned glittering and enlightened Beirut into the type specimen of post-apocalyptic urban wasteland, and in the end, Lebanon's already complex politically brokered truce between its disparate ethnicities was further subjected to a status as a vassal state of Syria.
Before its civil war began, Syria was home to 22 million people. More than half of those people have been forced from their homes. Some 470,000 have been killed, 4.8 million have fled the country, and another 6.5 million are internally displaced. The country’s economy is less than half its prewar size.
Kurds remain the world’s largest stateless minority. About 30 million live within Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, though there are significant cultural and linguistic differences. Iraq’s Kurds inch their way toward independence, while the Kurds of Syria are fighting both President Bashar Assad and ISIS. In Turkey, Kurds are divided between those who want an active role in Turkish politics and others who want independence. The only force engaged in a bid to create new borders in the region is ISIS, which is losing ground in its bid to establish its caliphate.
Syria and Iraq were held together by totalitarian, socialist leaning Baathist one party states. Egypt wound up with something similar. Arabia and its oil wealth with left to a slew of absolute monarchs who have fanned the first of Islamic extremism, while leaving an ethnically divided and dirt poor population in Yemen to wallow in poverty while trying to operate a civilian democratic government that no one has been able to make function properly.
Israel's formation a few decades after the treaty turned millions of Palestinians into people without a country pushed onto something like semi-sovereign Indian Reservations on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, while Arabs sought to unite in war against it, only to be repeatedly defeated. A period of suicide bombing and terror by Palestinians directed at Israelis followed, until it found ways to secure domestic peace and its U.S. ally bribed Saudi Arabia and Egypt to back off starting in the 1970s. Each still received billions of dollars a year of tribute from the U.S. to continue to refrain from attacking Israel.
Jordan is perhaps the only country in the region which has avoided complete havoc and isn't horribly screwed up itself under a relatively wise king unspoiled by the unchecked power that comes with excess oil wealth. But, it has been hampered with dealing with the fallout of first Palestinian and then Iraqi and then Syrian refugees, and is only marginally democratic or free itself.
In short, the Middle East and North Africa are a dreadful, violent, inhumane mess with no easy solutions on the horizon. And, while it couldn't have prevented all of these problems, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, by disrespecting the nationalist principal of ethnically and religiously based states, and embracing unstable systems that put minority factions in charge of ruling post-World War I states, simply made a bad situation worse in the long run.