Moving beyond Sykes-Picot

This guest blog post is by Stafford Clarry, Humanitarian Affairs Advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Clarry has been in Iraq and Kurdistan since 1991 where he has worked for three different United Nations agencies.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), and the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) are quite well-known and often cited among the people of Kurdistan as milestone events that stopped them from having a country of their own.

Among many in the Middle East the history of prevailing turmoil began with “Sykes-Picot”, the secret British-French agreement that carved up the Ottoman Empire after the First World War – the war to end all wars followed by the peace to end all peace.

Within the Western world too many act as if Middle East history began with the earthshaking overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Middle East is an area of ancient history and rich cultural heritage. More recent, static political perspectives overlook the dynamics of dozens of centuries of social-cultural history and heritage that have contributed to what the Middle East is today. Perhaps no place is this better demonstrated than in Iraq, the modern home of ancient Mesopotamia – the oldest of the world’s cradles of civilization, where writing and agriculture began.

History and heritage are important to help explain social-cultural-economic-political divisions guiding and driving the turmoil that diverts attention and energy from pursuing a peaceful, prosperous, and progressive future. The history of today’s Middle East goes back many millennia, arguably as far back as the Neanderthals of Shanidar Cave in Kurdistan 50,000 years ago.

There’s a UN organization for most anything and everything – health (WHO, UNICEF), education (UNESCO, UNICEF), agriculture (FAO), food and nutrition (WFP), refugees (UNHCR), human rights (UNHRC), atomic energy (IAEA), economic development (UNDP), human settlements (UN-Habitat), etc. There’s even UNOOSA, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.

But there is no crucially needed UN organization to turn back the clock and revise or correct the source history of so much traumatic war and armed conflict, and all forms of turmoil and violence among ethno-sectarian and other groups that adversely impact tens of thousands of Middle Eastern families today.

Getting a grip on the divisions upon divisions within the Middle East is, of course, extremely far from easy. The history and current dynamics are very complex and confusing.

There’s a persistent tendency in the Middle East to find the key cause of internal hurt and harm and grievances in external sources. Though of questionable comfort, it’s a way of coping.

During an earlier era in the Middle East it was said that if two fishes were fighting in the sea there must be a Britisher behind it, that the sun never set on the British Empire because God didn’t trust Englishmen in the dark. Today? Blame America as the crisis commander-in-chief that deliberately created ISIS to keep the Middle East weak and grab all the oil.

Obviously, besides being evasive, of course it’s not so simple. In and of itself, the blame game is useless and goes nowhere, evoking the profoundly succinct line in the film Bridge of Spies, “Would it help?”

Those who suffer threats and intense turmoil in their daily lives often seek answers in discrete historical events like Sykes-Picot and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, events caused by outsiders who many believe are solely responsible for the consequences, overshadowing the involvement and responsibility of insiders.

Sykes-Picot happened a whole century ago. How much “better” would the Middle East be today if Sykes-Picot never happened, what might the alternatives have been – what would the Middle East be like today if it weren’t for Sykes-Picot?

In the Middle East, time, energy, wealth, and opportunity have yet to yield the secure and stable environments that families need to not only survive but thrive. It’s a function of leadership and management. In the meantime, tens of thousands of families suffer life-or-death threats and are displaced from their homes.

There are those who pause and highlight this month’s 100th anniversary of Sykes-Picot, including various analysts and the media, who are taking time and making the effort to mark an uncorrectable historical event as the source of much that has gone wrong.

The real challenge – what’s really needed – is time and sincere effort to bring the many peoples of the Middle East together in the public interest for common cause. This would, quite possibly, include moving beyond Sykes-Picot, treating it dynamically, so that people can become better neighbors and take better care of families within revised borders. Instead, the static Sykes-Picot remains alive and well and lives on.