The end of Sykes-Picot 1.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret agreement made between France and Britain during the First World War. It laid the foundation for the states of the modern Middle East.[1] The Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire were carved up into British and French spheres of influence. Soon thereafter, these spheres were re-labeled League of Nations “Mandates” out of deference to the self-righteous scold, Woodrow Wilson. Later, the British area got independence as Jordan, Iraq, and Israel; while the French area got independence as Syria and Lebanon. Events triggered by the American invasion of Iraq (2003) have now called into question the survival of some of these states.

First in line for the chopping block is Syria.[2] The Russians intervened to save their client Assad from defeat at the hands of his American-associated enemies. President Obama warned that the Russians were headed into another quagmire like Afghanistan. It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way so far. War in eastern Syria might be just such a quagmire. Vladimir Putin might just decide that half a loaf is better than none and also better than trying to get the whole loaf. That half a loaf is likely to include Aleppo. An Assadist state in western Syria seems an increasingly likely outcome.

There doesn’t seem to be any plan yet to settle the fighting in Western Syria so that everyone can turn their guns on ISIS. Also, it’s pretty hard to imagine the former foes in the civil war just deciding to let bygones be bygones. How would they co-operate with one another? It isn’t clear that the Russians have any interest in a longer war in eastern Syria. In any joint struggle against ISIS the Assad government would have the upper hand over the non-ISIS forces provided that the Russians continued to provide air support. Government territorial gains and the accumulation of captured arms would further shift the balance in favor of the government. All sides must be pretty war-weary at this point. Again, half a loaf is better than none.

The Syrian Kurds represent another problem. Fighting ISIS when lots of Sunni Arabs would not has won them the favor and military assistance of the United States. However, Kurdish nationalism, rather than a principled opposition to ISIS, has motivated the Kurdish fight. Both the Sunni Arabs and the Turks recognize this reality. An autonomous or independent Kurdistan poses a serious threat to Turkey. The Turks—rightly—do not accept a distinction between Kurdish groups fighting in Syria or Iraq and Kurdish groups fighting inside Turkey. The recent suicide bombing of a military convoy in Ankara just turned up the heat in this conflict.[3] The United States has been trying to square this circle (just as it tried to reconcile Saudi Arabian and Iranian conflicts in the Iranian nuclear deal). The Russians have no such problem. The Turks shot down a Russian jet on a thin excuse. Putin will be happy to encourage the Kurds. The Syrian Kurds objectively allied themselves with the Russians and the Assad regime in recent attacks on Sunni Arab rebel forces. This may reduce American leverage on the Kurds.

For the moment, this part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement seems headed toward an Assad state in western Syria, a Kurdish state in northern Syria, and the ISIS Caliphate in eastern Syria. That’s unlikely to be the final word on the issue.

Then there is Iraq and Lebanon.

[1] To the extent that a place where ISIS can flourish can be called “modern.” This isn’t a permanent condition. Any culture can go through a bad patch. Mark Mazower called his history of 20th Century Europe The Dark Continent.

[2] Jaroslav Trofimov, “Prospect of Syria’s Partition Looms Despite Cease-Fire,” WSJ, 4 March 2016.

[3] “How they see us: Fighting against Turkey’s interests,”, The Week, 4 March 2016, p. 17.

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