The Sykes-Picot agreement is without a doubt much of the blame for the current status of the Middle East, to bear the blame and to be responsible are two different things.
As a member of the Palestinian diaspora and Arab youth, I find it silly that the Sykes-Picot agreement remains a topic of blame for the Middle East's current state of affairs. My own knowledge of the Sykes-Picot agreement came by accident as I was listening to some political discussion at my house. It was described as the complete undoing of Arab unity, a strategic plan by the superpowers at the time to quell any possibility of the resurgence of an Arab-Islamic renaissance. The golden age of Islam and Arabs had come to an end through the working of a British and French diplomat.
The Sykes-Picot agreement led to a dissection of the Middle East, dividing up zones of influenceto be controlled by Western imperialists. The underlying premise is that it has shaped what the Middle East has become today; states that were founded on principles of ultra-nationalism instead of a sense of unity with one another.
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The Arab Defeatist and Sykes-Picot
The reality is that the Sykes-Picot agreement has had a lasting influence on the Middle East, in the sense that it laid the foundation for Arab defeatism. If you ask an Arab today, “What is wrong with the Middle East?” they will list many issues and problems—ask them about the cause and they will mention the Sykes-Picot agreement. But while it did indeed shape the foundations of the Middle East, it has little relevance to the current state of affairs. To deem it the reason for what we have become, and the culprit behind our faults, is to simply ignore our own hand in our own demise and everything that has happened since.
Palestine has been under occupation by a settler-colonial regime since 1948, with May 15 marking 68 years of occupation. The continued colonization of Palestine only relates to the Sykes-Picot agreement in one sense: it is cited by many to explain why liberation has yet to come and blamed for our lack of action. It is cited as an example of British prowess and forward thinking and as an example of our own weakness and subjugation by the West. The best thing to come out of the Sykes-Picot agreement for the powers-that-be is that it instilled the foundations for an internalized colonization. Today, the Middle East continues to see itself as the result of Western dominance. Yet it isn't a 100-year-old agreement that has decided the fate of the Middle East; it is current and much more recent causes, from American wars, trade agreements, weapons deals, puppet-governments and several ongoing catastrophes. As we fail to evaluate our ongoing developmental obstacles, to critique and revise our own policies; our governments, political establishments and business elites have become the de-facto enforcers of the agreement.
The problem is civil obedience. A lack of political engagement has lead to an environment where government policies have gone completely unchallenged. But there is a shimmer of hope. While some would point to the Arab Spring as an example of political engagement or action, and consider it a failed experiment due to the deadly response unleashed by governments, the neglected consideration is that the Arab Spring was the result of years and years of a lack of political engagement and opposition, where the public’s only remaining option was a complete revolt. An expectation of immediate change is unrealistic—the Arab Spring is ongoing and political engagement and opposition to the status quo is growing.
The Sykes-Picot agreement did not lay the foundations for the colonization of Palestine, it merely allowed for its acceptance. Palestine went from being a British colony to becoming an Israeli state. It wasn't the carving up by Sykes or Picot that lead to the boundaries that allowed for this to happen, it was merely a symbolic gesture meant to assert the dominance of the West. The Ottoman empire, the previous power in control of Palestine and much of the Middle East, was already crumbling under its own weight. Its demise was the reason for the subsequent British control of Palestine; with or without the agreement, Palestine was to be taken. Today, it isn't the lines that were drawn up by the Sykes-Picot agreement that are to blame for Palestine's ongoing colonization, it is our own perceptions of weakness, our lack of action and our displaced blame.
It isn't the British or the French that have damned me and many Palestinians to a life of diaspora, it is the Middle East which has. To fall into a game of blame is to reduce the incentive for action. I don't blame the Sykes-Picot agreement for the current state of affairs and, even if I did, it is 100 years old. That alone is enough to consider it null and void. The Middle East no longer belongs to the French or the British. It is not under direct imperialist rule; it belongs to itself, and it defines its own borders and rises or falls under the weight of its own actions. There are many reasons why the Middle East has become such a hotbed of destruction, chaos and halted development, and rulers of the Middle East—some of course backed by the imperialists of old—bare much of the blame.
While Western influence has played a significant role in the Middle East, it is influence that we have all to often accepted and rejoiced at. Just as we watch the continued colonization of Palestine, the destruction of Syria and the obliteration of Iraq, we continue to allow age-old agreements to define our present and future, without standing against the biggest obstacle to change today: our comfort with inaction and fear of disobediance.