Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Erasing Sykes-Picot

by Elliott Abrams
May 17, 2013

Map of Sykes-Picot Agreement (Courtesy Wikipedia Commons/Rafy December 28, 2011).


Much has been written about whether the instability in Iraq, the warfare in Syria and the crises this causes for Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, the Kurdish drive for autonomy (at least) in Iraq and Turkey, will at some point combine to unravel the Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and England in 1916. Put another way, the question is whether the borders established in the context of the First World War will stick.

Here is one answer: they are effectively gone already, whether as a legal matter they disappear or remain. After all, when Iran can send any amount of arms through Syria and Iraq to its allies and proxies in Lebanon–ignoring the Lebanese government and Lebanese border–what is left of borders? Iran has in effect an open space running from the Afghan border to the Mediterranean, where it can place arms and soldiers almost at will. We know that Iranian IRGC forces are in Syria, and we know that Hezbollah forces from Lebanon are fighting there too. We know that just as jihadis from all over the world crossed from Syria into Iraq, ignoring that border to fight the Americans, today they are arriving across borders into Syria, now to fight the Assad regime.

Other examples can be cited. The border between Gaza and Egyptian Sinai is breached and mocked by hundreds of smuggling tunnels. The huge flow of Syrian refugees, now probably 1.5 million, moves across borders to seek safety. In fact it seems the only real, stable borders still existing are those of Israel. And that is in good part because Israel has built elaborate security barriers north, east, and most recently south, to demarcate and defend them. Israel’s borders exist on the ground, and the great irony is of course that they are the only boundaries in the region that do not exist on maps and are viewed as temporary until a peace agreement with Syria and with the Palestinians is achieved.

Most of the lines Sykes and Picot marked on maps still remain, but they have less and less reality. Changing national borders formally, with the approval of all parties and the United Nations as well, seems nearly impossible. But ignoring them, breaching them, and erasing them on the ground, where actual human beings live, seek refuge, make war, survive, or die–well, that has already happened to a very striking degree.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Steve

    The US Mexican border is also as porous. And that is indicative of what? The borders established by the Colonial powers in the Middle East (except for Israel since 1948) were never enforced by anyone. This is nothing new. Iran in some measure controls Iraq thanks to people like the author and his ideas. The fact that Iran can move troops into Syria and Lebanon is itself indicative of nothing except open sea lanes. The US moved troops into Vietnam – there was still a border. Israel has real borders because it is a real country whose population is utterly different than the population surrounding it, not because of security barriers. They are an illustration, not a cause. I could go on and on.

  • Posted by MTaha

    I think “Sykes-Picot” is a typical example for the imposed western solutions. The usual problem is; it may take some time to get the backfire. However in case of Israel, it fired back once the imposed solution was put into force. And the results were so obvious shortly and still.

  • Posted by MTaha

    Steve, I enjoyed you “global” point of view. While mine is domestic, since who suffers not like who analyze.

  • Posted by Gary Goldman

    If Sykes-Picot is gone, is it possible to go back to the point before July, 1920 when the French, enforcing Sykes/Picot, defeated Faisal’s forces and destroyed Arab unity? At that point, the Faisal/Weizmann Agreement might still have been implemented. Faisal had agreed to accept Zionism in Palestine as long as he and the Arabs got the free, united Arab nation they had been promised by the British. When the French seized Syria/Lebanon, the dream of a united Arabia was shattered. Faisal was given Iraq by the British, and his Hashemite cousin Abdullah was given Trans-Jordan. Not a bad deal for the Arabs, but not enough to get them to honor the Faisal/Weizmann Agreement and tolerate Jewish immigration.

    Is it now possible – or desirable – to unite Syria, Lebanon and Jordan? Is it desirable to unite them with Iraq? Is it desirable to unite all or some of them under King Abdullah of Jordan, scion of the Hashemite family, perhaps as a constitutional monarchy? — Would this create a stable, multi-ethnic, tolerant Arabia that would live in peace with Israel? Or would it create a powerful and aggressive Arab monster?

  • Posted by Steve


    Unfortunately we all suffer from the shallow, supposedly profound, thoughts of this author and people like him. They encouraged an invasion into Iraq, knowing nothing about the people and sectarian hatreds. They want to displace Assad, knowing nothing of what will follow. They are concerned over the borders in the Middle East, but not concerned with their own country’s border, which is more porous than any in the Middle East. Everyone knows the foolishness of the British and French, the point is to try and avoid emulating them.

  • Posted by Omar I B Nashashibi

    The amazing straight lines borders that Churchill joyfully noted , enjoyed, mocked and cherished that separate Arab countries: Jordan/Syria, Syria/Iraq, Iraq/Kuwait, Syria/Palestine, Egypt/Libya etc are fake artificial borders historically willed and executed by Alien colonialists, Sykes-Picot (Britain/France) that are now maintained, protected and sustained by the neocolonial (USA ).
    These borders were bound to fall, as noted in the article, at the first trans fake states borders by the latest Arab popular uprising(s) having never attained any degree of legitimacy or acceptance with the peoples concerned for artificially separating Arab from Arab for non Arab purposes.
    The WALL, Israel’s present interim security border, did and does hold for separating Arab from non Arab ALIEN colonialist.

    That the ALIENS in question happen to be residing in an Arab land conquered and colonized in a joint Zionist/imperialist onslaught on Palestine does not change the fact that for now beyond the WALL resides a majority of ALIEN colons separated by that Wall from the whole region.
    For now the WALL is a real border for separating indigenous from ALIEN!

  • Posted by Steve

    Men do not spring from the ground when it is sown, and the Arabs perfectly and unreservedly accept the right to obtain land by conquering it – it is Islamic law after all. The Israelis are indigenous to THEIR land – Israel. Israel is is fact the only “real” nation between Sinai and Iran. No other border between has any meaning.

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