Monday, December 30, 2013

Sykes-Picot and Borders

In the middle of a strong post on the Sykes-Picot agreement, Reidar Visser notes an important point:
Sometimes Sykes-Picot is being construed as a complete armchair project by willful European strategists. What is often not realized is the extent to which the agreement merely put on the map patterns of special administrative arrangements that had been in the making under the Ottomans for decades, if not longer. Thus, special Ottoman arrangements for Palestine and Lebanon date back to the nineteenth century: the special administrative district of Lebanon dating to 1861 and the special district of Jerusalem established in the 1870s. As for Iraq, it had been separated entirely from Syria in administrative terms almost since the beginning of Islam – and had for long periods been ruled from Baghdad as a single charge. Again, the only real exception pertains to the Raqqa-Ana borderlands which in brief intervals had gravitated towards Baghdad rather than Damascus. All the talk that these boundaries are a mere hundred years old and that everything was designed by a couple of European colonial strategists is utter unscientific nonsense that collapses immediately upon confrontation with contemporary primary documents, where terms like “Syria” and “Iraq” were in widespread use long before Sykes and Picot even knew where these areas were located.
One thing that bugs me about a lot of Iraq commentary is the degree to which ideas and patterns of ethnic conflict based on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have simply been read unproblematically into other contexts.  The point about boundary drawing comes from sub-Saharan Africa.  Some scholars of the modern Middle East are also unduly impressed by Ottoman administrative boundaries.  Visser is right, however, to point out that administrative arrangements were fluid and geographic concepts always evolving independently of those administrative arrangements.



Blogger Judith Weingarten said...

Hatay province, now Turkey but historically Syria? Sykes & Picot boobed and one day that will also cause trouble, I fear.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Brian Ulrich said...

That wasn't Sykes-Picot. Hatay was disputed between Turkey and the French Mandate of Syria, and I think the latter ceded it to the former in the late 1930's as part of pre-WW II alliance building.

2:56 PM  

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