To understand Syria today, we must look to history

The Middle East is in reality an organic place where local identities are as strong as ideological attachments.

Anniversary of the Syrian uprising
A Syrian refugee pulls a cart with boys at the Zattari refugee camp near Mafraq city, Jordan [EPA]

On the fourth anniversary of the Syrian revolution/civil war, despite hundreds of thousands of dead and the destruction of the country, the conflict remains no closer to resolution. As many have remarked, this war involves the many complex political dynamics in the region and beyond, all in one tragic place. Today, that conflict, even more than the wars in Iraq and Lebanon that preceded it, exposes a region in deep flux. Throughout the Middle East, the political structures inherited from the early 20th century have been shaken to their very roots.

Indeed with the rise of the cross-border Islamic State, many wonder about the fate of “Sykes-Picot”, that French-English (and orginally Russian) accord from 1916 that created the zones of influence of European powers, and ultimately the borders of many Middle East states.

The ‘Sykes-Picot’ borders ISIL wants gone

Sykes-Picot was “Made in Europe” and represented the great carve up by colonial powers, and is often attacked for its disregard for local inhabitants. It created ethnically mixed states such as Lebanon, Syria and Iraq whose viability today is in deep question. Their fragmentation is so intense that, today, even the detractors of Sykes-Picot cling to those very constructs as the last line of defence against regional chaos.

Regional dynamics

The reality of the region however may be more complicated; three other regional dynamics need to be looked before assessing the decisions of Messrs. Sykes and Picot.

The first derives out of the meeting point between European-style centralised states and the region’s political dynamics. Political parties and sectarian groups in the Middle East were as drawn to centralised power as bees are to honey. The result was “the grab” by any one group, leaving others in the lurch, waiting for revenge and their turn at the wheel.

Today, in Iraq and Lebanon, Shia Muslims feel it is their turn to control after being ignored for decades by Sunnis or Maronites. The same applies in Syria, where the Assad clan clings madly on, with an inevitable backlash. All coveted power, but few, if any, were committed to alternating it with others once seized.

The second dynamic underlies this process. Until the borders of Sykes-Picot were created, the Middle East was one large interconnected region. This was indeed under the patronising cover of empire, where the sword of Damocles hung above any dissenting group. But, Middle Easterners are aware of this connectivity; their family connections and origins often weave from Cairo to Aleppo to Amman.

French people entering Beirut, Lebanon - January 1, 1919 [Getty] 
French people entering Beirut, Lebanon – January 1, 1919 [Getty] 

National sentiments abound today, but so does regional connection, including through language and music, to arguments about the best “knefeh”. The region has much in common from cultural memory encompassing literature, folk tales to faith, but that considerable and rich heritage lost out to the forces of greedy political evolution.

The creation of Israel created a large block to this historical flow in the region. Suddenly, Jerusalem and Jaffa, among other cities, were cut off from the rest of the Arab world. Centres of gravity shifted, Beirut grew more important with the decline of Haifa after 1948, and transporation corridors, pipeline routes and trade were diverted.

But it was also the rise of highly centralised security states in the Arab world that did equal if not greater damage to flow. They guarded their borders with the bureaucratic inefficiency of those who fear for their state’s viability, and natural connections slowed. However, the memory remained: in a different Middle East, many dream of being able to drive in a weekend from Aleppo to Jerusalem.

Undoing Sykes Picot

The third reality is that those who have wanted to reconnect the region, and undo Sykes-Picot, have been heavily ideological, whether Pan-Arab nationalists, Baathists, Muslim Brothers, or, unfortunately, today’s so-called Islamic State. There have been many dreams of one region, whether a united Arab world or an “Umma”, but exclusion, oppression and violence marked the methods of the unifiers.

The ideologues naturally created enemies, or just plain old failed, and they could not translate lofty ambitions into workable realities. Their grand plans were also challenged by Israel, the West, Kurds, and other parties, ethnicities, and individuals that simply differed with, or did not trust, their vision.  

Even when put into practise, these approaches suffered from being too dogmatic, lacking realism in the face of challenge, as well as the particular intolerance of the ideological, despite claims otherwise. Applying a single ideology on to a region as varied and feisty the Middle East is as difficult as herding cats. All and sundry were suspicious of top-down approaches or cookie-cutter formulas and bucked the trend. The result was that no overarching framework could be established.

National sentiments abound today, but so does regional connection, including through language and music, to arguments about the best 'knefeh'. The region has much in common from cultural memory encompassing literature, folk tales to faith, but that considerable and rich heritage lost out to the forces of greedy political evolution.


Nevertheless, despite the mess, the region is interconnected. What happens in Aleppo doesn’t stay in Aleppo; the region is already integrated, just very badly so. The reverberations of Syria are felt in Lebanon and Iraq; the siege and suffering in Gaza spill over into Israel and Egypt; the lack of a strong Egypt affects regional geopolitics, as does Iran’s overstretch; the images on Arab satellite TV affect minds from Rabat to Baghdad. The region is a living organism where one part directly affects another. It is just not articulated in a fashion to do so in a healthy and sustainable fashion.

These three realities – the grasp for centralised power, the mere memory of connection, and forced integration through ideology – cannot lead to a healthy region. However, if ideology is left behind what will bind people?

Coal and steel bound Europe after World War II, and water and energy has been put forward as a parallel for the Middle East. The lack of water and the uneven distribution of energy in the region speak to this logic. Free trade, new economic arrangements, inftrastructural grids, and even regional security frameworks have also all been put forward as options. But, so far, the pragmatic has lost to the ideological, to the fervours of identity and the accompanying distrust. No one thinks in such terms in the Middle East – the grab is still on.

European scenario

Indeed, the European scenario was to establish strong nation-states, and suffer two world wars before proceeding to integration, but this approach does not bode well for the Middle East. Indeed, the problem may also lie in the very word, “European”. Maybe the Middle East was never made for the European style nation-state, or for that linear sequence: strong nation states, competition, war, exhaustion, and finally, integration.

Due to a rather extensive history, the Middle East may simply be a much more organic place where local identities are as strong as national or ideological attachments. This can of course lead to the chaos we are tragically witnessing, or it can serve as the natural basis for another approach, the opposite of the centralised state with its many lures: decentralisation. The answers may lie in future political structures that permit the local to breathe alongside the national, while pursuing regional integration.

The memories are right: an integrated region is the natural state. Beirut needs Jerusalem as much as Damascus needs Baghdad. Movement, and the mixture of cultures made the region rich in the first place, and Sykes-Picot put a deep dent in that deeper reality.

In many ways, the Middle East today is seeking itself and that very integration, if very badly so. But, as long as the power grabs, identity fixations and distrust rule, then, Sykes-Picot or not, the region will remain without structure and a zone of conflict.

Meanwhile, in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, the ideologues and the power-hungry, the pied-pipers, continue to lead citizens into the political wilderness, and away from the less exciting but more constructive effort of developing an integrated Middle East.

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.