“There’s no such thing as an original sin.” Elvis Costello
In 1494 Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas dividing the Americas along a vague and rather arbitrary meridian. The native peoples were of neither consulted nor even considered.
During the First World War, as the defeat and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire were at hand, Britain and France colluded in a similar manner to the Spanish and Portuguese and divided the Middle East up according to their own national interests. Again, native peoples were neither consulted nor considered.
The secret Sykes-Picot treaty was signed on May 16, 1916, one hundred years ago today, and created the now-failed states of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. In 1921 Britain further interfered in Middle East by creating Transjordan (today’s Kingdom of Jordan). To do this Britain contravened the 1920 international San Remo Conference by handing over 75% of the land mandated as a Jewish national homeland.
The division of lands and peoples resulted in states that were held together by coercion alone, without unifying religion, ethnicity, or, in the case of the Kurds, language. In fact, the Kurds were divided among four states—Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran—and oppressed in each. Every government in the post-colonial era in the region rose and fell with the fortunes of the ruling strong men. Heavy-handed dictators, however, failed to instill a sense of nationhood.
In a recent article, Daniel Pipes critiques the treaty in its form—secret negotiations which fomented a culture of conspiracy theories, and its substance—the carving up of new and expanded territories which diminished the viability of the states. A third critique could also be made. There are very few national identities in the Middle East, but tribal identity is strong. In the areas of Iraq and Syria, national loyalties were never more than an imposed veneer. Some elements of the populace have religious or ethnic allegiances, as do the Christians, Yazidis, Druze, Alawites and others, but these also have a significant tribal element.
Without understanding that the predominant allegiance in the region is tribal allegiance, you cannot comprehend what is happening today. As Mordechai Kedar pointed out at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, while there are Sunni, Hezbollah, and Syrian army militias, there are also local tribal militias that play a role in the conflict. Winning their support or defeating them totally is necessary to holding territory. This is just as true in both parts of the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was held not by Hamas directly, but by a Gaza tribal group with their own set of interests. As another example, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain ruled with the strong support of his Al-Tikriti tribe. Look-alike relatives formed his team of body doubles.
To post-modern Westerners this parochial tribal and religious culture seems like an implausible shell which can be easily cracked and the contents re-shaped. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tribal loyalties are strongly bound up by cousin marriages and familial ties of obligation. If we compare remotely-constructed Western policy to the interlaced actual construction of society in the Middle East, it is obvious that we are looking at polar opposites. It is as if the West has the high-altitude Google satellite view and the actual Middle East is locked in street view.
Western interference is doomed to fail when it attempts to nation-build in its own image, and this has been proved a failure from Libya and Egypt, to Iraq to Afghanistan.
Ironically, the blatant failure of the West’s carving up of the Middle East and its imposed nationalities have not served as a lesson to the Europeans. Europe, currently drowning in its own problems with an Islamic invasion, has decided to insist on meddling here. The Belgians and now the French, arguably the most terror-stricken states, are proposing a two-part international conference to create a Palestinian state. The initial conference will exclude Israel and the P.A.; presumably this is when parameters will be set, and the second conference is when, presumably, they will be imposed.
The standard formula for Israel–Palestinian negotiations, which has failed time and time again, is to press Israel for concessions which the P.A. will reject and use as an excuse for increased hostilities. While the West insists that Palestinians deserve and require a state, clear-thinking realists can plainly see that nationalism is neither an objective here nor anywhere else in the area. The main driving forces are tribal allegiance and religious fervor. This is how ISIS deconstructed Iraq and Syria. The objective of the Palestinians and their sympathizers is the annihilation of the State of Israel. Further attempts by the West to create yet another state will end in failure.
Happy Sykes-Picot Day, Europe!