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Reconciling with Sykes-Picot

In some ways, the pre-Sykes-Picot Middle East is coming back – but without the order imposed by the Ottoman Empire. And if no basis for a new regional order emerges, the Middle East stands to suffer far worse in the next century than it did in the last.

NEW YORK – This month marks the centenary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret British-French accord that launched a decade-long series of adjustments to the borders of the post-Ottoman Middle East. Most commentary on the anniversary has been negative, suggesting that the agreement bears considerable blame for the frequency and durability of the region’s conflicts.

That interpretation, however, borders on caricature. Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot aimed to devise a plan that would enable Great Britain and France to avoid a ruinous rivalry in the Middle East. They largely succeeded: Their design kept the region from coming between the two European powers, and it managed to survive for a century.

To be sure, many of the Sykes-Picot borders reflected deals cut in Europe rather than local demographic or historical realities. But that hardly makes the Middle East unique: Most borders around the world owe their legacy less to thoughtful design or popular choice than to some mixture of violence, ambition, geography, and chance.

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