It’s time to renegotiate the contract that put the Middle East together.

The “contract” is the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The world that document created exists now only on yellowed maps, and the issues left unsettled — primarily the need for separate Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish territories — have come home begging. War is not fixing this; diplomacy might.

In November 2014, I wrote the only solution to Islamic State was to use American peacekeepers to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide inside Iraq.

However, in the intervening 15 months, Turkey and Russia entered the fight, and the Saudis may soon join the fray. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies — as well as Iraq, Islamic State and Iran — never left. Only a massive diplomatic effort, involving all parties now on the playing field, including Islamic State, has any potential of ending the bloodshed. That means a redivision of the region along current ethnic, tribal, religious and political lines.

A new Sykes-Picot Agreement, if you will.

The old Sykes-Picot Agreement was enforced by the superpowers of the day, Britain and France, with buy-in from Russia. The immediate aim was colonialism; the long-term goal stability, following the massive realignment of power that was World War One. The lines were literally drawn for the next nine decades.

Another important goal of the era, creating “Kurdistan,” never actually happened. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres left an opening for a referendum on Kurdish independence. Problem one: the referendum only included plans for Kurds outside of Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of fighting that saw the Turkish people separate themselves from the remains of the Ottoman Empire and fight for two years to prevent the dismantling of what is now modern Turkey. The result was 20 million Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.

From a geopolitical perspective, here’s what we have now: the 2003 invasion of Iraq blew open the struggle among the Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. It unleashed the forces behind some of the Arab Spring-driven chaos in Syria, and drew Iran deep into the Iraqi conflict. Shi’ite militia and Iraqi government attacks on Sunnis opened the door for Islamic State to step in as their protector.

The struggle metastasized into the ongoing, broader conflict. The Kurds are expanding the land they control, out of Iraq, and into Turkish and Syrian territory. The Turks look to repel that effort, and perhaps seize some territory to tidy up their own border with Syria. Russia has re-entered the region as a military force. The Saudis may yet send in troops. Iran is already there via proxy forces. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad still holds territory, but only alongside Islamic State. The United States is training, assisting and equipping groups often fighting each other.

That all has led to human suffering on a genocidal scale, including refugee flows no one seems sure how best to handle. The ongoing effort to bomb away the problems has resulted in destroying cities like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs, and soon Mosul, in order to “save” them. Four American presidents have made war in the region without concrete results, and Obama‘s successor will be number five.

The only answer left, the one not yet tried, is to negotiate a comprehensive resolution that addresses all of the issues, borders and struggles now underway. That resolution will need to be enforced with military power coordinated by the United States, Russia and Iran, with each speaking for, and agreeing to corral, its proxies.

It will mean giving Islamic State a seat at the table, as the British were forced to do with the Irish Republican Army in the 1990s to resolve the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. One, by definition, must negotiate peace with one’s enemies. That is why, in part, the current ceasefire in Syria, which excluded Islamic State, has little chance of achieving any long-term progress.

Out of the new negotiations will have to emerge a Kurdistan, with land from Turkey, Iraq, perhaps Iran, and Syria. Assad will stay in power as a Russian proxy. Iran’s hold on Shi’ite Iraq will strengthen. A Sunni homeland, to include the political entity Islamic State will morph into, will need to be assured via a strict hands-off policy by Baghdad.

That Sunni homeland offers the first real way to geographically contain Islamic State. There obviously is risk in overtly allowing Islamic State to continue to exist, though that lives alongside the questions of whether it can be militarily destroyed, or if another group will simply take its place, as Islamic State did with al Qaeda in Iraq. These groups are symptoms of the broader Sunni-Shi’ite problem, not problems of their own per se.

The payoff of such a broad resolution will be a measure of stability, and a framework to enforce it. American efforts will shift from fanning the flames (American weapons are as ubiquitous as iPhones in the region) to putting out fires.

At risk for not acting: an empowered Islamic State, thriving on more chaos. An explosive dissolution of Iraq. A Russian-Turkish fight that could involve NATO. The shift from a Saudi-Iranian proxy war to a straightforward conflict between the two countries. A spark that forces Israel to act. A mini-world war, in the world’s most flammable region, that will create its own unexpected and uncontrolled realignment of power, and leave behind a warehouse of the dead.

Yes, I hate it, too. It is a very imperfect resolution. But an elegant solution is no longer viable.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.

5 Responses to “Time for a new Sykes-Picot Agreement to fix the Middle East”

  1. Yasin

    The muslim world needs anothe Salahuddin Ayubi to eradicate all the land borders between muslim lands and to unite the muslim nation. This is the only solution. All these land borders exists between the muslim lands are imposed by the brutal colonial powers, Sykes-Picot created lots of statelets (no sovereigne) to control them remotely and this is what they are doing at the moment.

  2. Ahmad Harun

    One is always wiser when judging events in hindsight. It’s easy to forget that the Sykes – Picot agreement of 1916 was an effective practical solution. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the glue that held the vast region of competing interests and priorities together, what else could have been done?

    The agreement created a promise of a semblance of representational government. Had the local, national and regional leaders been abler, we would have seen a saner landscape.

    It’s not Mr Van Buren alone who would like to see a new deal in the Middle East (or Near East, Western Asia, Eastern Mediterranean Basin, extended Levant – depending on how you view the region).

    All of us do.

    So do the lunatics. In 2014 the Islamic State blew up a major border post between Iraq and Syria. They denounced it as the last vestige of the Sykes – Picot line.

    But if irredentism (claim to a land because of ethnic, cultural, religious or linguistic association of a population to the place) is to be the pedestal of the new deal, whose claim should come first if not that of the Eastern Christians?

    Straddling the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, Eastern (Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac, Nestorian) Christians had lived and thrived for centuries until the Sassanid Empire fell to the Arab sword.

    In human history, few civilizations have suffered so much persecution as the Christian civilization has in the hands of Sunnis and Shias, despite their having had a longer and more historic claim to the region.

    Just one example. At the beginning of the 20th century, roughly around the time the Sykes – Picot Agreement came into effect, 20% of the Middle Eastern populations were Christians; by 2003, it was about 5%. Since the American Invasion and The rise of the Islamic State, there has been abysmal decline in the Christian population. Latest estimates puts the percentage between 1% and 2%.

    If the Kurds in Iraq, with a population of about 6 million, are going to have a state of their own – and they must – the world will burn in Hell if it fails to create a safe place for the minorities of the Middle East – Christians and Yezidis.

  3. M.H.Kabir

    Most of the credits goes to France and Britain for what has been happening in the whole region of Middle-East.They have created Israeli without any practical solution to the people of Palestine. They have created states for their own interests without thinking a fare solution for a great Kurdish population.Why ,? Because they have been beaten several times by the great Kurdish Leader Salahuddin Ayubi.
    But , it is their turn to repay what the French and British woe to these Kurdish People.It is for sure Europe is going to pay a heavy price.Turkey is going pay a price only because of their incompetent President Erdogan.He does not understand politics , diplomacy , geopolitics and nothing.

  4. javed helali

    I had predicted several years back that Iraq will have to be divided into into 3 countries… maybe in a confederation.

    Kurdistan must be created with territories from four/five countries in the region. It is a promise that was never kept by the colonialists.

    IS has come to stay. Only prosperity and decadence will kill it.

    US military industrial complex must be reigned in if we are going to have peace in the world. that means the US Congress should not be enamored to them anymore.

    the war in Iraq was for personal reasons. The war in Syria is for no reason at all!

  5. jamal

    A brilliant and an excellent proposition that should have been adopted over a hundred years a go. Had the allied forces then looked at the inhomogeneity of the populations within the border lines they created other than counting barrels of petrol, perhaps and most likely all the miseries that the Kurdistani populations have counted in each of the new and I can call bloody states of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey would have not happened. Who on an international stage would now be counted as responsible for mass graves, chemical bombardments, Anfal campaigns and demographic shifts that Saddam executed? If this historic opportunity is not taken to correct past mistakes, the entire world would have a different definition for human rights and many of the slogans that have been fixed in Human Charter Act and the United Nations role in the modern world.

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