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A view across the old town towards The Citadel of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.
A view across the old town towards The Citadel of Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Jane Sweeney—Getty Images

How the Sykes-Picot Agreement Helped Make a Messed-Up Middle East

May 18, 2016

May 19 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed by diplomats Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot to help Britain and France divide the lands of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Sykes-Picot began to set the boundaries of what became countries like Iraq and Syria—and that’s been tragic for their citizens.

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In the past half century, Iraq has passed from decades of Sunni dominance under Saddam Hussein through a war with Iran, a war with the U.S., years of sanctions, another war with the U.S., a Shiʻite-dominated government, a Sunni insurgency and general misrule. Oil is flowing again, offering hope that political progress might finally bring lasting economic gains. But for now, the political dysfunction and violence continue.

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Before its civil war began, Syria was home to 22 million people. More than half of those people have been forced from their homes. Some 470,000 have been killed, 4.8 million have fled the country, and another 6.5 million are internally displaced. The country’s economy is less than half its prewar size.

Kurds remain the world’s largest stateless minority. About 30 million live within Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, though there are significant cultural and linguistic differences. Iraq’s Kurds inch their way toward independence, while the Kurds of Syria are fighting both President Bashar Assad and ISIS. In Turkey, Kurds are divided between those who want an active role in Turkish politics and others who want independence. The only force engaged in a bid to create new borders in the region is ISIS, which is losing ground in its bid to establish its caliphate.

Sykes and Picot aren’t fully to blame for today’s instability. It’s not as if borders carefully drawn by locals with greater sensitivity to ethnic, religious and linguistic differences could have secured a stable Middle East after the Ottomans. Could new borders ease today’s conflicts? We won’t find out soon, because no one in the region can agree where they should fall. Outsiders can play a role in forming a solution, but they can’t impose one.

Yet access to modern tools of communication ensures that borders will eventually appear on their own, created
from the political and cultural affinities that bring people together in the virtual world. Translating those borders into internationally recognized boundaries that delineate nations will produce more turmoil in the short term, but the result will be far more durable than diplomats or demographers could devise.

This appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of TIME.

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