On May 17, 1916, France and the United Kingdom signed the Sykes-Picot agreement, named after the two diplomats who conducted the negotiations. The agreement was the first in a series of treaties that would eventually create the modern states of the Middle East following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. One hundred years later, analysts such as Robin Wright and Jeffrey Goldberg predict that the region’s borders will soon be redrawn once more. Indeed, in Iraq and Syria, where proto-states outside the government’s control have already emerged, the idea of new borders does not appear so far-fetched. In Iraq, for example, the Kurds have already announced that they will hold a referendum on independence before the end of 2016.
New borders will not restore stability, however, because the present ones are not the cause of the region’s turmoil. The states themselves must change if there is to be any sort of peaceful order that can accommodate the demands of the region’s diverse populations. Yet the prospects for such a transformation are dim.
Often denounced as artificial lines in the sand drawn by ignorant European diplomats, the borders in the region are no more artificial than those established by conflict. Even the most ardent critics of the status quo have given no indication of where the region’s natural borders lie, because there are no natural borders. The Kurds, for example, aggrieved by a partition of the region that did not give them their own country, even disagree on whether there should be one Kurdistan or several Kurdish states.
The real root of the region’s problems is the superimposition of heavily centralized, authoritarian states on the region’s mosaic of ethnic and religious groups. But a transition to democracy, even if it were likely, would be equally problematic. In theory, truly inclusive, democratic governments might be able to govern such heterogeneous countries in a decentralized way without the need for repression or partition. But in the real world, such ideal
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