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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

The Line in the Sand: Is Sykes-Picot Coming Undone?

As civil strife and conflict have curtailed the reach of Baghdad and Damascus, a popular notion has emerged suggesting that the artificial colonial-era boundaries of Iraq and Syria are collapsing. The popular and mistaken refrain is that the Sykes-Picot Agreement is unravelling. This has engendered a number of misguided suggestions that the borders of the Arab state system are the principal drivers of conflict and now require significant overhaul along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Despite this moment of undeniable fragmentation and violence, however, these predictions of partition are untenable, have limited organic traction, and misunderstand the processes and ramifications of state formation. Further, and most importantly, they propose unnecessarily radical solutions to the familiar crises of governance that plague the entire Arab world, irrespective of the nature of the states of the region and the process by which their borders were demarcated.

The current state of de facto fragmentation in both Iraq and Syria will endure for the foreseeable future, particularly in Syria, which has long since ceased functioning as a unitary state. But the current catastrophe also offers a roadmap for eventual political equilibrium: greater decentralization that does not seek to reconstitute the dysfunctional political order represented by the status quo ante. Creating a sustainable model of governance for both Iraq and Syria will require recognition of both the current reality of sectarian and ethnic polarization and the role of overly-centralized repressive modes of governance in fuelling those conflicts.

For outside parties seeking to formulate coherent policy responses, an assumption of continued fragmentation is a must, while advocating formal partition is a mistake.

Decentralization, Not Partition

Even absent the specter of conflict-induced fragmentation and increased sectarian and ethnic polarization, the option of greater decentralization and devolution of power to sub-national levels would be desirable. Autocratic forms of governance are marked by their high levels of centralization, and this is particularly so in the Arab world, which lags behind other regions of the world with respect to levels of decentralization. Instead, much of the region is marked by “de-concentration,” whereby authority, management, and responsibilities are distributed among the various levels of a central government, as opposed to sharing such duties and tasks with autonomous sub-national governments. In addition to historical administrative antecedents, as a recent report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) notes, “political elites in the region have continually exploited nationalism and periods of regional and internal conflict to justify the need for a strong centralized state.”[i]

International IDEA suggests four basic advantages flowing from decentralization, namely, improving service delivery; addressing neglect of marginalized areas; promoting democratic citizenship; and preserving national unity and stability.[ii] The theoretical benefits of decentralization in an autocratic and poorly governed Arab world should be clear. However, the issue of decentralization is a fraught one in the Arab world and is continuously informed by the legacy of imperialism and the lingering suspicions of the intentions of outside actors. For example, a September 2013 op-ed that merely contemplated the possibility of a remapped Middle East, which included a map delineating “How 5 Countries Could Become 14,”[iii] spawned a heated and conspiratorial reaction in the region that framed the exercise as an expression of strategic intent.[iv] Similar reaction greeted the July 2011 independence of South Sudan.[v]

The traumatic experience of decolonization in the Arab world has produced an abiding fear that the devolution of power within states will lead to the eventual fracture and potential partition of the states of the region; a fear that has been ably exploited by abusive and centralizing rulers. This has stunted the development of public discourse on the issue throughout the region, and has fuelled demagogic mischaracterizations of efforts to push for greater devolution and decentralization. This has been exacerbated in recent years by the chronic and burgeoning violence and instability that have overtaken wide swaths of the region.

While the theoretical benefits of decentralization mesh with the objective realities of war-torn Iraq and Syria, the current setting of zero-sum military conflict and ingrained suspicion has limited the ability of well-intentioned actors to formulate rational policy responses. The differing trajectories and legal architectures in place also mean that any formalized decentralization process will necessarily proceed on quite different timelines.

Importantly, the discourse of partition is largely external to these conflicts and often originates in the West. Separatism has not been a core goal of most of the major combatant factions save for certain key exceptions, and the identity of those exceptions limits the possibilities of success for separatist efforts. The most prominent such exception is the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has adopted transnational goals aimed at erasing regional borders and establishing a Caliphate. The spectacular and gratuitous violence of the group, coupled with their openly revisionist efforts to overturn the international order, undermine the breadth of appeal of such efforts and blunts the possibilities for cultivating support in the international community. Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, shares similar transnational long-term objectives but has largely focused its efforts inside Syria.

The only responsible actor advocating separatism is Iraqi Kurdistan, but any bid for independence by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is much more difficult to envision than is popularly understood, as will be discussed further below.

Among mainline Arab actors in Iraq and Syria there is also a notable lack of separatist sentiment. The outside advocates of soft partition or outright secession overlook the reality of state formation and the durability of national identity despite horrific violence and civil strife.[vi]

While much focus has been given to the colonial provenance of borders in the Arab world and their supposed arbitrary character, the drawing of borders and the creation of national identities is never a self-evident process. The intervening years have produced nationalist attachments and such forms of identity have proven resilient. The bloody struggles for power and the calcification of sectarian and ethnic identity have fuelled conflict and bloodshed but have not created significant momentum for secessionism among mainstream actors. Instead, even in the context of vicious, and at times zero-sum struggles for power, the combatant factions have largely assumed the continued territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria.

A recent assessment of public opinion in Syria noted that “almost all [respondents] rejected the division of Syria,”[vii] although “most Syrians in this study want and expect their side to prevail in the conflict, and are willing to come together, as long as reconciliation is on their terms.”[viii] Similarly, aside from the fundamental rejections of any form of conventional state sovereignty by IS, no mainline Arab political actors have advocated formal partition in Iraq, and even milder forms of ethno-sectarian federalism and soft partition have never gained a critical mass of popular support.

Furthermore, despite war-induced demographic shifts in Iraq and Syria, many mixed areas of the country remain, and any new efforts to draw hard internal partitions would be a spur for renewed sectarian and ethnic violence. Lastly, the crude ethno-sectarian logic of such partitions would mar notions of citizenship and undermine the possibilities for heterogeneous and pluralistic societies.

The impulses and necessity for decentralization, on the other hand, are acute. Long-running conflict and fragmentation have changed the internal boundaries of Iraq and Syria, and, particularly in the case of Syria, fundamentally altered the political economy of those areas outside the control of the central state. While Syria’s strategic stalemate has not produced static internal boundaries as the conflict remains tactically fluid, certain outlying areas have effectively been ceded by the Assad regime.

When this practical reality is coupled with the intractable political and identity crises facing each country, it becomes clear that overly-centralized outcomes will only perpetuate grievance and conflict, as Baghdad and Damascus have proven unable to govern effectively and fairly even prior to the much more challenging polarized context. Forcing centralized outcomes will ensure that current crises are institutionalized and further complicate the possibilities for negotiated de-escalation.

An eventual political settlement in each country will require some form of accommodation between the center and outlying areas. Enduring stability is unlikely to emerge without political compromises on the issue of centralization, particularly as devolution of powers and authority remains one of the few paths to dealing with the intractable set of problems presented by demography and the hardening of sectarian and ethnic identities. In short, neither a majoritarian government in Iraq nor a minoritarian government in Syria will have the wherewithal to pacify, let alone govern effectively and equitably, Sunni-majority and Kurdish areas without political compromise on the question of sub-national authorities and power.

Finally, for outside actors, partition would represent a disastrous precedent in an already unstable region. The lack of organic constituents for partition and secession would also mean that any such process imposed by the outside would lack legitimacy and further fuel suspicions regarding the intentions of outside actors.

Iraq’s Path to Decentralization

In contrast to Syria, decentralization is already formally underway in Iraq and is taking place within a constitutional framework. The exact parameters of the accommodation between Baghdad and Iraq’s regions, however, remain contentious and unresolved. Iraq’s flawed 2005 constitution itself reflects Iraq’s underlying and ongoing political and identity crises. Based on Iraq’s recent experience and “given the strong association between federalism and the Kurds’ ultimate desire for statehood, almost any exploration of greater local autonomy by the provinces raises suspicions of a partitionist agenda.”[ix] To move beyond this current impasse, any enduring dispensation will have to contend with the reality and irreversibility of Kurdish autonomy while understanding the undesirability of formalizing similar ethno-sectarian arrangements for other parts of the country.

The politics of decentralization in Iraq have changed dramatically since the country adopted its constitution. While Sunni-majority regions in Iraq have more recently come to see the potential benefits of decentralization, Iraq’s Sunni Arab political leaders were previously opposed to any forms of decentralization. The psychology underlying this rejection was complex, bound up with the intractable disputes regarding territorial boundaries with the Kurds and the difficulty in accommodating to the demographic and political reality of a Shia-led political order. Simply put, important strands among Iraq’s Sunnis had grown accustomed to ruling Iraq from the center and were not yet ready to concede that future prize. Incidentally, this same rejectionist attitude continues to be an animating rationale for IS and its recruitment. Conversely, “during the writing of the 2005 constitution—a period of intense civil strife—a powerful group of Shia Islamists openly championed the Kurdish-inspired model of ethno-sectarian federalism as a hedge against the return of a Sunni strongman such as Saddam Hussein.”[x] In the ensuing years, that model of ethno-sectarian federalism has never gained widespread traction beyond the KRG, but many of Iraq’s Sunni political leaders have come to see decentralization as a buffer between Sunni-majority areas and a Shia-led central state. This process accelerated after the U.S. withdrawal and as power was increasingly concentrated in the person of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

As former U.S. military officer and official Douglas A. Ollivant notes, there is an inherent tension in the push for greater decentralization by Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis: “On the one hand, they want a Baghdad that cedes power, one that is weak enough not to interfere with their regional arrangements. On the other hand, they also want a strong Baghdad, one that has the ability to pull oil revenue from Basra province (the source of about 80 percent of Iraq’s oil income) and distribute it throughout the country.”[xi] As he further explains, “oil nationalism is the fundamental arrangement underlying the Iraqi state.”[xii] This redistributive model and the inequitable geographic dispersion of natural resources will create a formidable check against separatist ambitions among the Kurds and the drive for greater autonomy on the part of Sunni-majority provinces. This check is further strengthened by the utter devastation that has been wrought in many of the country’s Sunni-majority areas, a devastation that has only accelerated in the wake of IS’s military campaign, territorial acquisition, and persistent terrorism. The centrality of oil to this arrangement means that “a relatively equitable distribution of this wealth will be key to future stability,” but this “will also require a relatively strong Baghdad.”[xiii]This suggests that full implementation of the constitutional arrangements for decentralization would prove unworkable and counterproductive in practice; countrywide regionalization, including Basra and the South would likely set in motion powerful interests and forces that would undercut the economic viability of the Iraqi state. But it is also clear that the current political order is unable to provide equitable and fair governance to all its citizens. While claims that Sunni marginalization is the prime driver of the rise of IS are misguided and hyperbolic, it is undoubtedly true that Iraq’s Sunni citizens have legitimate grievances based on the actions of Baghdad.

In this light, “a system of asymmetric federalism may be the most practical solution for the problems that Iraq faces because it most accurately reflects the country’s enduring ethnic and political realities.”[xiv] In this case, an asymmetric outcome would recognize the special status of the KRG while allowing for further and necessary decentralization in other parts of the country. As Hiltermann, Kane, and Alkadiri further highlight, “no other model is likely to enable the country to reach an acceptable solution for Kurdistan while at the same time ensuring that the central government in Baghdad is viable enough to function.”[xv]

Reaching a settlement along these lines previously eluded Iraq’s political class, even at a time of decreasing violence and instability. With the rise of IS and the loss of significant territory to that group, sectarian and ethnic polarization, and the further deterioration of trust among communities, have undermined the prospects for reaching such an accommodation. Nonetheless, the instability of the current juncture renders such political steps imperative. The most immediate concern in this regard is bound up with the institutionalization of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and the manner in which the central government interacts with and supports such local forces in Sunni-majority areas in the future. The complex dynamics undergirding this issue can be seen in microcosm in the approach of Iraq’s political factions to the legislative issue of a National Guard force, which is understood by Sunnis as a necessary step for challenging IS and liberating IS-controlled territory in Sunni-majority areas. Perhaps most importantly for Iraq’s Sunnis, the PMF issue will go a long way in determining whether the community can have any confidence in functional decentralization. That confidence will be dependent on whether the central government can allow for provincial-level control of PMFs while properly and proportionately resourcing those forces. In return, provincial leaders will have to allow the central government an oversight and collaborative role. The precedent established by the PMF issue will have a disproportionate role in clarifying the political incentives for many Sunni leaders, and a positive resolution could encourage the mobilization of a critical mass of Sunni fighters, who will be indispensable in degrading IS military power and reach. These steps would alter Iraq’s polarized sectarian political and security dynamics.

For much of the Shia base and political class, the issue is seen through the lens of suspicion surrounding the ultimate loyalties and intentions of Iraqi Sunnis, and the belief that not insignificant portions of the community colluded with or acquiesced to the rise and spread of IS. These suspicions extend beyond Iraq’s Shia, and all of “these other communities in Iraq believe — correctly — that at least a minority of Iraq’s Sunni citizens have provided and will provide shelter to ISIL because….they fundamentally reject the post-2003 political order in which Sunni Arabs have only the power their demographics can democratically generate.”[xvi]

It remains the case that the PMF issue will serve as a litmus test for the willingness and ability of Iraq’s political class to cobble together a practicable resolution that incentivizes cooperation between Baghdad and the provinces. Further afield, successful decentralization in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq could provide a model for such efforts in Syria.

To create a sustainable asymmetric structure will also require the normalization and stabilization of Baghdad-KRG ties, which remain strained despite interim arrangements to halt further deterioration. As Joost Hiltermann points out, “Baghdad and Erbil are being pushed apart by the way one of the two main Kurdish parties has openly called for Kurdish independence (while the other has not excluded it), by unilateral moves in the disputed territories, and by an ongoing quarrel over oil and money.”[xvii] For Iraq’s Kurds, the prospect of independence remains an ultimate goal, and many believed those hopes were buoyed by the territorial gains made in the wake of the collapse of the Iraqi security forces, particularly as much of those gains happened in disputed territories such as the symbolically potent city of Kirkuk.

But this popular reading of trends is misplaced.In fact, for the first time since the era of Saddam Hussein, the security of the KRG has come under serious threat. As Cale Salih points out, due to “the very real danger ISIS poses to Kurdistan, the complexity of the Kirkuk question, the economic calculations of the KRG and the regional and international context.”[xviii] Perhaps most significantly, Turkey, which has unexpectedly constructed positive relations with Iraq’s Kurds despite prolonged antagonisms, has come out clearly against the prospects of Iraqi Kurdish independence.[xix] To institutionalize and safeguard their autonomy, the KRG will have to eschew ad hoc dispensations and seek a more stable and enduring political settlement with Baghdad. This will require a permanent agreement on oil management and revenue sharing, which would “cement an equitable economic relationship between the central government and its Kurdish counterpart…. [and] provide the Kurds with the tools they need to build up the region under their own direction, and allow it to flourish.”[xx] It will also require a willingness not to rely on territorial conquest as a means of resolving the open question on disputed internal boundaries; such an approach will ensure renewed future political and potentially military conflict with Baghdad. Finally, and in tension with Iraqi Kurdish aspirations, the KRG should “work to strengthen the Iraqi state as a way of protecting its region from outside attack,” as “[o]nly a state capable of exercising full control over both Shiite and Sunni areas can provide security guarantees to the Kurds.”[xxi]

The need for a broad accommodation on decentralization remains acute and as IS loses momentum in Iraq, the need for robust planning for post-IS governance in liberated territories gains greater urgency and would boost the prospects for both the immediate military campaign against IS and other rejectionists, and the longer-term viability of Iraq. An asymmetric outcome would also most accurately reflect the existing realities of the country. It would be best accomplished through constitutional revision, but the unlikelihood of that occurring suggests that the most constructive way forward would be through legislative action. Such efforts at legislative reform have failed previously in producing functional outcomes, but must again be attempted despite the even more challenging backdrop.

Syria’s Indefinite Strategic Stalemate

The prospects for decentralization in Syria are made more challenging by the protracted nature of the Syrian civil war and the near certainty that the military conflict will continue for years to come. As Kheder Khaddour and Kevin Mazur highlight, “[t]he Syrian regime’s militarization of the conflict and the subsequent escalation of the fighting, fueled by a multitude of actors, have set Syrians’ sights even more narrowly on their regions.”[xxii] This loosening of binding ties between the center and opposition-held territory suggests that any eventual political settlement to end the fighting will require some form and degree of meaningful decentralization.

All sides in the Syrian conflict suffer from exhaustion and manpower limitations that undermine the ability of any faction or alignment of factions to end the war militarily. The intervention by U.S.-led military forces against IS has also had a much more limited impact in Syria than Iraq due to the lack of effective coordination with suitable ground forces. The prospects for major shifts in U.S. Syria policy remain unlikely for the remainder of the Obama administration. Coupled with the lack of serious international diplomatic efforts and the continued unwillingness of the Assad regime to negotiate in good faith, there is no reason for optimism over the trajectory of future conflict in Syria.

Without a meaningful resource base, and following the destruction of its industrial backbone, no future central government in Damascus will be in a position to easily bring outlying areas under its administrative orbit. This fiscal distress is further exacerbated by new patterns of patronage to satisfy constituencies, such as local militia forces, that have arisen and matured during war-time. These more recent trends build upon longstanding and chronic neglect of rural areas.

Furthermore, with an inconclusive military conflict and intense enmities and suspicions as a backdrop, it is difficult to imagine the basis upon which a central state could be successfully reconstructed. Similarly, the unlikelihood of regime change suggests that an Alawite-led central state will endure, although in a truncated form. In such circumstances, formalizing decentralization would offer future protection against the depredations of the central government for the country’s aggrieved majority Sunni population. Properly crafted localized forms of administration could also offer protection to concentrated segments of the country’s extensive and vulnerable minority population. Such steps are unlikely to fuel further fragmentation or inspire secessionist intent as a result of the resiliency of Syrian national identity. This is not to suggest uniform notions of Syrian nationalism. In fact, “in contemporary Syria, a central function of national identity for both regime supporters and the opposition is to create a bridge between otherwise unlike groups and to wall off one’s opponents as traitors (takhwin).”[xxiii] This is testament to the fact that while protracted conflict has fundamentally altered the country’s social fabric, it has still not resulted in the creation of secessionist movements. Nationalism remains a framing mechanism for legitimacy.

The fragmentation of the country has largely evolved in relation to the military conflict, but there are constituencies within Syria who see decentralization as a possible pathway to sustainable politics. Chief among these groups are Syria’s Kurds, who have never fully integrated into the opposition movement for a variety of reasons and continue to face state hostility and opposition to their efforts for autonomy. Speaking in 2012, Abdul-Hakim Bashar, the president of the Kurdish National Council of Syria, advocated for political decentralization, arguing that “a decentralized political system reassures all parties in Syrian society that the future will be to their liking.”[xxiv] While lacking international backing or a hospitable legal environment upon which to pursue autonomy, in contrast to the situation of Iraqi Kurds, Syria’s Kurds have carved out areas of de facto autonomy.

For most other fighting factions, the prospect of negotiation has been so remote and secondary to the all-encompassing military fight that systematic and focused attention to preferred governance structures and frameworks has been far from paramount. However, the reality of enduring de facto fragmentation and the lack of mainstream secessionist intent suggest that Syria’s future will likely depend on accommodating the country’s radically altered shape. Some analysts have suggested that the Syrian regime has also come to a related conclusion. David W. Lesch suggested in 2014 that Syrian regime officials “see decentralization as a strategic necessity. For them, it is the best way for components of the regime to ensure at least some modicum of power and status in the future. The regime has neither the manpower nor money — much less the legitimacy or credibility — to reassert anywhere close to the authority it once enjoyed over the territories it has lost, and even over much of what it nominally controls.”[xxv] Despite the obvious bad faith of the Assad regime, this observation again points to the difficulties in reconstructing a strong centralized state.

In the interim, while political negotiations aimed at bridging the gap between the Assad regime and the opposition writ large should be pursued if the opportunity arises, this longer-term effort should not come at the expense of bottom-up efforts to reinforce local and sub-national administration and governance. More static conflict and stable lines of territorial control represent the upper limit of achievable medium-term goals. Opportunities to reinforce local actors will be limited by the specter of IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Salafi jihadi actors and the ever-present menace of regime airpower, but opportunities should be actively pursued and presented as both a precedent and an incentive.


While the reality of fragmentation is well underway in Iraq and Syria, the process of establishing a sustainable political settlement and eventual reconciliation will evolve in radically different settings and on significantly divergent timelines. Central to any such efforts in either country will be decentralization, which represents an important tool that accommodates the reality and legacy of ethno-sectarian conflict without succumbing to the reductive logic of demographic determinism. In contrast, with limited organic support, partition represents a needlessly radical and untenable approach to crisis management. As such, outside actors should aggressively pursue diplomatic openings presented by the fragmented reality of the present. It is through such sub-national arrangements and devolved autonomy that sustainable outcomes might emerge.


[i] International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), “Decentralization in Unitary States: Constitutional Frameworks for the Middle East and North Africa” (2014): 14.

[ii] International IDEA, 14.

[iii] Robin Wright, “Imagining a Remapped Middle East,” The New York Times, September 28, 2013,

[iv] Zeinobia, “Regarding the NYTimes Map Dividing 5 Arab Countries in to 14,” Egyptian Chronicles Blog, October 1, 2013,; Michael Collins Dunn, “Egyptian Xenophobia and the Misreading of Robin Wright’s Map,” Middle East Institute Editor’s Blog, October 2, 2013,

[v] “South Sudan and the Arab World: A Plot to do Down Islam,” The Economist, January 13, 2011, (“Through the lens of the Muslim Brotherhood’s slick Arabic-language website, the referendum on the future of South Sudan looks rather different from its portrayal elsewhere. The looming partition of Sudan is not, it says, the logical outcome of five decades of civil war. It is the fruition of a century-old Western ecclesiastical plot to close Islam’s gateway into Africa, and the start of a plan to break other Arab countries into feeble statelets so as to grab their riches.”).

[vi] Reidar Visser, “Proto-Political Conceptions of ‘Iraq’ in Late Ottoman Times,” International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies 3 (2009): 143; Fanar Haddad, “The Terrorists of Today are the Heroes of Tomorrow: The Anti-British and Anti-American Insurgencies in Iraqi History,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 19 (2008): 451; Kheder Khaddour and Kevin Mazur, “The Struggle for Syria’s Regions,” Middle East Report 43 (2013),

[vii] Syria Justice and Accountability Center, Craig Charney, “Maybe We Can Reach a Solution: Syrian Perspectives on the Conflict and Local Initiatives for Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation” (2015)

[viii] Syria Justice and Accountability Center,

[ix] Joost Hiltermann, Sean Kane, and Raad Alkadiri, “Iraq’s Federalism Quandary,” The National Interest, February 28, 2012,

[x] Hiltermann, Kane, and Alkadiri, “Iraq’s Federalism Quandary.”

[xi] Douglas A. Ollivant, “Iraq Will Continue to Need a Strong Central Government,” Al Jazeera America, January 16, 2015,

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Hiltermann, Kane, and Alkadiri, “Iraq’s Federalism Quandary.”

[xv] Ibid

[xvi] Douglas A. Ollivant, “Iraq After the Islamic State: Politics Rule” War on the Rocks, February 18, 2015

[xvii] Joost Hiltermann, “Clearing the Landmines from Iraqi Kurdistan’s Future,” International Crisis Group In Pursuit of Peace Blog, March 24, 2015,

[xviii] Cale Salih, “Kurdistan ISn’t About to Leave Iraq Amid ISIS Fighting” TIME, August 6, 2014,

[xix] “Turkish premier says a Kurdish state would ‘endanger the region’” Rudaw, January 14, 2015,

[xx] Hiltermann, “Clearing the Landmines from Iraqi Kurdistan’s Future.”

[xxi] Ibid

[xxii] Kheder Khaddour and Kevin Mazur, “The Struggle for Syria’s Regions.”

[xxiii] Ibid

[xxiv] “Kurdish Syrian Council: Key to Stability is Decentralization,” Al-Monitor, May, 23, 2012

[xxv] David W. Lesch, “A Path to Peace in Syria” Foreign Policy, July 2, 2014