One hundred years ago on Monday, Britain and France signed a secret agreement carving out “spheres of influence” that ultimately created the modern Middle East.
Yet no one was celebrating the anniversary as Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from Europe, the Arab states and Iran began gathering in Vienna for the latest international effort to end the civil war in Syria.
The effort is also supposed to usher in what is delicately called a “political transition” that would ease out President Bashar al-Assad. At least that is the goal of the Western allies and the Arab states; the Iranians and Russians seem to have a different view.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement, named for its British and French authors and the map it produced, is now widely considered a low point in colonial efforts to manipulate the region to fit the interests of outsiders.
And yet the remnants of the agreement, which came to light after documents proving its existence emerged during the Russian Revolution in 1917, loom over everything Mr. Kerry and his fellow foreign ministers are doing here.
Rarely in the past century have the shifting borders established by the agreement looked blurrier, and the effort to maintain them shakier.
In October, the ministers, who formed the so-called International Syria Support Group, agreed that “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity and secular character are fundamental.” Yet some of the key players in the slow-motion effort to get a transitional Syrian government in place say, when granted anonymity, that they think unity and territorial integrity are simply not possible.
One of the few players who observed the anniversary at all on Monday was Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region. “On 100th anniversary of Sykes-Picot Agreement, borders/sovereignty have become meaningless,” he wrote on Twitter. “Sykes-Picot is over.”
Maybe so. Yet in Vienna, giving voice to that thought is considered an extreme breach of diplomatic etiquette.
When the State Department offered up a senior official to preview the talks for reporters here on Monday afternoon, the official — who could not be named under ground rules set by the State Department — insisted that splitting up the country was not under discussion.
He allowed for the possibility of a form of decentralization in which different groups — the Kurds, Mr. Assad’s government and the opposition — receive some autonomy. But the goal, he said, was an intact Syria.
Of course, to say anything else would be to lose crucial members of the Support Group, starting with Turkey, which fears that a breakaway Kurdistan would soon claim Turkish territory as well. Others, led by the Saudis, care less about Syria’s borders and more about getting rid of Mr. Assad. While the official American position is that he has to go, the reality is that few in Washington are in a rush: The last thing they want is a power vacuum in Damascus that the Islamic State would try to fill.
Still, it seems safe to say that if anyone has come out of the Syrian debacle nearly as hated in the region as Mr. Assad, it is probably the diplomats who rearranged the region: Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. Unlike Mr. Assad, they are no longer around to defend themselves.
Sykes, an aristocratic racehorse breeder and Boer War veteran, died three years after the agreement was reached, killed by the Spanish flu while in Paris during the 1919 peace talks after World War I. Picot, the son of a historian and known for his skills as a lawyer and a diplomat, lived to be 80. He died in 1951, three years after the creation of Israel.
Not surprisingly, with the region in danger of disintegration, lively debate has sprung up over whether the two men condemned the Middle East to a century of chaos, or whether their meddling did less damage than high school and college students are now taught. Some historians have noted that Sykes and Picot’s map drew no hard lines; it was about regions of influence.
Out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the British ultimately obtained mandates over Palestine and Iraq; the French got what is now Syria. Areas experiencing some of the hardest-fought battles now, like Mosul, were attached to the Kingdom of Iraq.
The two men have their defenders. Writing in Foreign Policy recently, Steven A. Cook and Amr T. Leheta of the Council on Foreign Relations argued that it was time to give the two colonial masters a break, because whatever is happening today is probably not their fault.
The “focus on Sykes-Picot is a combination of bad history and shoddy social science,” they wrote. “And it is setting up the United States, once again, for failure in the Middle East.”
The region may fragment and restructure in the next few years, they said, but anyone who thinks that lines can be drawn to satisfy tribal and ethnic demands is not thinking straight.
“There will be nothing ‘more natural’ about that new order than what has been the status quo for a century,” they wrote. “The myth of a better Sykes-Picot is just that — a fable that can either justify an incoherent Middle East policy or advocate for an international-led effort to redraw the map.”
Speaking privately, White House officials say they doubt it will come to that. They would be lucky, in their view, to get a reduction in violence and pass on the problem of reaching a political settlement — due this August — to Mr. Obama’s successors. At the same time, some of the president’s former advisers argue that the time has come to lower their sights and settle for something more practical.
“The approach that we have been carrying out for a number of years now is not working and unlikely to work,” Philip H. Gordon, Mr. Obama’s top Middle East adviser at the National Security Council until about two years ago, said last week. The United States, he said, is simply not willing to commit the kind of military force that would be necessary to oust Mr. Assad anytime soon, and its partners in the Syria Support Group are deeply divided on the question.
“We’re not going to agree on that with the regime, with the Russians or the Iranians,” he said of removing Mr. Assad. “And to maintain that as a precondition for de-escalating the conflict I think is a recipe for continuing the conflict, and that has proven to be the case for some time.”
Even Sykes and Picot might agree with that. Syria’s biggest problem today is not about borders, but about the relentless violence within those boundaries.