One hundred years ago this month, a British aristocrat and a French diplomat drew a line across a map of the Middle East that is blamed for the chaos that dominates that region today. The Sykes-Picot agreement is faulted for its naivete, its imperialism, its betrayal of promises to Arab nationalists and its secrecy. It is a convenient scapegoat for the instability that reigns in the Middle East, but responsibility for the region’s tragedy is more diffuse.
Sir Mark Sykes was a British parliamentarian and Boer War veteran picked by Lord Kitchener, the secretary of war, to advise on Middle Eastern affairs. His counterpart, Francois Georges-Picot, was a career diplomat who had served in Cairo and Beirut. They met from November 1915 to March 1916 to discuss the disposition of territories held by the Ottoman Empire when the Great War ended as there was agreement in London, Paris and Moscow, the third party to the Great Entente, that the empire would not survive the war.
They agreed to split the Levantine territory controlled by the empire three ways. Russia was given control of Istanbul, the Turkish straits and Armenia. A line was drawn from Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea, and France took the northern half, which included southern Turkey, Lebanon, present-day Syria and northern Iraq, and Britain claimed the southern half, which went from Egypt westward to present-day Jordan, and most of what is now Iraq and Kuwait. Britain also controlled the port city of Haifa, while what are now northern Israel and the West Bank were made into an international zone.
That straight line paid no heed to ethnic or religious groups, sects, tribes, languages, communities or cultures. Of course, no line, no matter how gerrymandered, could have accounted for the extraordinary diversity of the region, especially when so many of its inhabitants were nomadic peoples. Nevertheless, it is claimed that Sykes-Picot is the source of many of the Middle East’s troubles, a belief propagated in no small measure by the epic movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” which takes as its central premise Britain’s betrayal of its promise to its Arab allies that it would give them independence if they rose up against the Ottomans.
The assertion that this constituted a betrayal was supposedly proven by the fact that the deal was done in secret. Since most negotiations are done in secret, this is less ominous than it seems. Moreover, the two diplomats briefed the leader of the Arab revolt, Sharif Hussein, in May 1917. Hussein did not object and his secretary said he was “quite content with the terms.” One expert who studied correspondence between Hussein and the British High Commissioner in Egypt concluded that the Sykes-Picot agreement “was worded precisely so as not to conflict — rather so as exactly to fit in — with (Britain’s) pledges to the Arabs.”
Still, the publication of the agreement — the Bolsheviks discovered it when the czarist government in Russia was overthrown and promptly printed it in Pravda as an example of Western and czarist perfidy — embarrassed London and Paris. The line that was drawn to divide the region into two spheres of influence has stood ever since as a symbol of Western arrogance and ignorance.
The argument that Sykes-Picot is responsible for much that bedevils the Middle East is undermined by the speed with which the specifics of the agreement were abandoned. The mandate system set up by the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I took precedence over Sykes-Picot, although a map of those mandates looks a lot like that of the original agreement. A 1918 Anglo-French Declaration supported “indigenous governments and administrations in Syria and Mesopotamia,” something close to a disavowal of the imperial program outlined in the Sykes-Picot deal. In addition, the current borders that separate Syria and Iraq are the result of other agreements after the 1919 Versailles Conference.
Yet even if Sykes-Picot itself is not the cause of the Middle East’s trouble, the mentality that it represents, the hubris of the West and its readiness to meddle, has been and continues to be a problem for the region.
The decision by the United States and Britain to mount a coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh, the nationalist prime minister of Iran, in 1953 unleashed a maelstrom that continues to haunt Iran and its relationship with the West. Three years later, Paris and London attempted again to rewrite regional politics by seizing the Suez Canal; that gambit was promptly swatted away by the U.S.
More recently, the misguided 2003 invasion of Iraq, designed to redraw the map of the entire region, proved a calamity and the embers of that disastrous decision continue to flare and inflame the Middle East. Today, the U.S. and other nations are more reluctant than not to intervene as countries throughout the region descend into instability and chaos. That fear can be every bit as destructive as the eagerness to step in.
Just as damaging, however, is the belief among Middle Easterners that they are somehow not responsible for the calamities visited upon them. The events of 100 years ago may throw a long shadow but they are, at the end of the day (and especially at the end of the day), just shadows.
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