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home : columns : columns April 28, 2016

7/1/2014 12:55:00 PM
The long echo of Sykes-Picot in the Middle East
By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

Many of the legacies of the First World War continue to bedevil us a century down the road. Currently, none more so than the legacy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which Islamist militants proclaim they are reversing in bloody fashion in Syria and Iraq.

As Malise Ruthven notes in The New York Review of Books, "When the jihadists of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) tweeted pictures of a bulldozer crashing through the earthen barrier that forms part of the frontier between Syria and Iraq, they announced - triumphantly - that they were destroying the 'Sykes-Picot' border.'"

In 1916, Great Britain, France and Russia were at war with Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire, founded in what is now Turkey in 1299, had ruled over what we call the Middle East for centuries. Even before the war, the empire was tottering, and though the outcome of the war remained uncertain in 1916, the British and French were already sharpening their knives to carve up its carcass.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was negotiated by the French diplomat François Georges-Picot and British Sir Mark Sykes, with Tsarist Russia let in for a taste of the spoils. The secret agreement established British, French and Russian spheres of influence in the Middle East. The agreement was refined in an Anglo-French settlement in 1918 and the 1920 San Remo Resolutions, which established "mandates" for British and French control and created the modern borders of Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iraq - borders that ignored tribal and sectarian affiliations to create what would eventually become "artificial" nations. (Of course, it should be acknowledged that the Ottoman Empire wasn't exactly organic. It was an empire, after all. And what borders aren't artificial?)

At the time the agreement was negotiated, Arabs of the Hejaz (modern-day western Saudi Arabia) were in revolt against the Ottoman Empire, funded and armed by the British.

The agreement - and particularly the post-war settlements - betrayed British promises to the leaders of the Arab Revolt to support the establishment of a broad Arab state based out of Damascus. The legendary British officer T.E. Lawrence, who assisted in the Arab Revolt, was tormented by his awareness that, while the Arabs were fighting the Turks in a guerrilla war that aided the British Empire, the British had little or no intention of honoring their promises.

When the Bolshevik Revolution took Russia out of the war, Vladimir Lenin gleefully published the contents of the secret accord, which was an embarrassment to the British and French and an ugly revelation for the Arabs (though the leaders of the Arab Revolt were already aware through Lawrence that things might not be on the up-and-up).

Complicating matters was the 1917 British Balfour Declaration, which stated that, "His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

The seed planted in the Balfour Declaration would bear fruit in 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel.

Militant Islamists who seek to impose a religious caliphate across the region at the point of a gun, see the "Sykes-Picot borders" (really San Remo borders) as an illegitimate imposition of an imperialist West. And, of course, they despise the State of Israel and wish to see it destroyed.

It's easy to render negative judgment on the imperial chicanery of the early 20th century; the story is a pretty sordid one. But the powers of the day could not really conceive of a world where they did not exercise control, and there was a sincere belief that the mandates would give way to self-rule in an orderly fashion - someday. When the Arabs were "ready." The Great Powers were greedy and rapacious, true, but they also felt a genuine, if profoundly patronizing, responsibility to provide good governance and stability in the areas they controlled.

Indeed, under the stresses of the Second World War, the mandates gave way to nationhood. For a variety of geopolitical reasons, the "Sykes-Picot borders" have proved remarkably resilient, staying more or less intact for almost a century. Now, due to revolution in Syria and incipient civil war in Iraq, they may be breaking down. It remains to be seen what might replace them. The Kurds seem likely to push their autonomy to the next stage, though the creation of actual Kurdish state is anathema to the Turks, who have their own Kurdish population.

It's hard to imagine a scenario in which either the Syrian or the Iraqi government fully reestablish control over lands now in rebel hands. It seems unlikely that ISIS can actually form its Islamic state - there are too many powerful entities - including the U.S. - who see that as a nightmare scenario, and insurgent groups are terrible at state-building - but the militants will certainly continue to sow chaos and destruction as long as they can find vacuums of power and authority to exploit.

Perhaps western Syria will eventually link with Lebanon in some form of new state, with Iraq breaking into a Kurdish north, a Sunni middle and west and a Shia south (which would be a satellite of Iran, much to Saudi Arabia's chagrin). Whatever reshaping of the Middle East occurs here in the second decade of the 21st century, it won't be clean or peaceful. As the events of the past couple of years in Syria and Iraq demonstrate, there will be blood.

And some of it is on the dead hands that drew lines across a map nearly 100 years ago.

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