Monday marks the 100 years since the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret Anglo-French pact reached during the First World War that proposed splitting the Middle East up into zones of foreign control. The Middle East has been frequently afflicted with war since then, but the situation now—with ISIS holding territory in Iraq and across the Fertile Crescent, civil war in Syria, government paralysis in Lebanon, growing autocracy and violence in Turkey, and talk of an intifada in Israel and the occupied territories—has inspired particular debate on the century-old agreement’s legacy. Laments about Sykes-Picot drewarbitrary divisions that bedevil the Middle East even now have met with just-as-impassioned insistence that the secret agreement’s influence is overstated.
European governments had long viewed Ottoman Empire as weak.
But the French and British, the Ottomans’ opponents in World War I, decided the empire couldn’t outlast the war, and in 1915 moved toward splitting up the Levantine territories under Ottoman control. Sykes and Georges-Picot were charged with figuring out how. The agreement they came to—with the assent of their ally Russia—granted Russian control over present-day eastern Turkey. The French would influence or control southern Turkey, Lebanon, present-day Syria, and Northern Iraq. The British would dominate a corridor running from Egypt west through the Negev Desert, present-day Jordan, and most of what is now Iraq and Kuwait. Present-day northern Israel and the West Bank would become an international zone, though Britain would control the port of Haifa.
The map above tells most of the story. (Here’s a full version.) The agreement itselfis rather drab to read, cloaked in diplomatic niceties—although the heavy focus on railroad-building rights harkens back to a time when rails, rather than oil, were the most important geopolitical infrastructure in the Fertile Crescent. Today, those train lines have atrophied.
The agreement was concluded in secret partly because it represented a betrayal of promises the British government had already made to Hussein bin Ali, the sharif of Mecca. During the war, in an effort to foment an Arab rebellion against the Ottomans, the British sought Hussein’s support by agreeing to back the creation of an independent Arab state, with a few caveats.
In what is known as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, Britain laid out the conditions: It wanted to maintain rights in Baghdad and Basra, and it wanted to set aside pieces of present-day Syria, which it said were not fully Arab. The Arabs duly revolted against the Ottomans, with the help of the British military officer T.E. Lawrence. But after the war, the British would maintain that the correspondence did not represent a formal treaty, though Hussein and his family insisted it did. In any case, the promises made to Hussein were in irreconcilable conflict with the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
A further British promise incompatible with Sykes-Picot came later, on November 2, 1917, when U.K. Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote to British Jewish leader Walter Rothschild, stating that the British government viewed “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.” That seemed in conflict with the international zone Sykes-Picot envisioned in the Levant.
In the meantime, Tsar Nicholas II had been overthrown in Russia. First, a provisional government ruled, but in November 1917—the same month the Balfour Declaration was sent—it was overthrown, and the Bolsheviks took power. They came across the text of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and on November 23, 556 days after the deal was signed, published it in Pravda and Izvestia. Three days after that, The Manchester Guardian also published the text. The publication of the secret agreement was an embarrassment to the Allies, showing them carving up the Middle East, and in particular showing Britain making incompatible promises to Hussein and the Arabs as well as to the Zionists.
The extent to which Sykes-Picot remained in force even at the time is a matter of debate. Once the agreement was revealed, Britain and France scrambled to contain the fallout. In 1918, the Anglo-French Declaration decreed support for “indigenous Governments and administrations in Syria and Mesopotamia.” The international mandate system set up by the League of Nations to govern formerly Ottoman territories also superseded the agreement—though the outlines of those mandates roughly coincided with those set out in Sykes-Picot.
Dead and buried or undead and haunting the Middle East today, the Sykes-Picot Agreement has echoes that still resonate. Despite the controversy when the text was revealed, the British and French were not deterred from signing another secret agreement in 1956, five years after Georges-Picot’s death. That deal, which also included Israel, set in motion a plot to topple Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser over his seizure of the Suez Canal. The British, French, and Israelis were militarily successful in ensuing war but were forced to retreat under pressure from the Americans and—who else?—the Soviet Union. The secret protocol was revealed, and U.K. Prime Minister Anthony Eden was forced to resign.
Today, the United Kingdom and United States governments, along with a cast of allies, are trying to contain ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while also eventually bringing about the end of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It’s a complicated process, involving both public and secret diplomacy, as well as military operations both covert and announced. But those efforts have been confounded by the intervention of Russia, which has staunchly backed Assad and attacked rebel groups allied with the U.S. and U.K. Lazy commentators like to trace Middle East strife to the spurious explanation of “ancient hatreds,” ethnic and sectarian conflicts running back centuries in the region. As Russia’s continuing role in confounding Anglo-American efforts shows, however, one of the most intractable geopolitical conflicts in the Levant is just turning 100 this year." - from http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/05/sykes-picot-centennial/482904/
By Jim MuirBBC News, Irbil http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-36300224
"Reaching its centenary amidst a general chorus of vilification around the region, the legacy of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 has never looked more under assault.
As Iraq lurches deeper into turmoil and disintegration, Kurdish leaders in the already autonomous north are threatening to break away and declare outright independence.
And the militants of the self-styled Islamic State (IS), bulldozing the border between Iraq and Syria in June 2014, declared their intention to eradicate all the region's frontiers and lay Sykes-Picot to rest forever.
Whatever the fate of IS, the future as unitary states of both Syria and Iraq - central to the Sykes-Picot project - is up in the air.
In fact, virtually none of the Middle East's present-day frontiers were actually delineated in the document concluded on 16 May 1916 by British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot.
The Iraq-Syria border post histrionically erased by IS was probably several hundred kilometres from the famous "line in the sand" drawn by Sykes and Picot, which ran almost directly from the Persian border in the north-east, down between Mosul and Kirkuk and across the desert towards the Mediterranean, veering northwards to loop around the top end of Palestine.
- Sykes-Picot marked with bitterness and regret by Arab media
- Aiming to change the outcome of World War One
But the spirit of Sykes-Picot, dominated by the interests and ruthless ambitions of the two main competing colonial powers, prevailed during that process and through the coming decades, to the Suez crisis of 1956 and even beyond.
Kurdish hour?Because it inaugurated that era, and epitomised the concept of clandestine colonial carve-ups, Sykes-Picot has become the label for the whole era in which outside powers imposed their will, drew borders and installed client local leaderships, playing divide-and-rule with the "natives", and beggar-my-neighbour with their colonial rivals.
Often a patchwork of minorities, there is a natural tendency for such countries to fall apart unless held together by the iron grip of a strongman or a powerful central government.
The irony is that the two most potent forces explicitly assailing the Sykes-Picot legacy are at each other's throats: the militants of IS, and the Kurds in the north of both Iraq and Syria.
In both countries, the Kurds have proven the Western coalition's most effective allies in combating IS, although the two sides share a determination to redraw the map.
"It's not just me that's saying it, the fact is that Sykes-Picot has failed, it's over," said the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, in a BBC interview.
"There has to be a new formula for the region. I'm very optimistic that within this new formula, the Kurds will achieve their historic demand and right [to independence]".
"We have passed through bitter experiences since the formation of the Iraqi state after World War One. We tried to preserve the unity of Iraq, but we are not responsible for its fragmentation - it's the others who broke it up.
"We don't want to be part of the chaos and problems which surround Iraq from all sides."
Entity with bordersPresident Barzani said the drive for independence was very serious, and that preparations were going ahead "full steam".
He said the first step should be "serious negotiations" with the central government in Baghdad to reach an understanding and a solution, towards what Kurdish leaders are optimistically calling an "amicable separation".
If that did not produce results, he said, the Kurds should go ahead unilaterally with a referendum on independence.
Iraq's Kurds are landlocked and surrounded by neighbours - Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq itself - which have traditionally quashed Kurdish aspirations.
Under threat from IS, they are more dependent than ever on Western powers which are also strongly counselling them to stick with Iraq.
But whether or not the Iraqi Kurds achieve full formal independence in the near future, they have already established an entity with borders, a flag, international airports, a parliament and government, and its own security forces - everything except a passport and their own currency.
To that extent, they have already redrawn the map. And next door in northern Syria, their fellow Kurds are essentially doing the same, controlling and running large swathes of land along the Turkish border under the title of "self-administration".
Redrawing the futureAs for IS, its territorial gains have already peaked. But the chaos in both Iraq and Syria that allowed it to take root have yet to run their course - the alienation of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority (and the Kurds), and Syria's fragmentation in a vicious sectarian civil war.
"Sykes-Picot is finished, that's for sure, but everything is now up in the air, and it will be a long time before it becomes clear what the result will be," said the veteran Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
The Sykes-Picot agreement conflicted directly with pledges of freedom given by the British to the Arabs in exchange for their support against the collapsing Ottomans.
It also collided with the vision of the US President Woodrow Wilson, who preached self-determination for the peoples subjugated by the Ottoman Empire.
His foreign policy adviser Edward House was later informed of the agreement by UK Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, who 18 months on was to put his name to a declaration which was to have an even more fateful impact on the region.
House wrote: "It is all bad and I told Balfour so. They are making it a breeding place for future war."