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100 Years Later: The Sykes-Picot Agreement

With many regions of the Middle East mired in ongoing turmoil, what is the legacy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement?

Jonathan Zalman
May 13, 2016
Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916. Wikimedia
Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916. Wikimedia

One hundred years ago, in May 1916, Britain and France completed a secret agreement referred to as Sykes-Picot, which arbitrarily “carved up” the lands of the Ottoman Empire. The agreement—deemed “imperialist skullduggery” here, and “imperial treachery” here—demarcated spheres of influences in the Middle East for Britain, France, Russia, and Italy. From The Economist:

Allies agreed that Russia would get Istanbul, the sea passages from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and Armenia; the British would get Basra and southern Mesopotamia; and the French a slice in the middle, including Lebanon, Syria and Cilicia (in modern-day Turkey). Palestine would be an international territory. In between the French- and British-ruled blocs, large swathes of territory, mostly desert, would be allocated to the two powers’ respective spheres of influence. Italian claims were added in 1917.

In 2006, Tablet contributor Eyal Zisser wrote: “The regional system based upon the Sykes-Picot agreements—which gave life, authority, and legitimacy to a number of Arab territorial states, most of which lacked historical roots and even legitimacy in the eyes of their inhabitants—has collapsed in the face of the disintegration of many of the states created, such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria.”

Here then, on the 100th anniversary of the agreement, are some recent articles about the legacy of Sykes-Picot, which, given a Middle East that’s in seemingly continuous turmoil—Syria is mired in an ongoing civil war; the Israeli-Palestinian rages on—continues to be debated.

The weaknesses and contradictions of authoritarian regimes are at the heart of the Middle East’s ongoing tribulations. Even the rampant ethnic and religious sectarianism is a result of this authoritarianism, which has come to define the Middle East’s state system far more than the Sykes-Picot agreement ever did.

The Economist: “Unintended Consequences

In the end the Arabs, who had been led to expect a great Hashemite kingdom ruled from Damascus, got several statelets instead. The Maronite Christians got greater Lebanon, but could not control it. The Kurds, who wanted a state for themselves, failed to get one and were split up among four countries. The Jews got a slice of Palestine.

The Hashemites, who had led an Arab revolt against the Ottomans with help from the British (notably T.E. Lawrence), were evicted from Syria by the French. They also lost their ancestral fief of the Hejaz, with its holy cities of Mecca and Medina, to Abdel Aziz bin Saud, a chieftain from the Nejd, who was backed by Britain. Together with his Wahhabi religious zealots, he founded Saudi Arabia. One branch of the Hashemites went on to rule Iraq, but the king, Faisal II, was murdered in 1958; another branch survives in a little kingdom called Transjordan, now plain Jordan, hurriedly partitioned off from Palestine by the British.

Israel, forged in war in 1948, fought and won more battles against Arab states in 1956, 1967 and 1973. But its invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was a fiasco. The Palestinians, scattered across the Middle East, fought a civil war in Jordan in 1970 and helped start the one in Lebanon in 1975. Syria intervened in 1976 and did not leave Lebanon until forced out by an uprising in 2005. More than two decades of “peace process” between Israel and Palestine, starting with the Oslo accords of 1993, have produced an unhappy archipelago of autonomous areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
[I]t is difficult to single out Sykes and Picot for condemnation. It is their legacy to have their names become a cypher for all the perceived ills of colonial and post-colonial intervention in the Middle East, from the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war to the current disintegration of Syria.

In reality, the victors sought to determine the Middle East map with the Treaty of Sèvres which in 1920 effectively dismantled the Turkish heartland in Anatolia Three years later, with the Treaty of Lausanne, a resurgent Turkey under Kemal Ataturk regained what it had almost lost. Earlier promises that Kurds and Armenians might be allowed to determine their futures somehow evaporated.

Today’s situation in the Middle East and the potential breakup of Iraq or Syria have prompted predictions – and not just from ISIS’ Baghdadi – that the region is seeing the end of the Sykes-Picot era. There are few predictions, however, about what might replace it.
The failure of Western diplomacy already began at the time of Sykes-Picot, and it runs like a thread up to the present day. It is clear that the local conflicts, both ethnic and religious, remain unresolved, and that the attempts to overthrow totalitarian regimes in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, and Libya with the ostensible aim of establishing Western democracies in their stead have fallen far short of the mark.

Europe has not only failed in its foreign policy throughout the years. It is now struggling to thwart Islamic terror attacks on its own soil, and it is not coping successfully with the immigration waves of refugees from the Middle Eastern battlefields.

The main conclusion is that the international community must understand once and for all that neither Iran’s threats to destroy Israel nor the ongoing Palestinian terror will succeed to defeat Israel.

Only recognition of the existence of a Jewish state will lead to real peace. So long as none of the Arab states, let alone the Palestinians, accepts the fact that peace can only result from direct talks, trust, and mutual recognition, no stability will reign here.

The historical facts clearly demonstrate that none of the attempts by the Western states and the United Nations to dictate borders and impose an order, as France and Britain tried to do a century ago, have borne fruit. It is clear to anyone with eyes to see that clinging to this mistaken approach today will only make the Middle East an arena of unceasing violent conflicts.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.