DIVIDING THE MIDDLE-EAST: ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF THE SYKES-PICOT AGREEMENT(1916-2016)

(This article was originally published in our Facebook page on May 17th 2016.) The road to the Sykes-Picot Agreement can be traced back at least a few decades, to the British take-over of Cyprus in 1878 and the conquest of Egypt in 1882 which put Ottoman Empire’s remaining Levantine possessions at a fragile position, but a case can be made that its roots go much farther than that, to the European Voyages of Discovery. At first the lands Sykes-Picot Agreement would divide between mainly British and French spheres of direct control and influence had little to do with these earlier developments, but the European mindset and attitudes towards foreign lands born at that much more distant time can be claimed to have laid the basis to Sykes-Picot. This is why we at first briefly look back several centuries, to a very different world when the Middle-East was divided between the great Mamluk, Safavid and Ottoman empires – an era when the suggestion that men from the distant Christian kingdoms of France and England (the latter then barely known) could decide the fates of these lands and their myriad peoples with a few signatures and the shaking off each others hands would have been met with laughter by the locals, Muslim, Christian and Jew alike. DIVIDING THE WORLD The treaties of Tordesillas(1494) and Zaragoza (1529) divided the recently discovered and to be discovered areas of the entire planet Earth between Portugal and Spain, the two halves of control and influence. No notice was taken off the native people, discovered and undiscovered, or their right to self-government. This can be seen as the moment when the western European powers, until then at best second-rate operators on the world stage for a thousand years, started to see themselves as entitled to lands beyond their traditional horizons and superior to the people in those lands. In England, the moment when darker skin becomes a negative feature when describing people, is set at about the year 1613 based in mentions in literature. This happened when England had recently started attempts to colonize parts of the northern Atlantic coast of the so-called ‘New World’. Racism, colonial projects and European feelings of superiority grew in close connection to each other. OTTOMAN EMPIRE JOINS THE GREAT WAR In 1915 the Ottoman Empire, by then for a century declared to be the “sick man of Europe” entered – goaded by Imperial Germany – the Great War on the side of the Central Powers. Repeatedly humiliated in the wars of 1911-1913 where it had lost most of its remaining European territory to new states in the Balkan and Libya to Italy, it now took the side where less of its recent enemies were. In many ways it was a suicidal decision. The British government certainly thought so, with prime minister Herbert Asquith(1852-1928) soon declaring that the ‘dismemberment’ of the Ottoman Empire was to be one of the goals of the war. A war that had started as mainly a European war with limited action in the European colonies had now gained major front in the Middle East and the Allied Powers started to put forth their own claims, dubious at best, to different parts of the Ottoman Empire in the manner of the Berlin treaty in 1884 that had divided Africa between the European colonial powers. The Berlin treaty was one of the major steps on the path coming from the treaty of Tordesillas to the Sykes-Picot agreement and directly led to the genocide led by Belgium’s king Leopold II(1865-1909) in the so-called ‘Free State of Congo'(1885-1908), resulting in the deaths of up to 10 million people according to an estimate by the Belgian colonial authorities themselves in 1920. VULTURES GATHER: ITALY AND RUSSIA Russia demanded Constantinople and Straits of Bosphorus – targets to Kievan Rus already in the 10th century and dream of Imperial Russia since the late 18th century – and those parts of Armenia still under Turkish control, Russia controlling the rest. Italy had taken over the Dodecanese islands in the Aegean in 1912 and now dreamed big – it demanded most of current Turkish south coast and much of inner Anatolia, pushing away Greek claims to the environs of Smyrna. Eventually Italy would gain only the islands Rhodes, being reduced as a bystander by the Greco-Turkish war(1919-22) with Russia’s demands ending with the Czar’s rule and the collapse of its military situation in 1917 before being declared officially void by the Bolsheviks after the October revolution. These ‘western’ parts of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which had no lasting geopolitical importance beyond the fate of Armenians, are often now forgotten, because it was those lands coveted by Britain and France where the Agreement in its main part would stand and leave a lasting legacy – and a fertile ground for future conflicts. Russia would emerge again on the Levantine geopolitical stage in the guise of the Soviet Union after the Second World War, and after a brief hiatus, it has now, restored under its old name, playing a role that the Czars mostly could only have dreamed of. Old territorial claims forgotten, the weakening US grip of the Middle East has opened path for not only to save a client regime but to push its roles again to a more central position from the periphery. THE SYKES-PICOT AGREEMENT The May 16th 1916 agreement between Great Britain and France is known Sykes-Picot Agreement after the two middle-level diplomats who played large roles in negotiating it. They were France’s hard-line colonialism advocate François Georges-Picot(1870-1951) and Great Britain’s Sir Mark Sykes(1879-1919), a college drop-out and a very minor politician before his diplomatic role. Neither man had hold positions of great prominence before and Picot in his remaining thirty-five years wouldn’t achieve anything the posterity has afterwards considered worth recalling, while Sykes would die during the Versailles peace negotiations, one more victim of the Spanish flu whose emergence marked the painful birth of the new post-war world. In adverse importance to the men whose names it carries, Sykes-Picot Agreement has ever since been the basis for territorial control and division in the Middle East ever since, with slight chances in the later agreements during and after the war – with the aforementioned the establishment of current Turkey on the ruins of Italian and Russian imperial dreams the most important exception. After acknowledging the Italian and Russian demands, Picot and Sykes went on to the main issue of the agreement: How they would divide the areas of their own main interest between them. French governments had been coveting possessions in the Middle East for decades, partly driven by the romantic afterglow of the medieval Crusades in its national imagination and the memory of the brief occupation of Egypt(1798-1801) as a result of Napoleon Bonaparte’s initial conquest, but France also sought to limit British control and influence in the Middle East, ally or not. In 1898 France and Britain had come close to a war in the ‘Fashoda incident’ where British plans to control whole of the river Nile had run into French attempt to gain a swath of land extending from the western to the eastern coast of Africa. In the negotiations that averted a war then the genocidal rule of ‘Free State of Congo’, Belgium’s king Leopold II had been enlisted to control a buffer zone between French and British colonial empires to separate their colonial forces from each other and in 1904 the visit of king Edward VII(1901-10) to France led to the ‘Entente Cordiale’ treaty between the two empires, which laid ground for the two contesting power blocs in the First World War. In the negotiations which led to the Sykes-Picot Agreement France demanded and got a zone of direct control in what are now south-east Turkey and coastal Lebanon and Syria. Added to that would have been an ‘independent’ Arab state under French ‘influence’ formed from most of the territory of current Syria and northern Iraq. Britain’s area of direct control would have been southern Iraq along the border of Persia – which it had already divided into zones of influence with Russia in 1907 – and northwestern coastal lands of the Persian Gulf with an ‘independent’ Arab state under its ‘protection’ reaching from the current Jordan to central Iraq. These two planned Arab states were intended as an enticement for Arabs to rebel and, after the victory, both a buffer zone between French and British empires and a way to control the Arabs like the Romans and Persians had once controlled their own spheres of influence among the Arabs through their Ghassanid and Lahkmid client rulers. THE FATE OF PALESTINE In the original Sykes-Picot Agreement Palestine was set to be partly under international rule, partly part of the Arab client state and partly under direct British rule. No mention of a Jewish state was made at this point, even when plans for it in Palestine were already circulating. In December 1916 Conservative prime minister Herbert Asquith made way for the new coalition government led by the Liberal David Lloyd George(1863-1945), who had been connected to previous plans for a Jewish state in Uganda. Jewish state in Palestine soon made its appearance in the agenda of the new coalition government and on November 2nd the former prime minister, then foreign minister, Arthur Balfour(1848-1930) made the fateful declaration carrying his name which he would later defend saying that: “…in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country….The Four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land…” The Balfour declaration and these words were the seeds of the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1947-1949. Today from those seeds have grown the Apartheid state of Israel, the 49 year long occupation of what remains of Palestinians’ lands – the emerging archipelago of bantustans – and the dilapidated refugee camps in which generation after generation grows up hoping for a return to home. Balfour Declaration could not have happened without the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The latter was an egg and the former a sperm cell incubating it and the period of the British Mandate(1920-1948) a long period of gestation leading to the birth of the Zionist state and the birth of a nation of refugees and oppressed from a people who already had had a land, Palestine. Today we witness aborted attempts at peace negotiations in Palestine by France; Great Britain has long since accepted its role as the loyal arms-bearer on the side of the United States, but France, which faced shared defeat with the British in the 1956 Suez Crisis and a loss of face, credibility and influence in the Middle East as a result of it, has not. Openly mocked by the government of Israel, which France once supported strongly and to which it gave nuclear weapons, the French government – perhaps driven by the ghost of Georges-Picot – seeks to re-instate some amount of influence in the Middle East through Palestine having already established a military basis in the United Arab Emirates – a former British colony until 1971. DEVELOPMENTS AFTER SYKES-PICOT AGREEMENT: THE FRENCH RULE Sykes-Picot evolved into the Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne(1917) and the transformation of the details continued during the immediate post-war years with the Treaty of San Remo(1920) while the overall division remained. The French, who had done little militarily to gain the large areas of lands they coveted in the Levant, on their part put the idea of a large, continuous Arab state under their influence to the dustbin. Having given up northern Iraq to the British in 1919 and having lost much of their intended directly controlled areas to the emerging Turkey, the French instead took up the Damascus area by force in 1920 as a ‘replacement’ for these losses, and created as a cover a group of supposedly autonomous statelets on ethnic basis, which they then administered under a League of Nations mandate. This French ‘divide and rule’ attempt to control their new possessions have been claimed to have influenced to various degrees both the Lebanese civil war(1975-1990) and the current ongoing war in Syria. Certainly both states and their borders are a direct result of the French rule and the Sykes-Picot treaty, which the Islamic State symbolically claimed to erase by removing border markings between those parts of Iraq and Syria which it controls. But the French rule was never was firm as intended, and it was here that the French colonial empire started to crumble even before it was itself occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940: Turkey would go on to gain the briefly independent Hatay in 1939 before Lebanon(1943) would emerge from one of the statelets and the rest would be united as Syria(1946). The United States would emerge as the inheritor of French power or attempts at power, just like in Indochina. Having briefly installed a dictator in Syria in 1949 – and afterwards doing increasingly desperate attempts to carry out more coups – it intervened in Lebanon for the first time in 1958, an invasion almost forgotten in the shadow of its second intervention 1982-84. At the head of an alliance of several countries from the Sykes-Picot agreement it was forced to withdraw in 1984, defeated, having gained a new enemy that – like all those who have successfully stood up against the United States – has since become an obsession to it: Hezbollah. The Beirut bombing in 1983 and its humbling aftermath can be seen as a major crack in the Middle East based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement. DEVELOPMENTS AFTER SYKES-PICOT AGREEMENT: THE BRITISH RULE AND THE HASHEMITE DYNASTY The British followed a different trajectory from the French, eventually setting up – or accepting as a way to keep under their control, depending from viewpoint – three different kingdoms, those of Hejaz(1916-1925) and the mandate kingdoms of Iraq(1922-1932/1958) and Transjordan(1922-46). Each of these kingdoms was under the rule of a member of the Hashemite dynasty, kings Hussein of Hejaz(1916-24) and his sons Abdullah I of (Trans-)Jordan(1920-51) and Faisal I of Iraq(1921-33). The last was ‘a solution’ to regular uprisings in the area of current Iraq against nascent British rule, which had led to aerial bombings and use of poison gas against the native population. The Hashemite family had emerged as the major British ally among Arabs during the Arab revolt – an important event perhaps appreciated better by the contemporaries than later generations, to whom the Arab revolt tends to evoke only the name of a junior British officer involved in it, that of T. E. Lawrence(1888-1935), The crown jewel of the intended Hashemite confederated empire, Damascus, was only briefly held by them before the French took it from them in 1920 and in 1925 the al-Saud family conquered their kingdom of Hejaz. In Iraq the Hashemite rule and British influence ended in the bloody coup of 1958 – and one can see much of the following history of Iraq as series of increasingly violent attempts by the ‘West’ to regain control. After the United States-led invasion of Iraq we have seen efforts to enshrine the British colonial administrator Gertrude Bell(1868-1926) as a kind of ‘enlightened’ face of British and overall Western colonial rule over Iraq especially and Arabs overall. In reality people like Bell, Lawrence and Sykes were middling British adventurers from the upper class to whom the Great War gave opportunity to gain official positions and, almost accidentally, great influence over contemporary native peoples of the Middle East – and their posterity. In the long run the only survivor among the Hashemite kingdoms would be Jordan, whose army was commanded until 1956 by British officers and which is still ruled by the half-British and fully British educated Abdullah II – a kind of living symbol of the lasting effect of Sykes-Picot in the Middle East. CONCLUSION Sykes-Picot Agreement is a high-water mark in European colonialism, signed during the Great War which turned out to be the First of two World Wars that would break the European power’s economies and military power and through that, their colonial systems. The roots of Sykes-Picot go far back in time. The idea of a world which could be arranged on the whim of European powers with little to no regard to the needs and will of local people and existing states can be traced back as far as the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Expected to be the basis of stable British and French rule and control in the Middle East, after the Second World War it became a framework for a Middle East of mostly authoritarian states which kept up order and a semblance of peace through brutally enforced rule from the centre, often favouring one ethnic or religious group over others, but always willingly or under duress under the patronage of superpowers. That framework was given what appears to be a fatal wound by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ethnic-religious tensions released – and nurtured by various state and non-state operators – by it. The Arab Spring of 2011 made further cracks in the edifices of states, opening further opportunities for those who nurtured the aforementioned tensions, subjugating calls for democracy for their own secretarian goals. As the old order lays seemingly dying, Palestine is still in its grip, caught in the century-long nightmare of Balfour Declaration. Already in the Sykes-Picot Agreement much of Palestine was intended to be under international rule and it still remains a major international issue. Only strong outside pressure can bring an end to the occupation of Palestine to save the two state solution or it dying through indigestion of too many illegal colonies, ensure a one state where all people no matter of their ethnic or religious background, gender or ideology are equal. There is no sign that this pressure will come from states, so it must come from individual people through BDS and other solidarity activities. Instead of foreigners telling what local people do and what is best for them – that heritage of Bell, Georges-Picot and Sykes – the foreigners must now follow the lead of the local people, the people of Palestine, in this. FURTHER READING: Anderson, Scott: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. 2013.Barr, James: A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948. New York 2011.Bates, Darrell: The Fashoda Incident of 1898: Encounter on the Nile. Oxford 1984.Bell, Gertrude: A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert. London 2015.Bell, Gertrude: The Desert and the Sown: Travels in Palestine and Syria. 1919.Boxer, C. R..: The Portuguese Seaborne Empire: 1415-1825. New York 1969.Fawaz, Leila Tarazi: A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War. 2014.Finkel, Caroline: Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire(2005).Firro, Kais: Inventing Lebanon. Nationalism and the State Under the Mandate. London 2002.Fisk, Robert: The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. London 2005.Fromkin, David: A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. New York 1989.Goodwin, Jason: Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire. 1999.Hobsbawm: E. J.: The Age of Empire: 1875–1914. London 1987.Hochschild, Adam: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. 1998.Hooton, E. R.: Prelude to the First World War: The Balkan Wars 1912-1913. London 2000.Hourani, Albert: A History of the Arab Peoples: With a New Afterword. 2001; original edition 1991.Howell, Georgina: Daughter of the Desert: The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell. 2006. (Republished as Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell. 2015)Huneidi, Sahar: A Broken Trust: Sir Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians. 1999.Jeffries, J. M. N. & Mathew, William M. : The Palestine Deception, 1915–1923: The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, the Balfour Declaration, and the Jewish National Home. 2014.Lawrence, T. E.: Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a triumph. London 1926.Mansel, Philip: Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean. London 2010.Mazower, Mark: Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950. London 2004.McMeekin, Sean: The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power. 2010.McMeekin, Sean: The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908 – 1923. London 2015.Rodenbeck, Max: Cairo: The City Victorious. New York 1999.Rogan, Eugene: The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920. 2015.Stephenson, Charles: A Box of Sand: The Italo-Ottoman War 1911-1912. 2014.Tamari, Salim & Turjma, Ihsan Salih: Year of the Locust: A Soldier’s Diary and the Erasure of Palestine’s Ottoman Past. 2014.Whitelam, Keith J.: Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past. 2013. (Source / 13.05.2019)

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