100 years ago this week, a British colonel and a French diplomat drew a few lines on a map of the Middle East. Those lines were the first draft of borders that are still disputed, and battled over today.
Mark Sykes and François-Georges Picot were empowered by their governments to secretly work out an arrangement to split up the Levant part of the Ottoman Empire even before World War I was over.
Sykes & Picot came up with areas of British (area A and area in red) and French influence (area B and area in blue). The brown shaded area would be internationally administered. The secret plan was signed on May 16, 1916, two-and-a-half years before World War I ended.
Sykes-Picot was seen as a betrayal of the Arabs by the British, who promised their support for an independent state in exchange for Arab support against the Ottomans.
Memories of that supposed betrayal remain strong. When the Islamic State bulldozed the barrier marking Sykes-Picot border between Iraq and Syria in 2014 they tweeted #SykesPicotOver.
So, is a line drawn in the sand 100 years ago the cause of the Middle East’s problems today?
Like most issues involving the Middle East, ask 10 people and you will get 10 different opinions.
How Did the Secret Sykes-Picot Agreement Become Public?
David A. Graham – The Atlantic
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.
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.
What We Don’t Get about Sykes-Picot
John Richard Cookson – The National Interest
Interest in Sykes-Picot on this its centennial isn’t simply about borders, which have changed since 1916; it’s about what the borders ought to contain. The nation-state, which seems to be gaining political legitimacy and strength everywhere else, has failed in the Middle East. This idea isn’t new, of course. It was recognized before America’s recent state-building campaigns in the region….
Now, a “Great Sorting Out” is happening in the Middle East, a slow-rolling ethnic cleansing where areas are becoming more homogenous. This mirrors the sorting in the Ottoman regions of eastern Europe over the last few decades….Making matters worse, a century (and more) of surprisingly resilient borders, grievances and territorial claims have accumulated in the region, and untangling them promises to be even more bloody than in the Balkans.
Lee Smith – The Weekly Standard
The region’s political leaders used Arab nationalism for a very different purpose—to undermine their regional rivals. For instance, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser regularly attacked Jordan and Saudi Arabia for betraying the Arab cause—i.e., the war to eliminate the Zionists and liberate Palestine. It is hardly a coincidence that Nasser’s targets were American allies, and his Egypt, like the other prominent Arab nationalist regimes, Syria and Iraq, was a Soviet client. Again, the middle of the Arabic-speaking Middle East was a buffer zone, where the world’s two great powers competed for zones of influence.
Backing Arab nationalist causes and hanging the colonialist/imperialist label on Washington was part of Moscow’s Cold War propaganda campaign. And indeed it was the United States that inherited the legacy of Sykes-Picot when Eisenhower ushered France and the United Kingdom out of the region with the 1956 Suez Crisis. Now, according to the Arab nationalist reading, the United States was the great colonial power.
The Sykes-Picot Illusion
Robert Zaretsky – Real Clear World
Nearly everything that has since gone wrong in the Middle East has been laid at the feet of the map’s creators. Like “9/11” or “Auschwitz,” “Sykes-Picot” has become a sinister synecdoche for a world-historical event of the first order….
[T]he etching of lines and coloring of regions seem to suppress the agency, or freedom, of the human beings living in those demarcated places. Yet, the imposition of the Sykes-Picot map inspired the rise of nationalist movements, as well as pan-Arabism, across the region. As early as 1917, even Sykes recognized that his map was an artifact of a bygone era.
Moreover, even today we tend to assume the Middle East settlement of 1922, for which Sykes-Picot is a cornerstone, was entirely the work of the Western powers. We came, we mapped, and we conquered. Yet as revisionist historians persuasively argue, local actors — Muslim and Christian, Arab and Turkish and Persian — all played pivotal roles in these events.
How Regional Powers Helped Create the Next Sykes-Picot
Burhanettin Duran – The Daily Sabah
The main problem with the Sykes-Picot debate is that commentators tend to exaggerate the influence of great powers over the Middle East – which borders on conspiracy theory. Another issue relates to the convenience of blaming regional problems on outsiders. Still, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Russia’s desperate efforts to keep Bashar Assad in power and the People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) quest for an independent Kurdish state in northern Syria inevitably fuel fears across the region.
During World War I, Britain and France approached the Middle East with an imperialist road map geared toward the partitioning of sovereign states. The regional order they created gave rise to oppressive regimes, widespread terrorism, proxy wars and sectarian clashes. Keeping in mind how much the Middle East endured over the past century, it only makes sense for people to ask whether Washington and Moscow are taking another crack at developing a regional order.
Why Islamic State Militants Care So Much about Sykes-Picot
James Miller – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
According to IS’s well-crafted message, it was no longer an organization operating within two countries: It was its own state, and by establishing an Islamic caliphate in the region, it was actively destroying the vestiges of foreign imperialism. IS’s English-language propaganda outlet, the Al-Hayat Media Center, released a video called The End Of Sykes-Picot, which showed the destruction of the border between Iraq and Syria. An IS fighter provided a video tour, in clear English, of the border crossing that Iraqi soldiers had abandoned. The “so-called border,” according to the IS fighter, was established by Arab leaders and Western imperialists. There is no border, he said, the world belongs to Allah, “we are all one country,” and IS-held territory should not be divided. He quoted IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as saying he was “the breaker of barriers.”
Crucially, however, IS’s message is not working. If the militant group’s goal is to inspire others to break down these borders and unify under a single Islamic state, there does not seem to be any sign IS is tapping into a wider collective desire.
Anthropology professor Jon W. Anderson of the Catholic University of America says that the borders established after World War I are widely accepted by those in the Middle East, and with each passing generation they become more firmly established.
Don’t Blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s Mess
Steven A. Cook & Amr T. Leheta – Foreign Policy
The region’s “unnatural” borders did not lead to the Middle East’s ethnic and religious divisions. The ones to blame are the cynical political leaders who foster those divisions in hopes of maintaining their rule. In Iraq, for instance, Saddam Hussein built a patronage system through his ruling Baath Party that empowered a state governed largely by Sunnis at the expense of Shiites and Kurds. Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and his father before him, also ruled by building a network of supporters and affiliates whereby members of his Alawite sect enjoyed a privileged space in the inner circle. The Wahhabi worldview of Saudi Arabia’s leaders strongly encourages a sectarian interpretation of the country’s struggle with Iran for regional hegemony. The same is true for the ideologies of the various Salafi-jihadi groups battling for supremacy in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
Sykes-Picot Turns 100; the Kurds Are Not Celebrating
Paul Iddon – Rudaw
The people to lose out most from the new order created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed 100 years ago today, are undoubtedly the world’s estimated 25-30 million Kurds, who remain the world’s largest stateless nation.
The agreement, which demarcated the Middle East into Anglo-Franco imperial spheres of control at the end of the First World War, cut through Kurdish-populated territories in the Middle East. The repercussions of that were that today the world’s Kurds are scattered over parts of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, each group struggling to retain identity or fighting for greater rights, autonomy or outright independence from nations where they never felt they belonged.