Category Archives: Syria

Obsession with Sykes-Picot says more about what we think of Arabs than history

James L Gelvin, University of California, Los Angeles

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, we’ve got a package with an explanatory article about the secret accord, an argument that its influence is overstated (below), and the counter-view that it still underlies the discontent in the Middle East.

In 1915-16, Sir Mark Sykes, of the British War Office, and François Georges-Picot, French consul in Beirut, negotiated a secret agreement to divide the Asiatic provinces of the Ottoman Empire into zones of direct and indirect British and French control after the first world war.

The agreement also “internationalised” Jerusalem – a bone thrown to the Russian Empire, then a British and French ally. The Russians were worried that Orthodox Christians might be put at a disadvantage if the Catholic French had the final say about the future of the holy city.

Although Russia never officially signed the agreement, it acquiesced to it. In return, the allies pledged their commitment to Russian control over Istanbul and the Turkish Straits. They also agreed to direct Russian control over parts of eastern Anatolia (Asia Minor, or the modern-day Republic of Turkey) at the close of hostilities.

As straightforward as all this was, over the years the words Sykes-Picot have taken on two meanings – one significant, the other less so.

A dead letter

Let’s start with the less significant meaning, which alludes to the actual accord. Except for demarcating a line in the desert that anticipated the boundary between contemporary Syria and Iraq (drawn in 1922), the impact of the accord is zero.

It never went into effect. By the end of the first world war, it was already a dead letter. This was the case for a number of reasons.

In the first place, the British did not like the borders drawn between their zone and the French zone. In particular, the Sykes-Picot map placed northern Palestine and Mosul – two areas the British coveted – in the French zone.

Second, by the end of the war the British, not the French, occupied the inland Asiatic Arab territory that had belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Since they were playing a stronger hand than the French, they took it upon themselves to divide that territory into zones under the authority of the “Occupied Enemy Territory Administration”. And the boundaries of the various administrative zones conflicted with those established by the Sykes-Picot agreement.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks took power in Russia. Focused on consolidating power at home and not particularly concerned with access to holy places or inter-imperialist agreements, the new government renounced all secret agreements to which the tsarist government had been party.

Adding insult to injury, Russia published them, much to the embarrassment of former allies. Britain and France both viewed the changed circumstances as an opportunity to rethink their agreement.

Not really relevant

The irrelevance of the accord becomes apparent if one compares a map of the contemporary Middle East with the map proposed by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Is any area of the region under direct British, French or Russian administration?

Is Jerusalem – and the adjoining region – under international control? Do France and Russia directly control parts of Anatolia? And does Britain directly control parts of Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula?

Whatever Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot agreed to, the current boundaries in the Levant (an area in the Eastern Mediterranean encompassing Syria, Palestine and Lebanon), Mesopotamia (the area around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq) and Anatolia actually resulted from two factors.

The first is the establishment of the mandates system by the precursor of the United Nations, the League of Nations. This system allotted Britain and France temporary control over territory in the region. The two powers took it upon themselves to combine or divide territories into proto-states in accordance with their imperial interests.

Britain created Iraq and Trans-Jordan after the war (Israel and Palestine would come later); France did the same for Lebanon and Syria.

Islamists, particularly those affiliated with al-Qaeda and IS, include references to the ‘Sykes-Picot boundaries’ in their propaganda.

Second, Anatolia remained undivided because Turkish nationalists fought a gruelling four-year war to drive foreigners out of the peninsula. The result was the contemporary Republic of Turkey.

Why, then, do commentators and others still focus on the Sykes-Picot Agreement 100 years after the fact? It wasn’t, after all, the first secret agreement that aspired to divide the Ottoman Empire among the allies; that would be the Constantinople Agreement of 1915.

A metaphor

The answer lies in the second meaning of the accord: its usefulness as a metaphor. During the last century, the expression Sykes-Picot has served three functions.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, Arab nationalists invoked the secret agreement as a symbol of Western treachery. The West, they claimed, thwarted the natural inclination of Arabs to unite in a single state. In addition, it supported the State of Israel — a “dagger stuck in the heart of the Arab world”, as then Egyptian president Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser once put it – to achieve that goal.

From the 1980s to the present, Islamists, particularly those affiliated with al-Qaeda and now Islamic State (IS), have included references to the “Sykes-Picot boundaries” in their propaganda to connote a conspiracy the West (or, in the case of al-Qaeda, “Crusader-Zionists”) entered into to keep the Islamic world weak and divided.

Read about how Islamic State uses Sykes-Picot in its propaganda

For al-Qaeda, this conspiracy justifies its defensive jihad. For IS, it justifies an offensive jihad to re-establish a caliphate that, they anticipate, will eventually unite the entirety of the Islamic world.

Commentators in the West and elsewhere use the agreement to explain the contemporary turmoil in the Arab world. For them, it represents “blowback” — unintended and adverse effects of imperialist meddling in the region.

The American arming of the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980s led directly to the rise of al-Qaeda and 9/11, for instance, and indirectly to the rise of IS. The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq unleashed a sectarian nightmare.

In a similar vein, commentators assert, imperialist meddling and the creation of “artificial” borders in the region at the end of the first world war prevented populations from consolidating nation-states based on their “natural” and “primordial” sectarian and ethnic identities (as, the argument would have it, had happened in the West).

All borders, not just those in the Middle East, are, of course, artificial. And if you choose to worry about the durability of states whose borders were drawn by far-off diplomats, worry not just about Syria and Iraq but about Belgium as well.

Most important, the fact that we tend to harp on “natural” and “primordial” ties of sect and ethnicity in this particular region feeds into the all-too-common tendency to view Arabs as primitives incapable of forming modern political identities. They most certainly are not.

For all the talk of artificial borders in this particular corner of the Arab world, it is easy to forget one essential fact: except for the decolonisation of the Gulf in 1971, and the unification of the two Yemens in 1990, the state system in the Arab world has been remarkably stable for almost three-quarters of a century. It has been more stable, in fact, than the European state system.

This article is part of a package marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Read the counter-argument about the legacy of the document, or the introductory article about the accord.

The Conversation

James L Gelvin, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Against ISIS’ destruction of heritage, and for curators as the cure of souls

Jose Antonio Gonzalez Zarandona, Deakin University

Barely a week after ISIS beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, the Syrian expert who devoted his life to the study of Palmyra, the group is reported to have destroyed a nearly 2,000-year-old temple dedicated to Baalshamin, Semitic god of rain and fecundity.

The reason seems clear: it is part of a plan by ISIS to get rid of the so-called idols, destroy the past and erase history, by targeting the heritage of Iraq and Syria.

Following the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the unprecedented scale of heritage destruction currently undertaken by ISIS seeks to undermine the concept of heritage as professed by international organisations such as UNESCO, ICOMOS or ICCROM – that is, a Western concept very well grounded in our contemporary visual culture of the digital industrial age.

Khaled al-Asaad.
EPA PHOTO/Youssef Badawi

With the destruction of the Palmyra temple, ISIS, as has been shown through previous cases of iconoclasm, is sending a very clear message: territories under ISIS control need to be radically transformed, so Year Zero of their Caliphate can commence, and that entails the destruction of idols.

The question remains: what is an idol before the eyes of ISIS’ members? A straight answer is: everything that resembles the human form and that which is cherished by infidels in the West.

And the best medium to spread this war of images is, of course, the internet. As the German curator Peter Weibel eloquently put it in the book Ravaged. Art and Culture in Times of Conflict (2014), the reason behind these images is to show that a war is taking place, so we do not forget it.

But who is winning this war, one might ask. It seems whoever shows more violence. The ultimate reason to show these “spectacular” images of destruction is to assist ISIS in spreading fear and installing a permanent state of war in our minds.

In this sense, one of the most horrific images that ISIS has recently circulated is that of the beheaded body of Khaled al-Asaad, a scholar who was killed because he was fulfilling his duty as a curator and archaeologist.

Preserving heritage

By preserving the past, archaeologists working in extreme conditions in territories controlled by ISIS are taking the role of curator in its truest sense. The cultural cleansing that is currently taking place in Syria, demonstrates more than ever that the study of history, art and antiquity is a high-risk profession.

Iconoclasm, as we all know, means the breaking of images. In the 8th and 9th centuries the word was used in Byzantium in reference to the removal and destruction of icons: sacred images depicting Christian divinities.

During the Catholic Reformation in Switzerland, Germany and England during the 16th century, it was used to describe the destruction and fury that characterised the Protestants who pulled down from Christian churches the artefacts they considered blasphemous and caused idolatry.

Iconoclasts claimed that objects made of stone and wood could not represent the true essence of the divine, and they dulled the senses.

Iconoclasm and idolatry are two words that have been regularly used by the media and ISIS respectively, in reference to the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria.

As a result, the value of cultural heritage in these two countries has dramatically increased due to the threat that ISIS represents. Otherwise, how can we explain that in 2012 Iraqi forces were deployed to Syria, in order to protect the revered Sayyida Zainab mosque outside Damascus?

The reason given was to avoid sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni, as was the case in 2006 when the Samarra gold-dome mosque that contains the remains of two Shia Imams was targeted by Al-Qaeda, sinking Iraq into a civil war that lasted for two years.

And many of us will remember that in February 2015 Turkish soldiers crossed over to Syria to save the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the founding patriarch of the Ottoman Empire, in order to prevent their destruction by ISIS.

Turkish tanks return to Turkey from the tomb of Suleyman Shah, Kobane, Syria, February 21, 2015.
EPA/Mursel Coban/DEPO Photos

We may try to understand ISIS’ iconoclasm of cultural heritage as a replica of former models of ethnic cleansing and purification as those described in Byzantium and Northern Europe.

The archaeologist as a curator

One of the main differences between previous iconoclastic waves and our age is the figure of the curator. Think about the French archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir, who defended the monuments in 1793 at the Abbey of St Denis, when revolutionary forces stormed into the abbey and destroyed the tombs of French royalty.

Nowadays, we are faced with the figure of the archaeologist who is not only an expert on antiquity, but who is also a cultural expert and a manager in preserving the past. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, curator (from the Latin curator) has different meanings, but it originally meant “one who has the care or charge of a person or thing”.

In the case of Khaled al-Asaad, his role as an archaeologist entailed the study of the ancient city of Palmyra, occupied at different points of time by several cultures, regardless of who the owner of this heritage site was.

It is no secret that in some countries, the post of archaeologist carries a lot of political capital, and this translates into the power of consolidating knowledge, but also to control it, such as Zawi Hawass in Egypt or Eduardo Matos in Mexico.

In his role at the service of the State (the Baath Party), al-Asaad fulfilled the role of archaeologist, rather than that of a curator. Nonetheless, when ISIS captured the city he had tirelessly studied and took him hostage, al-Asaad was tortured and questioned about antiquities that he hid – a measure that prevented ISIS from looting and profiting as it had done with other artefacts.

In their ridiculous attempt to justify his death, ISIS accused al-Asaad of being an apostate, because he talked at “infidel conferences” and as a government employee, he served as “the director of idolatry”.

Working in extremely difficult conditions, al-Asaad took care of the city he loved. In charge of Palmyra, al-Asaad took his role of curator seriously until the end.

Another definition of the word curator describes it as someone “who has the cure of souls”. This is important to bear in mind in light of the tragic death of Khalid al-Asaad, who was beheaded by ISIS, his body hanged from a pole and a photograph taken to certify his death.

As someone with the ability to cure souls, al-Asaad tried to prevent the destruction of heritage, because he was convinced of the power of heritage to heal souls which are tormented by idols.

The Conversation

Jose Antonio Gonzalez Zarandona is Associate Research Fellow, Heritage Destruction Specialist at Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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ISIS Beheads Leading Syrian Antiquities Scholar in Palmyra

Syria: ISIS Kills Archaeologist

Syria: ISIS Destroys Ancient Sites

ISIS Destroying History

Article: Syria – The Dead Cities

The link below is to an article that takes a look at the dead cities of Syria.

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