Category Archives: Ottoman Empire
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 the accord still underlies the discontent in the Middle East (below) and the counter-view that its influence is overstated.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement created the modern Middle East. It represents one of the first instalments in a long line of modern European – and subsequent American – meddling in the region. And, in providing a set of unrealistic and impossible promises to the Arabs, it led directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Asia Minor Agreement, the official name of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, dates to 1916. It was the result of secret deliberations between the British civil servant Mark Sykes and French diplomat François Georges-Picot.
It was made official by the Allied Powers of the first world war with the San Remo Conference in 1920.
The agreement provided a general understanding of British and French spheres of influence in the Middle East. The goal was to divide between them the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces (not including the Arabian Peninsula).
The line across a map of the Middle East it drew created colonial spheres of influence that cut directly and artificially across a region that had previously been divided along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines.
Area “A” was to be under French influence and control, while “B” was to be under British influence and control. The Sykes-Picot Agreement also proposed an “international administration” for Palestine.
In 1920, the latter region was transferred to British control as “Mandatory Palestine”. It was governed under British civil administration until 1948, during which the competing Arab and Zionist nationalist movements clashed with one another.
The cause of many of these clashes were unrealistic promises made to each side by the British; promises directly related to the artificial arrangement of the modern Middle East initiated by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
The agreement, then, helped frame the contours of modern nation states in a region where before there had been none. Since it’s essentially an accord between two colonialist powers external to the region, it would have devastating effects.
The mainstay of the plan was that France and Great Britain were prepared to recognise and protect an independent Arab state, or confederation of Arab states – in exchange for Arab help in overthrowing the Ottoman Empire.
Sir Henry McMahon was the British high commissioner in Egypt and Hussein bin Ali was the Sharif of Mecca. In letters they exchanged between 1915 to 1916, Britain clearly agreed to recognise Arab independence after the first world war, in exchange for Arab help in fighting the Ottomans.
The Arabs regarded McMahon’s promises as a formal agreement, which it may very well have been. The boundaries proposed by Hussein included Palestine. But this area was not explicitly mentioned in the McMahon–Hussein correspondence.
His Majesty’s Government view 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…
These conflicting promises remained at the heart of the impasse between two distinct nationalist groups in Mandate Palestine: the Zionists and the Arabs, later to be renamed Israelis and Palestinians.
Repeated and conflicting promises to both sides during the Mandate period further stoked nationalist resentment. Each expected the land to remain in their hands, which seems to have been what the British promised them. And repeated attempts at dividing or partitioning the land suited neither.
If the Sykes-Picot Agreement created the modern Middle East, it is also at the heart of many of the region’s intractable problems.
The most significant, at least historically, has been the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More recently, it’s the breakdown of Arab nation states in the area and the rise of Islamic State (IS).
One of IS’s stated goals is to dismantle the agreement. The outfit’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, has called for replacing the crumbling nations of the area into a transnational regional power, the so-called “caliphate”.
In a 2002 interview, then British foreign secretary Jack Straw quipped:
A lot of the problems we are having to deal with now, I have to deal with now, are a consequence of our colonial past … The Balfour Declaration and the contradictory assurances which were being given to Palestinians in private at the same time as they were being given to the Israelis — again, an interesting history for us but not an entirely honourable one.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement is instrumental to understanding the modern Middle East. It represents the framework of its colonial past and shows the potential for national fractures inherent to the region’s present and future.
When taken in the larger context of other agreements, declarations and promises to the players in the region over the years, we see how the agreement is at the root of so many contemporary problems.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.