Sykes-Picot and the making of the modern Middle East

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, one of the most fateful pacts in modern history, was signed 100 years ago on May 16, 1916. It is not an anniversary to be celebrated. An agreement made between Great Britain and France to divide up the Turkish Ottoman Empire after the end of the First World War, it was negotiated by the Englishman Mark Sykes (1879-1919) and the Frenchman François Georges-Picot (1870-1951).

Far from being relegated to Leon Trotsky’s often-cited “dustbin of history,” the Sykes-Picot Agreement has influenced the history of the Middle East for a century, and there is no indication that the influence will dissipate any time soon. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, boasted of “the end of Sykes-Picot” when in 2014 the group took control of the Iraq-Syria border—physically removing the posts that marked the internationally recognized boundary. It is impossible to make sense of events in the Middle East today—from the rise of ISIS to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—without an understanding of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

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End of an Empire

The end of World War I saw the defeat and ultimate dissolution of one of the most powerful empires the world had ever seen. Founded around the year 1300 in what is now Turkey, the Ottoman Empire lasted 600 years (from roughly 1300 to 1922) and covered at its peak a huge range of territory, including modern day Hungary, the Balkans, Greece, parts of Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, North Africa as far west as Algeria, and the western and eastern coasts of modern Saudi Arabia.

During the war, Ottoman Turkey allied itself with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria) against the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) and later the United States. As the war drew on and it became apparent that the Central Powers were going to lose, France and Britain, the major colonial powers of the day, laid plans to secure access to their colonies in India and Southeast Asia. The result was the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the Middle East into two zones, one French (A) and one British (B). These zones were further divided into “Zones of Direct Control” of the colonial powers and “Zones Under the Influence” of the colonial powers. The amount of territory covered by these zones is staggering in both extent and arrogance.

According to the agreement, France and Britain were to “recognize and protect an independent Arab state or a confederation of Arab states…under the suzerainty of an Arab chief.” That “independence” was, however, severely limited, since “in area (A) France, and in area (B) Great Britain, shall have priority of right of enterprise and local loans. That is area (A) France, and in area (B) Great Britain, shall alone supply advisors or foreign functionaries at the request of the Arab state or confederation of Arab states.” Clearly the crafters of the Sykes-Picot Agreement did not envision the rise of independent Arab nation states in their zones.

Nation Building

The colonial powers were either ignorant of the ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious fault lines of the region or were not concerned about them even where the fairly brutal Ottoman administration had taken these into account. Not one of the newly delineated Arab states existed in the Middle East in its present form before the end of the war. Although words like Syria, Lebanon and Israel appear in the Bible, nowhere did they refer to the modern nation states of the region.

It is interesting to note that while the Ottomans divided the empire up into administrative units called vilayets, they rarely, if ever, used the biblical geographical references or names that are in current use. For example, what is now Iraq never existed as a unit, much less as a national state. The Ottomans realized that it did not form a religious, political or cultural unit and divided the area into three vilayets: Mosul in the Kurdish Sunni north, Baghdad in the Arab Sunni center and Basra in the Arab Shiite south.

Likewise, modern Saudi Arabia did not exist in its present form until after World War I. The central western coast of Arabia is home to Mecca, the site of the Muslim annual pilgrimage or hajj, and Medina, the city where Muhammad lived, ruled, died and was buried. The region known as the Hijaz was governed by the sherif of Mecca, a descendant of the Prophet and a religious-political leader. During the time during and after the war the ruler was Sherif Hussein bin Ali (1854-1931), a Hashemite (a member of the clan of Hashem) and a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

At the time, the vast interior and eastern half of Arabia was underdeveloped and locally governed by tribes and powerful families. One of those families was the House of Saud, whose leader was Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al Saud (1875-1953). The House of Saud followed the puritanical Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, developed only in the 18th century, which is now the official form of Islam in Saudi Arabia. (The violent ideology of ISIS has its roots in Wahhabism, though the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia has condemned the group in no uncertain terms.)

The Arab Revolt

To secure their colonial interests in India and Egypt, the British supported the “Arab Revolt” (1916-18) to bring down the Turkish Ottoman Empire. While the Sykes-Picot Agreement was built on the ultimate dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and the establishment of British and French spheres of influence, the British at times considered the French to be untrustworthy and competitors. The French often had the same feelings about the British. The result was the strategy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the British strategy for the Arab Revolt and its aftermath were often at cross purposes.

The linchpin of the British strategy was Sherif Hussein bin Ali. An Arab and descendent of the Prophet, Hussein was nevertheless an Ottoman official. But the British vastly overestimated the military power and moral authority that Sherif Hussein possessed. And they made several assumptions that were simply wrong: 1) Sherif Hussein had the power to lead a successful Arab revolt that would unite the Arab Middle East against the Ottoman Turks; 2) Sherif Hussein could be molded to the British strategy; 3) Arabs would accept the Balfour Declaration of Nov. 2, 1917, for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”; 4) Wahhabism was in the words of Mark Sykes “a dying fire”; and 5) Arabs in the region would accept governance by non-Muslims. In hindsight, it is incredible that the British machinations were taken seriously.

When the Arab Revolt began, Sherif Hussein was declared king of the Hejaz and also took the title King of the Arab Lands. Although he had been given to believe that he would rule over a vast area of Arab lands, in fact, many of those lands would be under either direct or indirect control of the colonial powers. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the caliphate on March 3, 1924, Hussein declared himself the legitimate caliph. Traditionally, the caliph was considered the “Commander of the Faithful” and successor (Arabic khalifa) to the Prophet Muhammad. But Hussein’s claim to the caliphate and to “all the Arab lands” received little recognition from the Arabs of the Middle East and almost no recognition from Britain. Ultimately Hussein was attacked and—receiving no help from the British—was defeated by ibn Saud and his Wahhabi forces in 1924. Hussein went into exile first in Cyprus and afterward in Transjordan.

Sherif Hussein had several children, two of whom are of note: Faisal bin Hussein (1885-1933) and Abdullah bin Hussein (1882-1951). A brief look at the histories of these men and their families gives considerable insight into the contemporary Middle East.

Faisal bin Hussein was crowned king of Syria on March 7, 1920. When the San Remo Conference made Syria a French mandate, Faisal resisted, the French-Syrian War ensued, and Hussein was deposed on July 24, 1920, after a reign of four months. Syria remained under the French mandate until 1943, when the Mandate of Greater Syria came to an end and two independent countries, Syria and Lebanon, emerged.

Faisal’s royal career did not, however, come to an end. The British made him king of Iraq, where he reigned until his death in 1933. He was succeeded by his son Ghazi (1912-39), who died in a car accident and was in turn succeeded by Faisal II (1935-58). Because of his age, Faisal II did not accede to the throne until May 2, 1953. Five years later he was assassinated in the July 14 Revolution in Iraq, which abolished the monarchy and set the scene for a series of coups that ultimately led to Saddam Hussein’s rise to power in 1979.

Abdullah bin Hussein was made emir of Transjordan, then under the mandatory authority of the British, in 1921. In 1946 the British Mandate ended and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was recognized. The Hashemite Dynasty in Jordan outlasted the dynasties in Syria and Iraq, although often under great pressure, and continues today under King Abdullah II.

History Lessons

Anyone familiar with the modern history of the Middle East is not surprised by the present turmoil. The nation states in the region have no history as nation states. For almost 4,000 years, they were at times parts of larger, multiethnic empires, at other times they were smaller kingdoms and emirates. None of them, however, was a nation state as we have understood that term since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648).

In the period between the First and Second World Wars these states came into being for the first time—but they did not evolve in any organic way. The oddly straight borders of modern Middle Eastern countries do not reflect natural boundaries nor cultural, linguistic or, for the most part, religious realities. They are the lines drawn according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Anomalous countries emerged in the region: Saudi Arabia, named after a family, and the Hashemite Kingdoms—whose Hashemite rulers came from the Hejaz and not Syria, Iraq or Jordan.

There is a possibility that the so-called Arab Spring has brought about the real end to the world established by the Ottoman Empire, in that it has undone the last vestiges of stability the Ottoman system had imposed on the Middle East. What remains is artificially created countries, created for the most part for the advantage of the great colonial powers. It is quite true to say that these countries do not have a long history—or in some cases any history at all—of democracy or civil society. It is, however, more important to realize that they also have an extremely short history of being even a state, in the modern understanding of a nation state in a world community of nation states.

There are few optimistic conclusions that can be drawn on this 100th anniversary of Sykes-Picot. There are, nevertheless, lessons that can be learned. The first is the most obvious: The Middle East is extremely complex, and the reality is often quite different from what outsiders think it is. Being to a great extent artificial creations, many countries in the Middle East are deeply unstable, as is becoming painfully clear in Iraq and Syria.

No one with much familiarity with the history of the modern Middle East was surprised that after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq did not react—as was expected by some—the way France did after the fall of the Nazis, but reacted instead like Yugoslavia after the death of Josip Broz Tito. Contemporary discussions about whether Iraq should be one country or three seem to be unaware that Iraq never was a single country. It is worth asking: Should today’s Iraq exist simply because colonial powers 100 years ago thought it would be in their interests?

Similarly, Syria’s interference in the affairs of Lebanon should not surprise anyone who knows that Lebanon became a country independent of Syria only after World War I. This is not to say that such interferences, including assassinations, are legal or justified. It does, however, clarify why Syria might think it has the right to engage in these activities.

It was outside intervention and “nation building” by outsiders that has brought the Middle East to where it is today. The hopes and aspirations of the people in these countries have played little or no role in the countries’ creation. The second lesson, therefore, is that military action alone will not bring peace and stability to the region. Unless the very diverse histories of these countries are taken into account, unless the West understands that these countries are to some extent sui generis and perhaps unsustainable in their present form, unless the hopes of the peoples involved are realized, we may risk another 100 years of turmoil in the Middle East.  

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Lawrence Lyons
1 year 6 months ago
I am sort of a history buff, but may have missed something; I thought the Balfour Note was the defining document for this mess. It is difficult to think of any other solution, but revenge certainly should not have been in any acceptable universe. The astounding numbers of ethic groups, spoken languages, and customs probably could only have governed by an autocratic ruler. In more modern times, the same thing has happened in Yugoslavia with the abdication of king Paul and the usurpation of power by Marshall Tito. I haven't heard any kind of reasonable solution, and perhaps there is none. - Yet.

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