Aaron Ellis 2.31pm
For many in the Arab world, the Sykes-Picot Agreement is what the Yalta conference was for many conservatives in the United States during the Cold War. It is a betrayal of people seeking freedom; a damning indictment of Great Power politics; and the source of all problems in the Middle East.
As with Yalta, all kinds of things are attributed to Sykes-Picot years after the event. For instance, the veteran Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt has said the Syria crisis is “unravelling” a deal that created the countries of the region. This lazy understanding was reinforced by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov writing that the Agreement was adopted by Britain and France in 1919, not 1916…
The Sykes-Picot Agreement divided up the Middle East between the two Great Powers and the Arabs; it did not create the nation states we know today.
France got modern Lebanon and southern Turkey, as well as a sphere of influence over an Arab kingdom in Syria. Britain acquired most of Mesopotamia and exercised influence over a Y-shaped Arab kingdom that stretched from the Egyptian border to northern Iraq and down into the Arabian Peninsula. Though the post-war carve-up vaguely resembled the deal, it actually began to unravel almost as soon as it had been negotiated by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot.
British officials in Cairo hated the Agreement and worked to undermine it: they wanted Syria to be part of a Greater Egyptian viceroyalty that would rival the Indian Raj.
“I am afraid that swine Monsieur P[icot] has let M. S. badly down,” wrote the Tory politician and diplomat Aubrey Herbert, an intelligence officer in Cairo. “This is what comes of disregarding the ABC of Diplomacy and letting Amateurs have a shy at delicate and important negotiations.”
In 1917, the deal unravelled further when the Bolsheviks leaked its details to embarrass the Allies, prompting a fierce reaction to what was viewed as outdated imperialist thinking, especially in the United States. The Russian Revolution had also removed Britain’s geopolitical reasoning for giving the French such a huge chunk of the Middle East: creating a buffer zone between them and the Russian Empire, which had been promised land in Turkey. Sykes wrote that the sooner the Agreement was scrapped the better, as the world had “marched so far” since it had been negotiated a year before and it could “now only be considered as a reactionary measure”.
His about-turn coincided with one higher up in government when David Lloyd George became Prime Minister in December 1917. Lloyd George wanted to increase Britain’s sphere of influence beyond that which Sykes had negotiated just a few years before. In his book A Line in the Sand, James Baar reports a conversation between Lloyd George and French premiere Georges Clemenceau in which the latter conceded to British demands. “Tell me what you want,” Clemenceau is supposed to have asked him.
“I want Mosul.”
“You shall have it. Anything else?”
“Yes, I want Jerusalem too.”
“You shall have it,” said Clemenceau. These concessions were recognised in the many peace conferences after the First World War, thus by 1922 the Sykes-Picot Agreement had completely unravelled.
The Middle Eastern order that people like Mr Jumblatt fear is disintegrating was created long after this much-maligned deal was a dead letter, and centuries-old problems in the region cannot be blamed on what was even then considered to be old-fashioned thinking about Great Power politics.
Britain can be rightly blamed for many things, but too often Arab politicians use our decades-old faults as an excuse for their own mistakes.
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