A century ago today, a 36-year-old author and purported Arabist named Mark Sykes made his way to 10 Downing Street in London to meet the leaders of Britain and discuss the tricky issue of dividing the spoils of the collapsing Ottoman Empire.
The only son of the quirky Sir Tatton Sykes, a landed Yorkshire gentleman, Mark Sykes first travelled to the Middle East as a wealthy, 11-year-old tourist. His early adult travels through the Arab world coincided with the final years of Ottoman decline. Thus, in books such as The Caliphs’ Last Heritage, he portrayed the empire as moribund and Arabs as shiftless (one index entry reads “Arab Character: see also ‘Treachery'”).
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In his works, Sykes made it appear as if he were fluent in Turkish and Arabic, but he could speak neither, according to James Barr’s sharp 2011 history, A Line in the Sand. He found Mosul “a foul nest of corruption, vice, disorder, and disease”, and failed to note the effect of arriving modernity, which by this time had begun to stir a political consciousness known as the Arab Awakening, as detailed in George Antonius’ illustrative book.
Yet, Britain’s brains trust – comprising, at this meeting, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, War Minister Herbert Kitchener, Munitions Minister David Lloyd George, who would soon become prime minister, and First Lord of the Admiralty Arthur Balfour, who would soon become foreign secretary – turned to him as a leading expert.
“I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk,” Sykes told the assembled, detailing his plan to hand Syria, Mount Lebanon and the northern tip of Iraq to the French, and Palestine, Transjordan, and the rest of Iraq to the British.
Sykes met to discuss details of the plan with the French negotiator Francois Georges-Picot five days later, but his initial vision was roughly how Sykes-Picot was ultimately drawn up the next month. The deal was secretly finalised in May 1916, which is when the United States got wind of it.
The current situation, with ISIL at the fore, highlights a reality Western leaders may be starting to appreciate: These lines are becoming increasingly imaginary.
“It is all bad and I told Balfour so,” Edward House, a foreign policy adviser to US President Woodrow Wilson, explained to colleagues at the time. “They are making it a breeding place for future war.”
Few political predictions have proved more prophetic. Over the intervening century, barely a handful of peaceful years have passed in these lands. And so it is today, as locals and world powers alike play desperate, shifting roles in a complex, seemingly endless conflict.
House also complained that the British and French remained unclear on whether they intended permanent occupation of these territories, or merely exclusive rights to their resources. There was, of course, a very good reason for this. “As a hypothetical division of country that neither of its signatories yet controlled, it was extremely vulnerable to events,” Barr wrote.
Perhaps never have European imperial powers been more shameful than they were in implementing Sykes-Picot, in 1919. As a sentient human being, I generally have great difficulty agreeing with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on anything. But the group’s dismissal of these lines drawn by far-off, profit-seeking foreign officials, cutting across ethnic, linguistic, and religious divisions and all but ensuring long-term mayhem, is hard to dispute.
In implementing Sykes-Picot, Entente powers reneged on promises of freedom and independence for Arabs and instead snatched control of local populations and their resources. They also left enough border ambiguity as to allow for the future denial of Arab control of Palestine – a nexus of Muslim resentment to this day.
Conquer and control
Sykes-Picot is ideal shorthand for ISIL’s grievances against the West – its interventionism, its condescension, its grab for power and resources, its creation of make-believe states with hollow democratic institutions, its dismissal of Arab and Muslim will, leading to the fragmentation of the region. It provides enemies of the West with the perfect example of “kuffar” (a derogatory word meaning non-believer) efforts to conquer and control.
In a 2014 video called “The End of the Sykes-Picot Agreement”, an ISIL jihadi from Chile crosses the former Iraq-Syria border, now rendered meaningless in this barren stretch of desert controlled by the so-called Islamic State.
This is not the first time Arab groups have rejected Sykes-Picot. Several times in the post-war period Arab nationalist groups such as the Federation of Arab Republics, have attempted to offer a pan-Arabist alternative.
But the current situation, with ISIL at the fore, highlights a reality Western leaders may be starting to appreciate: These lines are becoming increasingly imaginary. The Arab Spring was not merely a throwing off of dictatorships. It was also a bucking of these barely there states and institutions foisted on Arabs by the West a century ago.
In addition to the collapse in Syria and Iraq, we’ve seen the creation of spheres of influence in Libya and Yemen. Israel has long been vague about its eastern border. And the great wave of migrants and refugees from the region attests to the failure of Sykes-Picot – and Western interventionists more broadly – to create legitimate, lasting states.
In recent weeks, two prominent Western voices have publicly expressed similar sentiments. William Hague, Britain’s former foreign secretary, wrote that the Sykes-Picot borders “should not be considered immutable”. He praised the Kurds for their ability to manage their own region, and called for partition.
John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, announced that “Iraq and Syria as we have known them are gone”. He urged Washington to help create a new, independent Sunni state to replace the so-called Islamic State.
These prescriptions may have some merit. But these two politicians are probably even less knowledgeable about the Arab world than Mark Sykes was a century ago, and their plans sound suspiciously like self-interested foreign powers “drawing lines in the Middle Eastern sand”.
Will we ever learn?
David Lepeska is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. His work focuses on Turkey and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.