Sykes-Picot is not to blame for Middle East’s problems

Sykes-Picot is a symptom of the Middle East’s fundamental problem, not its cause.

Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi sided with the British army and organised the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire after meeting with Captain T.E. Lawrence October 1916 [Getty]
Faisal bin Hussein sided with the British army and organised the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire [Getty]

The Sykes-Picot agreement turns 100 this week. Named after its negotiators, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, the secret wartime deal proposed dividing the Middle East between Britain and France, down an extraordinary line.

To quote Sykes verbatim, it ran “from the E in Acre to the last K in Kirkuk”, and its vestiges are still visible today, in Syria’s border with Jordan and western Iraq.

Sykes would surely have been astonished to know that, a century later, we are still discussing his deal with Picot. For he had originally proposed the agreement in December 1915 as an expedient to avert a row.

The French were angry because they had discovered that, behind their backs their British allies had offered the Arabs territory they wanted themselves. That put their creaky wartime alliance with Britain under added strain.

The ‘Sykes-Picot’ borders ISIL wants gone

To clear the air, Sykes advocated superimposing a deal with the French upon the British offer to the Arabs. He did not intend the complex compromise that he then negotiated with Picot to become a blueprint for the region – indeed he hoped it wouldn’t.

The bottom right-hand corner of the map illustrating the agreement, which both men autographed on May 9, 1916, shortly before their governments signed off the deal, betrays this with a telling detail. While Georges-Picot signed in black ink, Sykes only used a pencil.

‘Belt of English-controlled country’

For Sykes knew that he had failed. His task had been to protect India by establishing “a belt of English-controlled country” across the Middle East, which would have cut across the main east-west land route running through Aleppo, down the Euphrates, to the Gulf.

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But this plan was thwarted when Picot refused to give him Palestine. The deal therefore looked flawed even before it dawned on the British government during 1918 that, with his sweeping line, Sykes had inadvertently conceded Picot the vast oilfields beneath northern Iraq.

Soldier and politician Sir Mark Sykes, in 1913 [Getty]
Soldier and politician Sir Mark Sykes, in 1913 [Getty]

Consequent British efforts to resolve these two shortcomings both rewrote the Sykes-Picot agreement and ensured that it has repercussions today.

To plug the hole in his cordon sanitaire, Sykes energetically began wooing the Zionist movement, hoping that the Zionists would reciprocate by endorsing British rule for Palestine, which they did, with enormous consequences.

In order to secure Iraq’s oil, British troops occupied Mosul after the war’s end, in defiance of the armistice. A month later Britain’s prime minister, David Lloyd George, forced his French counterpart, Georges Clemenceau, to recognise Britain’s claims on Palestine and Mosul. To patch up Anglo-French relations, Britain acquiesced to France’s claim to Syria.

By then Britain’s commitments to the Arabs, French and Zionists were public knowledge and they were clearly irreconcilable.

French sailors arriving in Syria during World War I, circa 1914-1918 [Getty]
French sailors arriving in Syria during World War I, circa 1914-1918 [Getty]

Many Arabs reacted angrily when it became clear that the British government prized the Entente Cordiale and the Zionists more than its prior offer of independence to them. Britain and France would rule the Middle East between them. This was the end that Sykes and Picot had envisaged, even if the details of who got what were different.

Sense of betrayal 

Thereafter, in the Middle East, “Sykes-Picot” became shorthand not only for the sense of betrayal created by the post-war settlement, but also for the region’s vulnerability to foreign interference, a condition that came to be symbolised by the borders imposed by Britain and France during the mandate era.

ALSO READ: Why Sykes-Picot got it all wrong

ISIL played on the borders’ symbolism two years ago when, having seized Mosul, it released a triumphal video declaring “The End of Sykes-Picot”. This showed a bulldozer carving through the sandbank that delineated the Syria-Iraq border.

Sykes-Picot [Al Jazeera]
Sykes-Picot [Al Jazeera]

ISIL’s message was that it could bring the Sykes-Picot era of foreign domination to an end, but in the two years since the opposite has proved the case. Both great and regional powers have converged on Syria to fight a kaleidoscopically complicated war. 

In these circumstances, the title ISIL chose for the Western-targeted propaganda magazine it began publishing soon after it issued the video, is loaded with significance.

“Dabiq” takes its name from a small town northeast of Aleppo where, says one Islamic hadith, the final battle between Christian West and Muslim East will ultimately be fought.

It is a plausible prediction. Dabiq lies on the shortest route between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean coast, a waypoint on the same natural highway that Sykes was seeking to control. The Assyrians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, the Ottoman Turks and Egyptian Mamelukes all fought decisive battles within 100 miles of this point. Khrushchev threatened world war in 1957 when Turkish troops massed on the border immediately to the north. The town lies in a warzone again today.

The ISIL video provoked great debate about how far the Sykes-Picot agreement could be blamed for the Middle East’s chaotic state today. To argue that it is, is short-sighted.

This region, and Syria in particular, has for millennia served as an arena for great-power rivalry, of which Sykes-Picot is just a recent example. While the infamous agreement certainly aggravated the region’s instability, it is not its underlying cause. 

James Barr is the author of A Line In The Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that shaped the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.