The Turbulent Centenary of Sykes-Picot

A centenary of instability and bloodshed.

Monday, May 16, 2016 marked the centenary of the Sykes-Picot agreement.  The agreement that sought to divide the spoils of war (WWI) between Britain and France in the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.  Sykes, a British diplomat (1879-1919), and Picot (1879-1951) a French diplomat, were both engaged in various capacities within the Middle East. Picot served as France’s Consul-General in Beirut, Lebanon shortly before WWI.  Sykes was dispatched by the British government “on diplomatic missions” in the Balkans and Turkey, and was appointed chief British representative in the negotiations with France and tsarist Russia that resulted in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Mark Sykes represented British interests, which involved safeguarding the route to India, the British Empire’s most lucrative possession. Britain was securing cheap and accessible oil and maintaining the balance of power in the Mediterranean, including the Suez Canal, and its other financial concerns.  France was the traditional protector of the Christians in Lebanon, seeking to preserve her centuries-old ties with the Lebanese Maronites and Syrian Catholics, gaining a strategic and economic base in the eastern Mediterranean, and ensuring a cheap supply of cotton and silk.  France sought moreover, to prevent Arab nationalism from infecting her North African Arab colonies.

Now, 100 years later, we are experiencing the undoing of the Sykes-Picot agreement.  The core territories that Sykes-Picot dealt with were today’s Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, albeit, today’s Israel and Jordan were included in the division of the Ottoman Empire.  Britain received the Mandate for Palestine from the League of Nations “unanimously approved on July 24, 1922,” which was comprised of 51 countries.  The Mandate became operational on September 29, 1923.   

The Palestine Mandate was supposed to effectuate Palestine as “the Jewish homeland” as promised in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, and reiterated on April 24, 1920 at the San Remo Conference.  It included what is today the state of Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. However, to appease the Hashemite allies in the “Arab Revolt” against the Ottomans, (and because the French evicted the Hashemite Feisal from Damascus when they asserted their mandate over Syria and Lebanon) the British placed Feisal as King of Iraq, and in 1922 awarded his brother Abdullah  77% of the Palestine Mandate, earmarked for the Jewish homeland.  The territory was named the Emirate of Trans-Jordan, known today as Jordan.  

The Economist, May 14, 2016 issue described Israel as “villa in the jungle,” essentially an island of peace in the midst of Arab chaos, and titled the entire issue “The War Within” in a special report on the Arab world.  The Economist moreover, used the term “The clash within a civilization.” It posited that the Sykes-Picot carve-up led to a “century of turbulence.” In drawing straight lines on the map, Sykes-Picot ignored tribal loyalties and ethnic and religious sensitivities. The crescent extending from the Tigris River to the Mediterranean since 1916 is intermingled with Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Sunni, Shiites, Christians, Alawites, and Druze.  

In Iraq, Sykes-Picot put Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen under the same proverbial roof.  In addition, it consisted of a large Shiite majority from Basra to Baghdad.  Sunni tribes dominated the Anbar province west of Baghdad while non-Arab Kurds were a dominant majority in the northeastern part of Iraq.  The Sunni minority ruled Iraq from its independence in 1932 until the fall of Dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Both Kurds and Shiites suffered persecution and discrimination under Sunni dominated Baathist regimes.  Since 2003, Baghdad has seen the cleansing of Sunnis. The city of Kirkuk continues to experience conflict between Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen. Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, is controlled by the Islamic State (IS), which has murdered scores of non-Arab Yazidis, Kurds, and fellow Sunni Arabs, not to mention Arab Shiites.  IS or ISIS is also at war with the Shiite controlled army and militias, as well as with the Kurdish Peshmerga.  IS growth stems from a number of factors including the hasty and complete departure of US forces from Iraq, ordered by US President Barrack Obama, the disenfranchisement of Sunnis under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (2006-2014), and the Bush administration’s decision to disband the Sunni-led Iraqi army in 2003.

Perhaps the cruelest outcome of Sykes-Picot was the abandonment of the Kurds.  The 1920 Se’vres Agreement promised an autonomous homeland for the Kurds. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne nullified the Treaty of Sèvres. Under its terms, Turkey was no longer obligated to grant Kurdish autonomy. The treaty divides the Kurdish region among Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.  It was only with the downfall of Saddam Hussein that Iraqi Kurds began the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which has become a model of progress in a region where repression and regression is commonplace.

The Hashemites were originally the guardians of Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and descendants of Hashem ibn Abd Manaf, who was the great-grandfather of the Prophet Mohammad, the progenitor of the Banu Hashem, a clan of the Quraish tribe in Mecca.  Feisal and Abdullah, sons of Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, led the Arab revolt against the Ottomans with help from the British - notably, Lawrence of Arabia.  

Feisal was installed as the King of Syria, but removed by the French.  The British gave him the throne of the new creation called Iraq.  In 1958, a coup d’état by Brig. General Abd al-Karim Kasim, brought to end the Hashemite rule in Iraq.  Earlier, in 1925, the Hashemites lost their ancestral fiefdom in the Hejaz (the Saudi province where Mecca and Medina are located) to the Saud Nejdi clan. Today, the only remaining trace of Hashemite power is embodied in King Abdullah II of Jordan, whose mother was a British Christian.

The French received the Mandate over Greater Syria, and like Iraq, was another artificial entity concocted from various Ottoman districts that included a hodge-podge of religious and ethnic minorities. The French did not intend to follow the League of Nation’s instructions to prepare the nation for self-rule and independence.  The Alawite region in the northwest was detached from the rest of Syria as well as the Druze area in the South.  As the protector of the Christians, France arbitrarily carved out an area, to be called Lebanon, in an attempt to create a Christian (Maronite) dominated state.  

Today, Islamism has replaced Arab nationalism as the mobilizing force.  The Sunni-Shiite rivalry is the dominant struggle in the Middle East, expressed in the bloodletting in both Iraq and Syria, with spillover into Lebanon. But, even during the height of Pan-Arabism under Nasser, unity among Arab states didn’t last long.  The artificial creations of Iraq and Syria are splintering into ethnic, religious, and tribal cohesive entities. The Kurds, in both Iraq and Syria, are separating themselves and forging an autonomous entity. The KRG in Iraq, for all intents and purposes, is an independent state, with its own national institutions, flag, and army. The Sunni-Arab majority in Syria will ultimately merge with the Iraqi Anbar province, given religious and tribal ties.  The Shiites in Southern Iraq and Baghdad are already governing themselves in the form of the current Iraqi government.  And the Assad regime will not last beyond Bashar Assad.  With help from Russia, the Alawites are likely to create their own domain in the Latakia region.  

The Sykes-Picot agreement was a colonial miscreant that created a centenary of instability and bloodshed.  It stained forever European colonialism, and produced conflicts and refugees in Syria and Iraq that threaten the future of Europe itself.  That is the ultimate legacy of Sykes-Picot.