To help better understand one of the most controversial agreements ever made, Team Tell History has put together a timeline for some key events surrounding the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
This guest blog post is by Stafford Clarry, Humanitarian Affairs Advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Clarry has been in Iraq and Kurdistan since 1991 where he has worked for three different United Nations agencies.
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), and the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) are quite well-known and often cited among the people of Kurdistan as milestone events that stopped them from having a country of their own.
Among many in the Middle East the history of prevailing turmoil began with “Sykes-Picot”, the secret British-French agreement that carved up the Ottoman Empire after the First World War – the war to end all wars followed by the peace to end all peace.
Within the Western world too many act as if Middle East history began with the earthshaking overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The Middle East is an area of ancient history and rich cultural heritage. More recent, static political perspectives overlook the dynamics of dozens of centuries of social-cultural history and heritage that have contributed to what the Middle East is today. Perhaps no place is this better demonstrated than in Iraq, the modern home of ancient Mesopotamia – the oldest of the world’s cradles of civilization, where writing and agriculture began.
History and heritage are important to help explain social-cultural-economic-political divisions guiding and driving the turmoil that diverts attention and energy from pursuing a peaceful, prosperous, and progressive future. The history of today’s Middle East goes back many millennia, arguably as far back as the Neanderthals of Shanidar Cave in Kurdistan 50,000 years ago.
There’s a UN organization for most anything and everything – health (WHO, UNICEF), education (UNESCO, UNICEF), agriculture (FAO), food and nutrition (WFP), refugees (UNHCR), human rights (UNHRC), atomic energy (IAEA), economic development (UNDP), human settlements (UN-Habitat), etc. There’s even UNOOSA, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.
But there is no crucially needed UN organization to turn back the clock and revise or correct the source history of so much traumatic war and armed conflict, and all forms of turmoil and violence among ethno-sectarian and other groups that adversely impact tens of thousands of Middle Eastern families today.
Getting a grip on the divisions upon divisions within the Middle East is, of course, extremely far from easy. The history and current dynamics are very complex and confusing.
There’s a persistent tendency in the Middle East to find the key cause of internal hurt and harm and grievances in external sources. Though of questionable comfort, it’s a way of coping.
During an earlier era in the Middle East it was said that if two fishes were fighting in the sea there must be a Britisher behind it, that the sun never set on the British Empire because God didn’t trust Englishmen in the dark. Today? Blame America as the crisis commander-in-chief that deliberately created ISIS to keep the Middle East weak and grab all the oil.
Obviously, besides being evasive, of course it’s not so simple. In and of itself, the blame game is useless and goes nowhere, evoking the profoundly succinct line in the film Bridge of Spies, “Would it help?”
Those who suffer threats and intense turmoil in their daily lives often seek answers in discrete historical events like Sykes-Picot and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, events caused by outsiders who many believe are solely responsible for the consequences, overshadowing the involvement and responsibility of insiders.
Sykes-Picot happened a whole century ago. How much “better” would the Middle East be today if Sykes-Picot never happened, what might the alternatives have been – what would the Middle East be like today if it weren’t for Sykes-Picot?
Only after Sykes-Picot was the Middle East discovered to be an enormous source of oil – what if there was no oil?Click to tweet
In the Middle East, time, energy, wealth, and opportunity have yet to yield the secure and stable environments that families need to not only survive but thrive. It’s a function of leadership and management. In the meantime, tens of thousands of families suffer life-or-death threats and are displaced from their homes.
There are those who pause and highlight this month’s 100th anniversary of Sykes-Picot, including various analysts and the media, who are taking time and making the effort to mark an uncorrectable historical event as the source of much that has gone wrong.
The real challenge – what’s really needed – is time and sincere effort to bring the many peoples of the Middle East together in the public interest for common cause. This would, quite possibly, include moving beyond Sykes-Picot, treating it dynamically, so that people can become better neighbors and take better care of families within revised borders. Instead, the static Sykes-Picot remains alive and well and lives on.
One hundred years ago today, two diplomats signed a secret agreement that has come to define the modern Middle East. While it may not have set the national borders we know today, the clandestine pact between European powers became the ultimate symbol for the kind of imperial fiddling that created a legacy of chaos in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and the Gulf States.
By 1915 it was clear that the Ottoman Empire was sure to fall apart, even as they continued to fight alongside Germany and Austria in World War I. The crumbling empire was referred to as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and had been in decline for centuries, having lost much of its territory since its peak in the 17th Century. Britain, France, and Russia –all allies in the war and imperial powers in their own right, belonging to the so called “Triple Entente” — long hungered after the Ottoman Empire’s vast holdings that spanned across the entire Anatolian Peninsula, much of the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant.
Confident of victory in WWI, the question was how the Triple Entente would divide the spoils. Britain had already sealed one secret treaty with Russia, ceding control of Istanbul and the strategically important Dardanelles straight, which controlled passage from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, in return for a free hand in the rest of the Empire. This meant that Britain still had to settle plans with its other ally, France, on how to divvy up the rest.
Two diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes of the United Kingdom and Francois Georges-Picot of France, spent five months in negotiations before signing an agreement on 16 May, 1916. Britain was primarily interested in bolstering its trade routes to India through the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal, while France wanted to protect longstanding economic and cultural ties to the Levant.
The final agreement stipulated that Britain should control the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, the strategic ports of Haifa and Acre, southern and central Mesopotamia, and what is now Jordan. France was allocated Syria, Lebanon, northern Mesopotamia, and southeastern Anatolia.
The agreement remained a secret, however, because it completely bypassed local powers in the region, and even betrayed promises made to of local allies actively fighting the Ottomans. A year later in 1917, Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution, made the agreement public after discovering it in the files of the Tsarist government he had just overthrown. Lenin largely achieved his objective: revealing the duplicity, moral scrupulousness, and imperial scheming of the two largest imperial powers, both of which had already carved up most of the world into colonies and spheres of economic and political influence.
Although Britain and France were embarrassed and the agreement didn’t fully resolve the post war order in the Middle East, they were to remain at the principal actors in future negotiations, and were arguably the even more powerful now that Russia had been weakened by its internal revolution in October 1917. The underlying dynamic of Sykes-Picot–European powers drawing arbitrary borders across regions they hardly understood–was to remain throughout subsequent treaties that created the modern nations of the Middle East.
Could there have been a better solution for the Middle East in the wake of World War I?Click to tweet
Not all European plans for the region were successful, as in the case of the Treaty of Sèvres which failed to enforce its mandate of Kurdish and Armenian states in Anatolia. But European plans to dominate weaker Arab areas in the former Ottoman Empire largely proceeded according to the Sykes-Picot framework, which is why people from the Islamic State to Western academics and media point to it as the root cause of dysfunction, political chaos and economic malaise in the Middle East.
Karin Kneissl looks back to the drawing of states in the Middle East in the first quarter of the 20th century and identifies oil as the key factor setting national borders. Looking forward, she believes that Asian interests will determine the political landscape of the region.
Storyteller: Karin Kneissl
Date of Story: 24 April, 1920
Location of Story: San Remo, Italy
Location: Vienna, Austria
Date: 4 May, 2016