In May 2016 it will be 100 years since the signing of a document which went down in history under the title “the Sykes–Picot Agreement” (by the names of two diplomats—a Frenchman François Georges-Picot and an Englishman Mark Sykes). It defined the borderlines between the zones into which the Asian territories of the Ottoman Empire were divided after the World War I.
Today hardly anybody shows interest in this topic. It is regarded mostly as a closed case file, or a historical fact. But if you take a close look at the current developments in the Middle East, you will notice the echo of that deal. Threads of history do not break but stretch through the decades.
Here is the historical background: none of the independent Arab states currently depicted on the world map existed before the World War I. Instead, there were either French protectorates (e.g., Morocco and Tunisia, with Algeria being an integral part of France), or English protectorates — countries in the southern part of Arabia and provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The later-formed Arab countries participated in the World War I as colonies. Arabs were drafted to the so-called labor corps. They participated in combat operations (e.g. 80 thousand Egyptians died at the WWI fronts).
Leading European states, and, first of all, England and France, engaged in a fierce fight for these strategically important and rich in natural resources regions, located on the juncture of three continents. After long negotiations, a secret agreement between the governments of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, France, Russia and Italy was signed on May 16, 1916. The agreement defined the spheres of interests of its parties in the Middle East. Great Britain was allocated control of the areas roughly comprising the territory of the modern Jordan, Iraq and small areas near Haifa and Acre. France inherited the southeastern part of Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The tsarist Russia, although it entered a number of military agreements with the Entente on the division of the Ottoman Empire, decided against claiming any Arab lands. After the October Revolution, Russia ceased its participation in the negotiations. And then, after the new Soviet State exposed in press this and some other secret agreements found in the archives of the tsarist Russia, the world learned about the secret deal.
Thus, according to the Sykes–Picot Agreement, after 400 years of the Turkish domination, the Arabs of Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan and Palestine found themselves under the rule of England and France. But that did not put an end to the dispute between the two powers. They continued reshaping the map of the region against the backdrop of powerful anti-colonial protests of the local population. As English Prime Minister George Lloyd admitted, circumstances of that time required something more sufficient than secret agreements to preserve the positions of the countries involved. Then the mandate system was established under the Covenant of the League of Nations. Just pay attention to the explanation of this phenomenon: the peoples who inhabited these territories were considered “not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.” It sounds so familiar. One hundred years later, the Western block continues harping about the inability of Arab peoples to govern their lands and sets out on a mission to preach to them about genuine democracy. Is it not an outright (as it was the case at the beginning of the 20th century and even today, in 2016) “intervention in the domestic affairs of other sovereign states,” as Sergey Lavrov explicitly put it in his recent speech following a meeting with President of Algeria Abdelaziz Bouteflika? “These are attempts to impose recipes on them from outside, promote concepts of a regime change under one pretext or another. Before, it was done under the slogan of “humanitarian interventions,” now they are trying to do it under the slogan of struggle against violent extremism,” said the minister. “Meanwhile, only the peoples of the countries of the region, as of any country of the world, have the right to decide their own fate. This is an indisputable principle of the international law, and it must be scrupulously observed.”
Let us travel back in time to the beginning of the 20th century. Disputes between England and France competing for this region would not cease even after the Paris Peace Conference. Sometimes we perceive archives as just a pile of papers, but they can describe events, people and countries in an expressive and vivid way. A curious phrase once uttered by a French prime minister somehow stood out and stuck in my memory. When asked what part of Syria and for how long France is planning to occupy, he answered, “The entire Syria and forever.”
After a long haggling during the Sanremo Conference, held in Italy in April of 1920, the post-World War I Allied Supreme Council determined to allocate the mandates for the administration of the territories of the current Iraq and Palestine to England, and the mandates for the territories of the current Syria, Lebanon and current Turkish Hatay Province to France. These resolutions were approved by the League of Nations on September 29, 1923.
The borderlines dividing the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire were drawn to meet the interests of colonizers, while centuries-old traditional borders separating the territories of different groups of population were disregarded. It led to an onset of a whole range of ethnic and religious conflicts. The catastrophes the Middle East has to deal now with were, so to say, pending catastrophes.
Just a short historical note. At that time Syria was split into six dwarf states regarded as sovereign countries: the State of Damascus, the State of Aleppo, the State of Alawites, the State of Jabal Druze, the State of Greater Lebanon and the Sanjak of Alexandretta. Could it be then that the plans to break Syria down into a number of smaller states were taken off the shelf in one of these archives? The logic behind that is easy to discern. It is easier to manipulate a split country. It is easier to compel it to take unfavorable and even dangerous for its people decisions. Maybe a renowned Orientalist scholar Bernard Lewis was guided by these ideas when he proposed his famous plan envisaging the breakup of Lebanon into several microstates, Iran into 4-5 parts, Pakistan into 3-4 parts, Syria into 4-5 parts and Sudan into two parts. His plan for Sudan has actually materialized.
Just one hundred years has passed since the signing of the Sykes–Picot agreement—a rather short span of time to compare to the span of human history. Perhaps it would take to look back in history to understand the root causes of some mind-boggling attitudes and approaches exercised by many European countries with respect to the current events in the Middle East.
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This is what situation looks like a hundred years after the signing of the Sykes–Picot Agreement.
Veniamin Popov, Director of the Center for the Partnership of Civilizations at MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.“