On May 16th an article by the BBC’s Beirut-based correspondent Jim Muir appeared in the ‘Features’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the title “Sykes-Picot: The map that spawned a century of resentment“.
In his opening lines, Muir tells readers that:
“Reaching its centenary amidst a general chorus of vilification around the region, the legacy of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 has never looked more under assault.”
However, just four paragraphs later he acknowledges that:
“In fact, virtually none of the Middle East’s present-day frontiers were actually delineated in the document concluded on 16 May 1916 by British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot.”
Muir’s overall messaging is clear:
“But the spirit of Sykes-Picot, dominated by the interests and ruthless ambitions of the two main competing colonial powers, prevailed during that process and through the coming decades, to the Suez crisis of 1956 and even beyond.
Because it inaugurated that era, and epitomised the concept of clandestine colonial carve-ups, Sykes-Picot has become the label for the whole era in which outside powers imposed their will, drew borders and installed client local leaderships, playing divide-and-rule with the “natives”, and beggar-my-neighbour with their colonial rivals.”
And his closing lines reveal a typically simplistic take on the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, a no less quintessential attempt to portray the Arab-Israeli conflict as being at the centre of all regional conflicts and the implication that the Balfour Declaration is disconnected from the topic of self-determination for peoples indigenous to the Middle East.
“The Sykes-Picot agreement conflicted directly with pledges of freedom given by the British to the Arabs in exchange for their support against the collapsing Ottomans.
It also collided with the vision of the US President Woodrow Wilson, who preached self-determination for the peoples subjugated by the Ottoman Empire.
His foreign policy adviser Edward House was later informed of the agreement by UK Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, who 18 months on was to put his name to a declaration which was to have an even more fateful impact on the region.
House wrote: “It is all bad and I told Balfour so. They are making it a breeding place for future war.””
Some rather less predictable commentary on the Sykes-Picot Agreement has also appeared in the media this week, including an interesting column from the Financial Times’ foreign editor Roula Khalaf titled “An inconvenient truth for the Middle East and a line in the sand“.
“This week it is a century since Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot drew that “line in the sand”. It is, therefore, an opportune time for more fervent debate.
It is an enduring and unfortunate habit in the Arab world to blame outsiders for the ruinous state of the region and to see in every act the sinister hand of foreign conspirators. The alternative — the idea that maybe the Middle East has been ruined by its own people and its leaders — is an inconvenient truth. […]
When Arab youth rose up in revolt in 2011, their slogan was not “the people want the fall of Sykes-Picot”; it was “the people want the fall of the regime”. If ethnic and religious identity now trumps national attachment in many parts of the Middle East, that is the result of collective disenchantment and insecurity, not a harking back to some fictitious past.”
At the American Interest, Adam Garfinkle takes a historical look at the topic.
“Today, May 16, is the 100th anniversary of Sykes-Picot, and inanities and assorted stupidities about it are pouring out of the media woodwork faster than I can keep up with them. Let me get right to the point: Sykes-Picot did not—repeat, did not—establish the borders of the modern Middle East. That ought to make it hard to blame Sykes-Picot for anything, since it never came into effect. And what is falling apart today is not the Sykes-Picot interstate system but increasingly the units themselves; the bloody interstate clatter we see is not the source of the core problem in the region but a symptom of it. This is a lot to get wrong, and certainly it is foul fare to pass around to the uneducated like so many weird-tasting cocktail hour hors-d’oeuvres.”
Tim Marshall offers a typically realistic view:
“However, even if Sykes-Picot is useful shorthand for the problems bequeathed to the peoples in the region, it is far too broad a brush stroke to explain subsequent events.
Turkish history neither ended nor began with the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey has never stopped being a player in the Middle East.
The various Ottoman vilayets, in what was known in geographical terms as ‘Natural Syria’, stretched from Aqaba in the south up to the Taurus mountains in the north, and from the Mediterranean in the west, across to the desert heading towards Mesopotamia. They divided it many ways. Even within the area we now know as Syria there were several geographic, linguistic, and cultural divisions. The idea that with the end of Turkish colonialism, but without Sykes-Picot, they would all have naturally formed into states with agreed borders, and an equitable division of natural resources, is fanciful.”