What do Glenn Beck, Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State, and Noam Chomsky have in common? They all place much of the blame for the current crisis in the Middle East on the so-called “Sykes-Picot Agreement,” a plan for the postwar partition of Ottoman territories drawn up during World War I.
Named after the two diplomats who negotiated the secret deal in 1915-16—Sir Mark Sykes of the British war office and François Georges-Picot, French consul in Beirut—the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided up the Asiatic provinces of the Ottoman Empire into zones of direct and indirect British and French control. It also “internationalized” Jerusalem—a bone thrown to the Russian Empire, a British and French ally, which worried that Orthodox Christians might be put at a disadvantage if the Catholic French had final say about the future of the holy city. Although Russia never officially signed the agreement, it acquiesced to it in return for its allies’ reaffirmation of postwar Russian control over Istanbul and the Turkish Straits and direct Russian control over parts of eastern Anatolia.
“I know I read about [the Sykes-Picot Agreement] years ago when we were at Fox,” Glenn Beck reported in September 2014, “and I put it up on the chalkboard….But it didn’t all fall into place until I learned about ISIS and ISIL…Now it all makes sense to me, and now you’ll be able to figure out what is really going on.”
Bashar al-Assad concurs: “What is taking place in Syria is part of what has been planned for the region for tens of years, as the dream of partition is still haunting the grandchildren of Sykes–Picot.”
So does al-Assad’s sometime enemy, the Islamic State, which wrote in its glossy magazine, Dabiq, “After demolishing the Syrian/Iraqi border set up by the crusaders to divide and disunite the Muslims, and carve up their lands in order to consolidate their control of the region, the mujāhidīn of the Khilāfah delivered yet another blow to nationalism and the Sykes-Picot-inspired borders that define it.”
Even Noam Chomsky got into the act, opining, “I think the Sykes-Picot agreement is falling apart.”
The fact is, however, that it’s way too late for that. By the end of World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was already a dead letter.
Compare a map of the contemporary Middle East (right) with the map proposed by the Sykes-Picot Agreement (above). Is any area of the region under direct British, French, or Russian administration? How do the horizontally delineated zones of indirect control and the vertically delineated zones of direct control compare to the crazy quilt map of the Middle East today? Is Jerusalem (and the adjoining region) under international control? Do France and Russia directly control parts of Anatolia, and does Britain directly control parts of Iraq and the Arabian peninsula?
For the most part, the current boundaries in the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia came about as the result of two factors. The first is the establishment of the mandates system by the League of Nations, which not only allotted Britain and France temporary control over territory in the region, but enabled the two powers to combine or divide territories into proto-states in accordance with their imperial interests. Thus, Britain created Iraq and Trans-Jordan after the war (Israel and Palestine would come even later); France did the same for Lebanon and Syria. Second, Anatolia remained undivided because Turkish nationalists fought a grueling four year anti-imperialist campaign that drove foreigners out of the peninsula.
Why, then, have so many placed the blame for today’s instability on an agreement that was all but ignored once the Great Powers got down to business in Versailles in 1919? Certainly it is not because it was the first of the secret agreements that set the precedent for dividing Ottoman lands among the allies after the war. That honor belongs to the Constantinople Agreement of 1915. Nor was it the last: the Treaty of St. Jeanne de Maurienne, which gave Italy control over territory in western Anatolia, was signed in 1917.
Perhaps the reason people speak of the “Sykes-Picot boundaries” is that it assigns culpability to individuals rather than complicated historical events or faceless apparatchiks meeting behind closed doors. For Middle Easterners, “Sykes-Picot” became code long ago for imperialist arrogance and the illegitimacy of the contemporary state system, whatever the agreement’s actual historical significance. Once the phrase struck roots in the region, it spread globally, particularly after Al-Qaeda made it a focal point of its polemics.
Poor Sykes, poor Georges-Picot. Just as Arthur Balfour has, for more than ninety years, borne responsibility for an eponymous declaration written by others and approved by the British prime minister and cabinet, Sykes and Georges-Picot have become the obligatory villains in narratives that give pride of place to the imperialist perfidy that has frustrated Arab or Islamic unity and is responsible for the multiple failures of the contemporary Middle Eastern state.
Image Credit: “Yemeni Protests 4-Apr-2011 P01.” Photo by Email4mobile. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.