This Thursday, May 19, will mark one hundred years since the concluding of an agreement signed in secret by the three Entente Powers in the First World War. Britain, France and Czarist Russia, anticipating victory and the final demise of the Ottoman Empire, drew up a document carving up the Ottoman domains and divvying them up amongst themselves.
When the victorious Bolsheviks made the agreement public after the Russian Revolution of 1917, it was something of an embarrassment for the British and French governments. Nevertheless, they went ahead with their plans, and the post-war Treaty of Sevres was an attempt to implement the provisions determined by Mr Sykes and M. Picot.
There is a debate going on in Western media at present over the extent to which those two gentlemen are to blame for the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. There seems to be a significant body of opinion on the affirmative side, arguing that the post-WWI division of Ottoman territory was based on self-interest, without regard for on-the-ground realities. The result, they say, was the current national borders that pay little or no attention to the ethnic and religious composition of the local people. This is one of the key wrongs that the ISIS/Daesh people claim they want to set right.
On their part, the opposition play down the importance of Sykes-Picot on the grounds that: A. It was never fully implemented; B. Messrs Sykes and Picot didn’t really know what they were doing; and C. Hatreds and conflicts in the region go back millennia. Implicit in this position is the argument that the Western allies should not be held responsible for Middle Eastern chaos.
So who’s right? As usual, there are elements of truth on both sides, but neither adhere to the legal principle of ‘The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’
First of all, there can be little doubt that Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, Baronet, and François Marie Denis Georges-Picot were acting on the authority of their respective governments. You can’t weasel your way out of that, guys.
Second, while it is true that the Sykes-Picot agreement was not implemented in full, it wasn’t for want of trying by the French and British governments. The 1918 Mudros Armistice that ended WWI hostilities was followed by occupation of the Ottoman capital Istanbul, and military invasion of Izmir and the Anatolian Aegean region by Greece. The 1920 San Remo Conference and the subsequent Treaty of Sevres pretty much followed the Sykes-Picot formula.
The fly in the ointment was Mustafa Kemal Pasha, later Atatürk, who led his Turkish nationalist forces to victory, expelling the Greek army from Anatolia, liberating Istanbul from enemy occupation, and establishing the Republic of Turkey. The 1924 Treaty of Lausanne obliged the 1915 conspirators to except the Anatolian heartland from their plans. Nevertheless, boundaries in the rest of the Middle East were redrawn more or less according to Sykes-Picot. Britain and France got their imperial ‘spheres of influence’, established puppet local governments, and laid the groundwork for the Zionist state of Israel – the main stumbling block to peace in the region.
As for the claim (said to have been uttered by US President Obama) that regional hatreds and conflicts ‘date back millennia’, this is, at best, a blurring of the truth with ambiguous words. It may be that Biblical conflicts were fought two thousand years ago – but the Pax Romana enforced a peace that lasted pretty much until the oil age that began around the beginning of the 20th century. The creation of Israel in 1947 established a Jewish state that had not existed in any form for 1,815 years. Various Islamic empires controlled the Middle East, North Africa and even Spain for much of the time from the 7th century to the 20th. Admittedly control was established initially by conquest, but thereafter, citizens were allowed to follow their own religions and speak their own languages. The current mix of religions and cultures in the Middle East is surely testament to this.
Of course, it is unfair to lay the blame for present conflicts on two imperial civil servants. Debate over the role of the Sykes-Picot Agreement is surely a red herring. Blame clearly rests with the imperial governments of Britain, France and Russia, who used their military and economic power to force their will on helpless and trusting people – and the emergent United States Empire that continued (and continues) that legacy into the 21st century.