I used to go to the Middle East a lot. But then stuff happened. I got disinvited by the government of Bahrain, wound up on Hezbollah’s side of a debate over energy policy in Lebanon, and experienced a surprisingly less-than-warm trip to Israel. Plus, the one time my wife and I get to Dubai, the Burj was closed! These days I have not been travelling there as much.
But this is the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot. So let’s visit the agreement. In the Arab middle east, Sykes-Picot is usually used as a shorthand for the European carve up that laid out the modern borders of the region between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. (Inasmuch as those borders still mean anything.)
But Sykes-Picot, in fact, laid out a rather different plan from the borders that actually emerged, as the below map shows.
Well, the map sort-of shows the agreement. You need to read the text of Sykes-Picot to really make sense of it. In essence, it worked as follows:
- There would be an Arab state encompassing both area A and area B on the map. France and Britain would each retain preferential rights in A and B respectively, but those rights were economic, paralleling the Anglo-Russian Entente in Persia:
- Preferential investment rights;
- Limits on the presence of advisors to the Arab state from the other country.
- France and Britain would engage in separate negotiations with the Arab state over their “direct or indirect administration or control” of the territories colored blue and red.
- The brown area around Jerusalem would be internationalized, with the exceptions of Haifa and Acre, which will go to Britain.
The agreement is often blamed for the current chaos, In the words of the Economist:
Even so, Sykes-Picot has become a byword for imperial treachery. George Antonius, an Arab historian, called it a shocking document, the product of “greed allied to suspicion and so leading to stupidity”. It was, in fact, one of three separate and irreconcilable wartime commitments that Britain made to France, the Arabs and the Jews. The resulting contradictions have been causing grief ever since.
Except, well, the agreement does not seem to have contradicted British promises to the Arabs. See the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence. In letter no. 4, the British say, “With regard to the vilayets of Bagdad and Basra, the Arabs will recognise that the established position and interests of Great Britain necessitate special administrative arrangements in order to secure these territories from foreign aggression, to promote the welfare of the local populations and to safeguard our mutual economic interests.” The Arabs agree to that in letter no. 5, as long as the occupation is temporary and accompanied by compensation. In letter no. 6, the British state that they have to give Aleppo and Beirut to the French; the Arabs agree in letter no. 7.
As for the Zone A/Zone B division, that was not a partition; rather, it laid out spheres of influence inside a sovereign state, along the lines (as mentioned above) of the Anglo-Russian Entente in Persia. The British were committed to handing back the “indirect” administration in the east ... but the Arabs agreed to allow London to decide for how long it would be held.
In other words, Sykes-Picot only violated Arab expectations by hiving off the Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem ... although the Sharif of Mecca was to get a seat at the table in administering it. Otherwise, Sykes-Picot wasn’t the betrayal; the betrayal was that the ultimate borders didn’t follow it.
That said, it’s hard to see how the Sykes-Picot borders would have been any, you know, better. You would have had one giant state combining most of what we call Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, including big swathes of Kurdish territory. You would have had an “Iraqi” province, mainly Shia, eventually turned over to the giant Arab state. (I am sure that would go well, as the peoples of East Timor and Spanish Sahara can attest.) France would have carved out a strange country combining Arab Alawites, Arab Christians, Arab Shia (non-Alawite Shia), Druze, Arab Sunnis, and a whole bunch of Turkish peasants. Jewish settlers would have still flowed into the area under international administration. It would have been a mess, albeit a different mess.
Just not a “shocking” mess.