AUSTIN, Texas — Tuesday marked the 100th anniversary of a decision by French and English diplomats to divide the Middle East into competing empires — a decision that continues to influence unrest in the region even today.
The historic Sykes-Picot agreement, named for its authors, diplomats Mark Sykes of Great Britain and François Georges-Picot of France, was secretly signed on May 16, 1916, although the world was not aware of its existence until after the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Signed by the U.K. and France during a meeting at Downing Street in London, with the agreement of the Russian Empire, it was intended to divide the two imperialist nations’ sphere of influence after an anticipated victory against the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
Britain took control of land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, including modern-day Jordan, southern Iraq, and the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Acre. France took parts of Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, while Russia took Istanbul, Armenia, and the Turkish Straits.
Dr. Neil Faulkner, in a video documentary produced for teleSUR English, said the agreement created “the image of the Middle East divided into the countries we know today, including Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.”
He added that it’s “a deeply dysfunctional Middle East that is still riven by conflict 100 years later.”
Watch “Rear Window: Forgotten Histories – The Story of Sykes-Picot” from teleSUR English:
Today, many analysts have suggested that Daesh (an Arabic acronym for the terrorist group known in the West as ISIS or ISIL) is a response to the tensions created by the agreement and the somewhat artificial national boundaries it created.
“What we are witnessing in the swift and brutal military assault by ISIS over the weekend and the virtual collapse of the US-trained Iraqi army is nothing less than an attempt to erase the lines of the Sykes-Picot map — lines that have held the Middle East together for over a century,” Charles M. Sennott wrote in a June 17, 2014 analysis for MintPress News.
Mohamed Hemish elaborated on the ties between Sykes-Picot and both Daesh and the Syrian civil war in a May 13 analysis on TeleSur English:
“Iraq and Syria were made up of diverse ethnic and religious groups including Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Kurds who did in fact live side by side but with semi-defined territories under Ottoman assigned rulers.
The nation-state model implemented by the Western powers simply brought this self rule within those ethnic and religious groups to an end, resulting in an evolving sectarian conflict that has been brewing for over a century.”
The agreement established a history of imperial control over the region that continues to this day, and laid the groundwork for many of the current conflicts there. It established British “control” over Palestine, allowing them to carve up the region and support the displacement of its indigenous population in 1948. That year marked the establishment of Israel, an event the local Palestinian population call “Nakba,” an Arabic word meaning “catastrophe.”
It even paved the way for the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., when Britain sought to pass on control and responsibility for the Gulf Kingdom at the 1948 Bitter Lake Agreement. Today, it’s a key U.S. ally in the region; it purchases billions of dollars in arms from the U.S. annually while the U.S. protects the Saudis from the consequences of their war crimes.
However, Steven A. Cook and Amr T. Leheta argue that the agreement is given too much weight by historians and pundits. In a May 13 op-ed for Foreign Policy, they wrote that both Britain and France began to undermine the agreement almost as soon as it was signed. They continued:
“Nor are the Middle East’s modern borders completely without precedent. Yes, they are the work of European diplomats and colonial officers — but these boundaries were not whimsical lines drawn on a blank map. They were based, for the most part, on pre-existing political, social, and economic realities of the region, including Ottoman administrative divisions and practices.”
Yasir Tineh, a Palestinian living in Kuwait, suggested the real effects of Sykes-Picot are largely psychological, creating an atmosphere of defeatism in the region. In a May 15 editorial for teleSUR English, he wrote:
“The best thing to come out of the Sykes-Picot agreement for the powers-that-be is that it instilled the foundations for an internalized colonization. Today, the Middle East continues to see itself as the result of Western dominance. Yet it isn’t a 100-year-old agreement that has decided the fate of the Middle East; it is current and much more recent causes, from American wars, trade agreements, weapons deals, puppet-governments and several ongoing catastrophes.”
Watch “Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration” from Khan Academy:
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