Drawing the Middle East’s borders with a ruler was certainly simple. Perhaps that’s why the lines set in 1916 by Brit Sir Mark Sykes and Frenchman Francois Georges-Picot were straight ones. The infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement was a pact between Great Britain and France, during World War I (with Russia’s blessing), for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. It led to the division of the Turkish-held Middle East into 5 French and British-administered countries – today’s Syria, Lebanon, Israel (Palestine), Jordan and Iraq. The Turks had sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the war.
Sykes & Picot were both colonial aristocrats and believed in the quaint notion that second & third world counties were incapable of self-rule and far better living under their European masters. Plus the warring sides of WWI were oblivious to the fact that the Middle East sat upon the largest oil reserves in the world. At the time, all the 2 empires wanted was open shipping routes to Russia and a secure Suez Canal connection to India. So the two men drew straight lines on a map, dividing up territory ruled by the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years into brand new countries – Syria and Lebanon under French control in the north, plus Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine under British control in the south. Beneath them all sat Arab controlled Saudi Arabia.
Their hastily negotiated agreement continues to have profound ripple effects to this day.
For you see, the Sykes-Picot Agreement had MANY problems. The first lay in those damn straight lines, which failed to take into account any sectarian, tribal, or ethnic divisions. Sykes & Picot envisioned Lebanon as a Christian haven, Palestine with a Jewish community, and Syria, Jordan & Iraq with the region’s Muslims. That of course never happened and old hatreds, suppressed for decades under strict Ottoman rule, came boiling to the surface.
Second, the agreement was done with NO Arab input of any kind, none. AND it ignored a promise Britain made to the Arabs that if they sided with them and rebelled against the Turks in WWI, they would finally gain independence. When independence did not materialize after the war, Arab politics gradually shifted from constitutional parliaments to militant nationalism. This led to the rise of dictatorial regimes that dominated many Arab countries for decades.
During World War I, Britain was willing to recognize and support Arab independence. The Arabs fulfilled their part of the agreement and revolted against the Turks, fueled in part by the famous British archeologist T. E. Lawrence, aka “Lawrence of Arabia.” Britain, however, did not live up to its side of the deal. Lawrence later wrote that the Arab Revolt was useful as it marched in line with Britain’s aims, i.e. the break-up of the vast Ottoman Empire. But he also wrote that the Arab tribes were even less stable than the Turks, a ‘tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion.’
The Ottoman Sultan had taken a hands-off approach to governing the Middle East, and did little to promote progress. At the first sign of any tribal identity, the Turks beheaded the movement’s leaders. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a blatantly imperialistic solution. It took no account of the wishes of the people, ignored Arab and Kurdish boundaries and provoked conflicts which continue to plague the region to this day. No other region on earth has seen so many border wars, civil wars and coups in recent decades.
In 1918, World War I finally came to an end with a victory for the Allies.
The Ottoman Empire was defeated, carved up like fattened pig, and split amongst the victors. Instead of the nation-states Britain & France had promised the Arabs, the victors divided the Middle East into countries which, because of those damn straight lines, are still among the most difficult to govern in the world. The strains unleashed on the Arab world after World War I remain as acute as ever, 100 years later.
The Middle East still finds itself living with a 1916 map that ignored the region’s Islamic and ethnic realities. The nations and borders are still seen today as illegitimate by many of their own citizens. WWI spilled over in WWII followed by the founding of Israel in 1948, the race for Arab oil, Egypt-Israeli wars, Sunni-Shite wars, 2 Iraq-Iran wars, and 2 Persian Gulf Wars. All resulting in seemingly unending conflicts that have yet to come to an end a century later.
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