We Didn’t Start the Fire: Stop Blaming Sykes-Picot

The 1916 treaty between Britain and France can’t account for Syria’s problems altogether.

German officers and Turkish officials near Ra's al-'Ayn in modern day Syria, May 1916
German officers and Turkish officials near Ra’s al-‘Ayn in modern day Syria, May 1916 (Bundesarchiv)

As civil war rages in Syria, it has become fashionable again to blame European imperialism for starting the fire by forcing arbitrary borders on the country and its region. François Georges-Picot and Sir Mark Sykes are the typical scapegoats for they, in 1916, negotiated a treaty for the partition of the Ottoman Empire.

To an extent, the allegations ring true. The Sykes–Picot Agreement did rather willfully carve up the former domains of the Ottoman Turk in British and French spheres of influence.

Asia Minor’s borders to this very day reflect the legacy of the treaty with Turks sharing a homeland with Kurds who, in turn, were scattered between four states. Iraq, Jordan and Syria are artificial constructs that lack ethnic and religious cohesion as well as a shared heritage which are necessary ingredients for a nation state.

Although Jordan’s monarchy, so far, has managed to keep the country together, the present day sectarian tensions in Iraq and Syria can be traced back to the 1916 power-sharing agreement.

But in blaming Sykes-Picot exclusively, critics are forgetting not only about how quickly the treaty unraveled after the war; they’re ignoring the whole of Arab history since which played just as great a part in shaping the modern Middle East as a couple of decades of European imperialism did.

Aaron Ellis writes at Thinking Strategically that British officials in Cairo, who wanted Syria to be part of a Greater Egyptian viceroyalty that would rival the Raj, tried to undermine the agreement from the start. After the war, Prime Minister David Lloyd George managed to extract from his French counterpart Georges Clemenceau concessions for what is now Iraqi Kurdistan as well as Jerusalem.

Ellis concludes that “centuries old problems in the region cannot be reduced to what was even then considered to be old-fashioned thinking about great-power politics.” Sykes himself recognized that the world had “marched so far” since the agreement was negotiated and that it could “now only be considered as a reactionary measure.”

Nevertheless, the borders separating Iraq, Jordan and Syria survived and the three states became kingdoms, ruled by members of the Hashemite dynasty. They were quite content in their new chiefdoms but shared an expansionist vision. All hoped to one day unite the Arab people in a single state, preferably under their leadership. So did Syria after it became a republic in 1936 and even more so, Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Pan-Arabism, closely aligned to socialism, was propagated by secular leaders like Nasser who saw little role for religion in the affairs of the state and underestimated the historical fault lines between Shia and Sunni Muslims. The philosophy saw no reason to reconsider the borders that European imperialists had drawn up for it aspired to a shared Arab homeland. Arab identity wasn’t all people clung to, however.

Today’s conflict in Syria is perhaps more the result of the systematic denial of identity and oppression of one Arab group by another with totalitarian means than a treaty negotiated between two Europeans almost a hundred years ago. Sykes–Picot explains part of the turmoil but certainly not all of it.

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