Sykes-Picot is a cliché.
Nearing its 100th birthday, the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement is coming under renewed scrutiny and criticism. The New Yorker’s Robin Wright lamented of “How the Curse of Sykes-Picot Still Haunts the Middle East.” “How an arbitrary set of borders created the modern Middle East,” The New Statesman’s Paul Mason titles his piece, adding how “their imperial mindset still scars the region.”
Shaking fists at Mark Sykes and Francois Picot isn’t just for the writers, though. “We have always opposed Sykes-Picot because Sykes-Picot divided our region and alienated our cities from each other,” declared Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in March. Turkish President Erdogan claimed that the country’s enemies are trying to impose a “new Sykes-Picot” by redrawing the borders of Iraq and Syria.
Artificial lines. False constructs. Imperial hubris. Scars and hauntings. Betrayal and lies. Rightful claims denied and injustice served. A chorus of “if only.” If only those great imperial powers had left the Middle East alone. If only they had let the people choose for themselves. If only they hadn’t drawn so many borders with no rationale. If only they hadn’t been so racist and Christian, as Mason cries.
Perhaps nothing pushed Sykes-Picot back into the discourse on Middle East affairs like ISIS, who declared “the end of Sykes-Picot” as they bulldozed the sand-berm border between Iraq and Syria on their way to conquering Mosul. No doubt they were trying to rally support for their “true” Islamic state by invoking the memory of those who many in the region believed had done them so much wrong. And then there is how the agreement was framed by the epic film Lawrence of Arabia. “Well now,” Mr. Dryden of the British Arab Bureau says as T.E. Lawrence looks on with disgust and anger, “Mr. Sykes is an English civil servant. Monsieur Picot is a French civil servant. Mr. Sykes and Monsieur Picot met and they agreed that after the war, France and England should share the Turkish Empire. Including Arabia. They signed an agreement.”
Yet, what is Sykes-Picot if not a false narrative, a story written by a combination of base intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice? How often is the story of Sykes-Picot decontextualized, stripped of the realities and dynamics of the day, to become a “shorthand explanation for the latest upheaval in the Middle East that rolls easily off every tongue,” as Sean McMeekin complained in his book on the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Ottomon Endgame.
Contrary to what Lawrence of Arabia would have you believe, Mark Sykes and Francois Picot were not just insignificant civil servants who decided one day to carve up Ottoman lands. Sykes was considered a leading mind on the Middle East and was highly influential on debates about British policy in the region during the war. Picot was likewise no dilettante, being deeply involved in regional diplomacy and policy-making for the French.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement is also missing a name: Sazonov, as in Sergey Sazonov, the foreign minister of Czarist Russia. It was at Russia’s behest that the sides met to hash out an agreement. While the British and French were bogged down in their fight against the Turks at Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia, the Russians had crashed through the Ottoman lines in the southern Caucuses and were ready to deal the final blow. They wanted the future spoils to be divided up before they moved further, in particular British recognition of Russian rights to Constantinople, long the dream of Czarist ambitions. The French were to receive parts of southern and central Anatolia, as well as Lebanon and coastal Syria, where they long had local ties and interests. They would also be given a sphere of influence to act as a buffer zone between British and Russian lands, so as not to reignite the Great Game between those two. Russia got the Constantinople area and Turkish Armenia. The British would have direct control of the Baghdad area to the Persian Gulf, with a sphere of influence stretching from Kirkuk to Aqaba in modern Jordan. Palestine, with the exception of Haifa going to the British, would be internationalized.
So they met and created the new borders of the Middle East. Except that they didn’t. Any cursory glance at a map of the agreement shows the truth: there isn’t just a “little resemblance” to the modern borders, as even Robin Wright admits. There is no resemblance. Why? Because Sykes-Picot failed. Russia dropped out of the war after the Bolshevik revolution (it is actually thanks to the Bolsheviks that we know about the agreement, as they released the then-secret document to rile up workers against greedy imperialists). The British and French made more competing promises to each other and to local interests, perhaps the most famous being the Balfour Declaration.
Talk of dismembering the Ottoman Empire started long before Sykes and Picot (and Sazonov) ever met. It continued after they signed their agreement. Indeed, T.E. Lawrence, portrayed as being so blindsided and dumbfounded that the Allies could ever entertain such thoughts, drew his own map for the British War Cabinet that divided up the Middle East among the Hashemite brothers, Feisal, Abdullah, and Zeid, in addition to areas of direct control for the Allies, and even a small state for the Armenians in the southwest of modern Turkey. Another map, another set of borders that never became permanent.
Turkey didn’t suffer because of Sykes-Picot; it suffered because of the Treaty of Sevres, which not only cut up the Ottoman Empire but modern Turkey as well. It was Sevres that gave a chunk of Anatolia to Italy, promised an autonomous zone for the Kurds and an independent state in the east around Lake Van to the Armenians. It was Sevres that put Constantinople and the Straits between the Aegean and Black Seas under international control. It was Sevres that gave Smyrna (Izmir) to the Greeks and fed their expansionism, leading to a brutal war that would end in the ethnic cleansing of Anatolian Greeks and Greek Muslims. Yet even Sevres didn’t make the borders permanent. The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 saw Turkey’s borders defined and its claims to the old Ottoman Empire outside those borders given up in return for recognition and final peace with the Allied Powers. Even after then, borders have been redrawn.
Nor did the rest of the Middle East suffer because of Sykes-Picot. It didn’t lead to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, or Saddam Hussein, to the Syrian Civil War, or to ISIS. It didn’t leave the Kurds stateless or Lebanon a barely functioning state beset by family and sectarian feuding and overrun with terrorist groups like Hezbollah. It’s not responsible for Wahhabism, Al-Qaeda, or Shi’a in Bahrain being ruled by a Sunni minority. It didn’t put the Assad family in power or give Jordan to the Hashemites. The list goes on.
It’s a lot easier to dive into conspiracies or blame outside interference than to take responsibility for a century of bad governance and exploitation of various sectarian issues. Sykes-Picot is a cop-out, an old piece of paper to blame the Middle East’s woes on. It’s people, both inside and outside of the region, trying to use an old injustice (that Sykes-Picot is not responsible for) as a new excuse for decades of authoritarianism, endemic corruption, exploitation of religion and ethnic rivalries, and other social and political ills. Sykes-Picot is one hundred year old. We know what it was, and what it wasn’t. Those who would write or speak about it have no excuse for the glaring factual and philosophic errors that so many have consistently made.
Everyone, say it together now: Sykes-Picot did not draw any borders. Sykes-Picot is not to blame for the troubles of the modern Middle East.