Misremembering the Sykes-Picot ‘carve-up’ of the Middle East

This week marks the centennial of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement reached between Great Britain and France in May 1916 at the height of the battles for the Middle East during World War I. Under the terms of the agreement, which were kept secret until they were revealed by the Soviets following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot divided the Middle East into British and French zones of direct control and indirect spheres of influence. However, the Sykes-Picot was rapidly overtaken by events that altered substantially the “facts on the ground” in ways that quickly rendered obsolete its terms. These included the Arab Revolt (which started just weeks after the ink had dried on the agreement), the November 1917 British declaration in support of a Jewish national home in Palestine, and the succession of post-World War I treaties. Those events meant that the final Middle Eastern settlement of 1920–1921 differed substantially from the one proposed in 1916.

For an agreement whose principal terms lasted less than four years, the Sykes-Picot agreement has nevertheless had a remarkably durable (and powerful) “afterlife.” A major reason for this has been its connotation with imperialist designs on the Middle East. As leading modern Middle East expert Tony Dodge puts it, “the story of the agreement has become a narrative depicting the perfidious influence of British and French colonial power” and a shorthand for “covert attempts to retain control over Arab lands” ever since. For example, the British occupation of Iraq during World War I was followed by a British re-invasion in 1941 and U.S.-led multinational coalitions that went to war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1991 and 2003.

Moreover, the Arab nationalist leaders who ousted the last vestiges of British and French colonial influence in the 1950s and 1960s gradually evolved into longstanding political authoritarian dynasties whose control lasted for decades until they were shaken by the Arab Spring in 2011. It was the speed with which the cracks began to appear in the postcolonial autocracies in North Africa and the Levant between December 2010 and March 2011 that led many commentators (and participants) to refer to it as the final undoing of the “Sykes-Picot” — meaning the end of the authoritarian successor regimes that had ruled for decades after the British and French exited the region. The four leaders who were toppled during the Arab Spring (in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen) had ruled for a combined 130 years; Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had the longest tenure in power, having ruled Libya for 42 years.

This also explains commentary and media references describing how the bitter civil war taking place in Syria has contributed to “unmaking” the Sykes-Picot agreement. A June 2013 article in Beirut’s The Daily Star newspaper reported how “one part of that legacy … is coming to a brutally violent end,” while veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn penned a lengthy report from Syria titled “Is it the End of Sykes-Picot?” that was published in The London Review of Books. Cockburn reported that this sentiment was expressed repeatedly to him during his travels through Iraq, adding that “The feeling that the future of whole states is in doubt is growing across the Middle East — for the first time since Britain and France carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.”

Robert Fisk, another veteran foreign correspondent who has spent the last four decades living in and reporting from Beirut, declared, after the Islamic State group took over Mosul in June 2014, that the terrorist organization had “finally destroyed the post-World War Anglo-French conspiracy, hatched by Mark Sykes and Francois Picot, which divided up the old Ottoman Middle East into Arab statelets controlled by the West.” Fisk added, melodramatically, that Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, bellowed that the “Sykes-Picot is dead” upon hearing the news of the fall of Mosul. Fisk also revealed that Jumblatt went “so far as to present Hassan Nasrallah, his colleague and the leader of Hezbollah, with a book that explained the genesis of the deal.” Similar sentiments were expressed by Islamic State fighters themselves as they declared that they were “smashing the Sykes-Picot border,” a move Dodge attributes to “an attempt to rally wider Arab support for their movement by claiming that they were overturning a historic injustice.”

And yet, perceptions do matter tremendously in world politics, as in everyday life, and the fact that the “Sykes-Picot” was generally conflated with perceptions of Western interventions in the Middle East gave the assertions by the Islamic State such resonance. Western (primarily Anglo-French) designs on the Middle East during World War I were pervasive, insincere and contradictory. Together, they left a potent legacy of Arab mistrust toward the West, which increased exponentially following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the succession of Arab-Israeli wars that marked the second half of the 20th century. Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian, the Baker Institute’s founding director, has recalled how, during his time as U.S. ambassador to Syria between 1988 and 1991, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad “subjected me to countless narratives about how the Sykes-Picot agreement was the origin of all the ills of the contemporary Middle East.”

Whereas, based on a purely technical reading, the Sykes-Picot was just one of many wartime agreements that did not survive the immediate post-war period, it remained very much alive as a metaphor for something much wider — namely Western interference or “meddling” in regional affairs. Indeed, the borders that were “erased” by the emergence of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria were not drawn up by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement; they emerged from the post-war San Remo conference in 1920. However, the dominant perception of the Arab Spring and the inexorable rise of militant groups such as the Islamic State has been that they represent an existential challenge to political order in the Arab world. At a time when Western capacity to influence (or even comprehend) developments across the Middle East is in decline, it is perhaps understandable why commentators and analysts alike have responded by reaching for familiar shorthand terms, however historically inaccurate they may be.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East. His current research examines political, economic and security trends in the Middle East and, in particular, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states’ changing position within the global order.