Today, May 16, is the 100th anniversary of Sykes-Picot, and inanities and assorted stupidities about it are pouring out of the media woodwork faster than I can keep up with them. Let me get right to the point: Sykes-Picot did not—repeat, did not—establish the borders of the modern Middle East. That ought to make it hard to blame Sykes-Picot for anything, since it never came into effect. And what is falling apart today is not the Sykes-Picot interstate system but increasingly the units themelves; the bloody interstate clatter we see is not the source of the core problem in the region but a symptom of it. This is a lot to get wrong, and certainly it is foul fare to pass around to the uneducated like so many weird-tasting cocktail hour hors-d’oeuvres.
OK, so then why do Robin Wright in The Atlantic, David Ignatius the other day in the Washington Post, Daniel Pipes in his recent blog, and at last count about six dozen recently published others insist that Sykes-Picot did what it most assuredly did not?
There are only two possible explanations. One is that a given author knows that the history is a lot more complicated than two guys sitting in a smoke-filled imperial parlor with a blank map and a thick pencil, but is using the well-known slogan “Sykes-Picot” as shorthand to summarize what really happened. The other is that the author in question actually has no idea what he or she is talking about. Ignatius and Pipes, I am fairly certain, are using shorthand. Robin Wright and many, many others, I’m not so sure. But the result is the same: to mislead credulous others about what actually happened during and just after World War I to shape the contours of the Middle East. So what, in brief, did happen?
There was not just one secret conclave during the war among the Allies, but four. First and by far the most important, the Constantinople Agreement of March 18, 1915, granted Russia Istanbul, control over the Dardanelles, Thrace, and a chunk of northeastern Anatolia; it granted Britain and France vast other spheres over the Arab patrimony of the Ottoman Empire.
Second, the Treaty of London, signed April 26, 1915, may be characterized fairly as the Allied bribe to Italy to join the war, and promised the Italians specific real estate benefits at Ottoman expense. It abridged the first sketch of the postwar geographical distribution.
Third came Sykes-Picot more than a year later—May 16, 1916—well after the basic deal had been agreed among the Allies and duly signed. It represented primarily an adjustment and a more specific set of agreements just between Britain and France over their prospective acquisitions. This was required for several reasons: ambiguities in the original plan; evolving battlefield realities; and the fact that Britain had since opened and developed another channel of secret negotiations, this one with Sherif Hussein of Mecca in the now famous Hussein-McMahon correspondence.
Sykes-Picot came with a map, colored in five parts: direct and indirect British and French zones, and an international zone encompassing Jerusalem and a route westward to the coast at Haifa. The indirect British and French spheres of influence were to be the domain of an “independent Arab state,” and those very words appear on the original map. (More about what that implies anon.)
Then, fourth, came St. Jean de Maurienne on April 17, 1917, which widened the Italian take, but was contingent on Russian acceptance. This acceptance never came due to the Russian Revolution.
In fact, none of the prospective borders of any of these agreements, separately or taken together, ever came to pass. The Russian Revolution rendered moot the Constantinople Agreement, and the progress of General Edmund Allenby’s armies in 1917 rendered much of the Sykes-Picot map moot as well. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917, which came with no map whatsoever, and the entry of the Zionist Executive as a political element in the postwar decision-making process, further complicated matters regarding the border between the prospective British mandate for Palestine and the French mandate for Syria.
After Versailles in 1919, a major conference was convened at San Remo in April 1920 to nail down the borders once and for all in anticipation of the “deposit” of the mandates with the League of Nations. But even San Remo did not solve things finally.
The Treaty of Sèvres, signed in August 1920, imposed a very draconian settlement on the Ottoman Empire but, it is worth noting, did not insist on the end of the empire as such—or its possession of the caliphate of Islam. In any event, soon the Venizelos government of Greece took advantage of Ottoman Turkey’s weakness to invade Anatolia, with British support. This was a fateful and very stupid decision. It had the effect, along with other sources, of greatly strengthening and focusing an inchoate Turkish war of liberation from a multi-sided encroachment on core Anatolian Turkish lands. Before it ended about 18 months later, Turkish arms had crushed the Greeks. This outcome, in conjunction with the revived idea of an independent Armenian state, turned Sèvres, along with what little remained of the Sykes-Picot map, into a dead letter. None of the borders laid out at San Remo concerning the borders of the mandates with Turkey now made any sense.
In the course of the Turkish effort to resist the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres, Mustafa Kemal (later Attaturk) took military control of the Turkish government. Attaturk and his nationalist colleagues ended the empire, separated the caliphate from it and eventually, in 1924, abolished the caliphate altogether. So it was not the Allies who destroyed formally what remained of the Ottoman Empire and the caliphate, but Turks themselves in the name of the new Republic of Turkey.
It was the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, which determined the borders between Turkey and the mandates for Syria and Iraq. No mandate for Armenia ever came into existence, however, as Turkey and the young Soviet Union jointly invaded the infant Armenian state and annihilated its independence, with the USSR putting an end around that time to all three of the newly sovereign Caucasus Republics that had moved away from Moscow during the Russian civil war of 1920-21. No Kurdish entity ever developed out of the autonomous zone either because Mustafa Kemal managed to persuade fellow-Muslim Kurdish leaders to join him against common Christian adversaries: the Greeks and the Armenians, along with their great power supporters.
The Anglo-French Newcombe-Paulet Commission eventually detailed the border between Palestine and Syria in 1923. The emergence of “greater” Lebanon—the borders of Lebanon today—from Mount Lebanon and the Syrian mandate in 1924 is a story so complex that I despair of telling it here in brief. And, as Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill created the Hashemite Emirate of Transjordan one Sunday morning in 1921 in Jerusalem “over cigars and brandy” in conditions also far too complicated to summarize here. Note that in this case borders were created for an entity that no one, in his wildest imagination, even conceived as existing in May 1916.
And of course drawing borders for Transjordan meant drawing a western border for what became Iraq. If someone today has never heard, for example, of the “Arabian chapter” problem, it means they have never cracked the archives, depend entirely on flawed secondary literature, and really do have no idea what they are talking about when they speak of Iraq in the territorial configuration it assumed in 1920. If that were not enough, further adjustments between French Syria and British Mesopotamia (later called Iraq) moved Mosul from the French to the British zone in return for French concessions in the oil industry there.
Meanwhile, the never-colonized Kingdom of Nejd invaded the Hejaz in 1924, sending the Hashemites packing, leading finally to the adoption of the term Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, two years after which Saudi Arabia attacked Yemen and annexed the provinces of Asir and Najran. The borders between Syria and Transjordan and between Transjordan and Saudi Arabia were not finalized until the mid-1930s. In 1938, a northern province of Syria—Hatay or what had been known earlier as first the Sandjak of Alexandretta and then Cilicia—was turned over to Turkey by France, with British assent, in a deal designed to prevent Turkish support for Germany in the approaching war.
One could go further describing the details of how the borders of the “modern” Middle East were actually drawn, to include the creation of the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms, the last of which (the United Arab Emirates) did not come into being until 1971. In other words, “Sykes-Picot borders” my foot! The insinuation that there ever were such things is pure, unalloyed bullshistory.
So much for how borders did and did not get drawn. But why did it happen the way it happened?
“Why” questions are usually a lot harder to answer than “how” questions, but a stab at it in a short space is perhaps useful because it throws some light on what contemporary observers are claiming Sykes-Picot means to us, or should mean to us, now a century on. If there is one, a lesson should by rights extend beyond the Middle East for, not only did the Allies wrest control of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire away from the Sultan, they also dismembered the Hapsburg and Hohenzollern Empires as well. The Romanov Empire, meanwhile, was in a process by war’s end of (temporarily) dismembering itself.
But let’s stick for the moment with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. What were the reasons for it?
Reasons—plural—is the right way to put the question, because it is rarely the case that only one reason exhausts reality. Three seem most important.
One reason concerned geostrategic prudence. The rescission of the Ottoman Empire over many years had created vacuums that ginned up competition among other powers and created crises and wars—not least the Balkan wars of the early 20th century and, in the minds of the statesmen of the time, the World War itself. So an orderly dismemberment, reached by mutual agreement, ought to make the system as a whole less prone to crisis and war in the future. The same rationale applied to the intended dismemberment of the defeated Hapsburg Empire as much as it did to the Ottoman Empire.
A second reason concerned imperial competition generally. The race for colonies among some European powers—mainly Britain, France, and Germany—had accelerated with the technological ability to seize and administer overseas empires. An 1888 Berlin conference had divided up sub-Saharan Africa. Thereafter, competitions moved in part to the South Pacific. By 1914, there was little lucrative real estate left on the planet, save what the Ottomans possessed and could be taken as a result of war. Geostrategic real estate competition had become fully global in the minds of European great-power statesmen really for the first time, and had taken on the character of a positional competition: Each power worried that it would be put at a competitive disadvantage should this or that territory fell to a rival empire. Many observers over the years have argued that this competition was above all commercial in character; some others that it was also associated with national grandeur and collective ego. True as those motives might have been in most cases, the dominant motive for most powers appeared to stem from this game-like positional competition, which manifests itself in many forms of human behavior.1 (Americans can perhaps understand this best in the context of the U.S. acquisition of Hawaii. Some dastardly things were done, to be sure, in that expansionist saga; but at the time it seemed obvious that if the United States did not put itself forward, either Germany or Japan or Britain would, creating strategic disadvantage to the United States.)
A third reason, which was not the most important in 1914-16, but which became far more influential by 1918-19, was of an entirely different sort. It was a normative shift holding that the imperial principle of legitimacy needed to give way to the morally superior principle of national self-determination. This explains why, by the end of the war, as the Allies began to carve up the territory of the Ottoman Empire, they could not simply take it as imperial spoils of war as in times past. Instead they created the idea of mandates, associated with the creation of the new League of Nations, in which the territories of Ottoman Turkey and Germany were, in theory at least, to be shepherded toward sovereign independence in due course. How did this happen?
There is not enough space here to do full justice to this question. Suffice it to say that the moral basis of governance has evolved over a very long time, yet it has done so at different speeds and in different ways in different civilizational zones. In World War I, one civilizational zone running at one speed (Western Europe) crashed into another (the Middle East) running at a different speed. In Western Europe, especially in Britain, France and Holland, democratized religious sensibilities had invaded politics during the previous century or so, giving rise among other things to the campaign to abolish the slave trade. But crusades, once launched, are difficult to control or anticipate, so we will not be surprised to learn that the high secularized idealism of Wilberforce set the stage for the colonization of sub-Saharan Africa by Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, and Belgium.
No one sees this today in morally positive terms, but at the time the “white man’s burden” and, in France, the mission civilisatrice, were natural secularized extensions of the evangelical elements of Christian thinking, the “this-worlding” of eschatological categories. Baser imperial interests were certainly at work, but colonialism was sincerely thought of by a great many as benign and progressive. And the crescendo of popularity enjoyed by the abolitionist movement was one element that shaped the nationalist doctrine of self-determination. The human mind being promiscuously associational, it was only a matter of time before the proposition that no man should own or have dominion over another man should morph into the proposition that no nation should own or have dominion over another nation.
Of course, the rise of nationalism in 19th-century Europe also had other sources. But however it came to be, the moral force of national self-determination joined itself in the World War to the other two main motives for dispossessing the Ottomans noted above. The progress of this new ideal was carried forth by armed moralists—the neocons of the day, in effect—personified above all by the American President, Woodrow Wilson, who refused any mandate for the United States.
The Allied powers in a sense got caught between floors of this normative shift away from the legitimacy of the imperial principle and toward the new ideal of the “nation-state,” where ethno-linguistic community aligned with and formed the basis of legitimate political sovereignty. When they met in secret starting in 1915 to carve up Ottoman lands, the imperial lords of the great Allied powers never imagined any such thing as a mandate system or a League of Nations. Yet by the time the war ended and the Versailles peace conference was about to begin in 1919, it seemed impossible that any other idea could compete, let alone prevail. So when the question is asked—“Were the mandates meant as sincere transitional institutions to real independence, or were they mere fig leaves for the further expansion of the French and British empires?”—the answer is not as clear-cut as cynics might think, or else the phrase “independent Arab state” would never have been inscribed on the original Sykes-Picot map. It was, in truth, some of both.
Now, this is why when people today say that the lesson of Sykes-Picot is that great powers should not go around drawing other people’s borders—including, again, those of the Middle East—it makes for a terrific applause line in some quarters. It may even be good advice; for outsiders to redraw the borders of the region today implies taking responsibility for enforcing them, and no one in their right mind should be enthusiastic about taking that on. But the advice, whatever one thinks of it, simply does not speak to the historical case. Once the Allies decided to dispossess the Ottomans of their imperial possessions and divide them up, upon victory in the war someone had to draw some borders somewhere. What was the alternative? To leave the Turkish millet system alone and so let transterritorial religious cantons substitute as borders in a region ruled by European states with conventional territorial boundaries between them? Even had the Europeans imagined such a solution, it would have been impractical bordering on ridiculous. And certainly the locals were not then in a position to draw their own borders because they had no way of enforcing what they might have decided.
As for the supposed “artificiality” of the borders created in the region, the immediate descant most of the time to the proclaimed imperial sin of Sykes-Picot, this too is fairly inane. The Middle East in 1919, no less than in 1519, was a very heterogeneous mosaic of ethnicities and sectarian affiliation, the Levant more so than most of the rest of the region. Any borders drawn there would have been “artificial” if by the opposite of artificial one means either understood and legitimate pre-Ottoman historical borders or borders that created homogeneous nation-states. Neither existed or were possible. And the ones that were drawn usually did lean on some historical or ethno-sectarian rationale (“Winston’s Hiccup” in drawing the Transjordanian border with Saudi Arabia is a discrete case in point); they were not as artificial as all that.
If the seeds of today’s Middle Eastern troubles were sown in the 1914-18 period, they do not come from supposedly artificial borders drawn by imperial edict, of which Sykes-Picot was a part of middling significance. They come instead from the attempted imposition of the Western concept of the secular, Weberian territorial state onto a part of the world where no precedent for such a form existed. The motive was, at least to some degree, benign—to make this part of the world more modern, more “progressive” in the language of the day. The result, however, was the creation ultimately of a series of weak independent states, each with a different but not, historically speaking, a very long half-life. Their decay is now upon us at a time when the stresses felt by all states have increased markedly. Not surprisingly, the weakest ones turn to dust first.
And the irony of it all is almost too tart to endure. The strong Western states of the World War I period inadvertently caused no end of trouble to the peoples and societies of the Middle East by hatching a political architecture that the soil of the their lands could not support. And now these states are falling apart, spewing demons far and wide in form of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and who-knows-what-next, causing no end of trouble to the peoples and societies of the West at a time when the capacity of even relatively strong states to deal with such trouble has diminished significantly. Call it “payback” if you like, not that it’s consciously wrought or remotely intentional in the sense just described—that is, the exploding states of the region as symbolic suicide bombs designed to kill selected foreign enemies. One thing is for sure, however: Revenge is not always sweet.
Sykes-Picot is one hundred years old today, and what that seems to mean to most people—judging from what is on offer—is not only based on several forms of error, but deeply trivializes the real story. The real story, once one really knows it, is not about imperialism or power politics, victimizers or victims. The real story is about what frail and interlinked creatures we humans are, about how little we understand and can foresee, and, above all, about how disturbingly quick we are to blame someone else for our own and others’ problems.
1. The behavioral economist Robert Frank of Cornell University argues in Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class (2007) that positional competitions explain the full sociological implications of inequality in the United States and other advanced economies.