Exactly 100 years ago this week, May 16, 1916, an agreement was signed between Great Britain and France. Known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, it completely changed the Middle East and is the main cause of today’s wars and conflicts in the region.
Negotiated by the British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot and officially titled the Asia Minor Agreement, it was a secret pact between Great Britain and France (with the agreement of the Russian Empire), defining their proposed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East after the expected defeat of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Britain was allocated control of areas roughly comprising the coastal strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River (Israel), Jordan, southern Iraq, and a small area including the ports of Haifa and Acre, to allow access to the Mediterranean. France was allocated control of southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Russia was to get Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and Armenia. The “controlling powers” were free to decide on state boundaries within these areas. Further negotiation would determine international administration pending consultations with Russia and other powers, including Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca.
With the Turkish defeat in 1918 and subsequent partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, the agreement effectively divided the Ottoman’s Arab provinces outside the Arabian Peninsula into areas of British and French control and influence.
Though an “international administration” was proposed for Palestine, Britain gained control of the territory in 1920 from the League of Nations and ruled it as “Mandatory Palestine” from 1923 until 1948. They also ruled “Mandatory Iraq” from 1920 until 1932, while the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon lasted from 1923 to 1946.
The agreement is seen by many as a turning point in Western-Arab relations. By creating new artificial “nation states” out of racially, religiously and culturally diverse — and often hostile — populations, Sykes-Picot sowed the seeds of all the current regional conflicts.
It also established a universal Arab opposition to the existence of the future State of Israel by negating British promises made to the Arabs by Col. T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) for a national Arab homeland under “King” Hussein bin Ali (great-grandfather of Jordan’s King Abdulla II) in the area of greater Syria, in exchange for their fighting with the British forces against the Ottoman Empire.
More than any other event in modern history, this agreement shaped the Middle East as we know it. It is also one of the main reasons for every one of the Middle East wars raging in the region.
In general, the geopolitical architecture founded by the Sykes-Picot Agreement disappeared with the declared establishment of the Islamic State in July 2014 and with it the relative protection that religious and ethnic minorities enjoyed in the Middle East. It is the reason for the disintegration of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Tunisia (all artificially created states), and the resulting flow of persecuted ethnic and religious refugees.
ISIS — The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (Levant) — makes it crystal clear when it claims that one of the goals of its insurgency is to “reverse the effects of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.”
There are those in the Middle East who argue that without the Sykes-Picot Agreement there would never have been a British Mandate for Palestine, therefore no “partition” and no Israel 68 years ago.
I strongly disagree with that argument for one simple reason: The Zionist Movement started in Basle in 1897, 19 years before Sykes-Picot. The rebirth of the State of Israel was already in motion, the pioneers were already settling the land…and the 2,000-year-old dream of our forefathers would be realized … Sykes-Picot or not.
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lt. Col. (IDF res) Gil Elan is president and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress,and a Middle East analyst. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Upcoming briefings and SWJC events are listed at: www.swjc.org.