Drawing Lines in the Sand: 100 Years of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Modern West Asia

The Sykes-Picot agreement changed the geopolitics of West Asia irrevocably
Melissa Cyrill

“I should like to draw a line from the ‘E’ in Acre to the last ‘K’ in Kirkuk”, explained Sir Mark Sykes as he slid his finger across a map laid out on a table at No. 10 Downing Street. These lines were uttered during a briefing for Prime Minister H.H. Asquith in 1915, demarcating what would be Britain’s territorial gains after the impending demise of the Ottoman Empire. The said line stretched from a city in modern day Israel on the Mediterranean coast to the northern mountains of Iraq. Presumably, at the same time, the French lawyer and diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot made a similar case for France. After all, the two imperial powers had much to anticipate at the end of the First World War. Both Britain and France had vital economic interests to preserve in the lands that would make up the Ottoman debris. While France felt the burden of additional Christian responsibility anchored in the history of the Crusades, Britain had clear strategic priorities such as eliminating the security threats to its Indian empire.

What came to be was the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed in secret on 16 May, 1916, between Great Britain and France, with the consent of then Czarist Russia. The parties to the treaty had been negotiating for months between November 1915 and March 1916. Nevertheless, when it finally came down to it, the map outlining the new colonies (legitimised under the Mandate System of the League of Nations), looked entirely different. A world war had just ended, and France had suffered tremendous casualties. Fellow country-in-arms, Britain, while feeling guilty, was also highly conscious of the oil assets that had been discovered in Mosul, Iraq. In typical British imperial fashion, a diplomatic coup was secured by Prime Minister George Lloyd while negotiating with his French counterpart, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. Britain asked for Palestine and Iraq; the French dearly wanted back Alsace-Lorraine, which they had lost to Germany in 1870. Russia had experienced the communist revolution in 1917, and its leader, Vladimir Lenin wanted no part in the imperialist barter play.

In a further twist, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was only one of three different secret promises that the British made to three separate parties distributing the same Ottoman lands. The other two, respectively, were made to the Zionists promising a Palestine home for the Jews (Balfour Declaration) and an Arab empire to Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca (Hussein-McMahon Correspondence). The Sykes-Picot understanding was itself revealed to the public in Izvestia and Pravda on 23 November 1917 and in the British Guardian on 26 November 1917 – exposing the duplicity of European imperialists to a shattered Arab people.

Precisely the reason why while the First World War makes for such fascinating reading, it has left a lasting and bloody impression on the people of the region. Sykes and Picot, for their part, were both upper-class European diplomats only superficially familiar with the area – through their travels or as soldiers. In reality, they were as disconnected to the language, cultures, and multiple identities of the Arab peoples as could be imagined. Arbitrary lines in the sand drawn in the myriad of back-room treaties were all for purely exploitative reasons – the railway networks that would ferry raw material and deliver cargo, selling a stable administration to capital investors in oil exploration, and safeguarding the trade routes and other imperial assets.

Today, as Iraq and Syria threaten to splinter with different religious and ethnic groups competing for territory and resources, the Sykes-Picot Agreement continues to leave a bitter taste in people’s mouths. At the same time, they serve as convenient battle cries for revenge by the extremists. After sweeping across Syria and Iraq in 2014, self-professed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS announced, “This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”

Admittedly, the colonial carve-up is by no means the sole reason for the blood spilled in Arab lands. Their contours, though artificially established, were soon seized upon by warring factions and monarchs and military coups in the tradition of old empires. Nevertheless, it seems impossible that any of this would have taken place without the colonial disregard behind the region’s legal national borders. The West, led by the US, UK, and France, have all simultaneously talked of democracy promotion alongside making weapons deals, plotting military interventions, installing puppet regimes, and distinguishing between good and evil terrorists. Their miscalculations in the region have only fostered autocratic governments that have clamped down on civil society, weakened public institutions, and embedded crony capitalist economies.

In an epoch where democracy has emerged as a capable alternative in other regions, the bitterness of territorial compromise cannot be easily repressed in West Asia. Sykes-Picot began the process of drawing up its irrational borders; a 100 years later the region still bears the consequences of its unthinking legacy.