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Throwback Thursday: The Sykes-Picot Agreement

Cody M. Poplin, Benjamin Bissell
Thursday, November 13, 2014, 8:15 PM
Editor's note: For quite a while now, social media enthusiasts have been using the hashtag #tbt (or, in long-form, “Throwback Thursday”) as a way to reminisce about the past. Now Lawfare has decided to get in on the action by means of a new feature. Each week, Lawfare will turn back in time to a specific event, and briefly explain how it relates to today's security and/or legal environment.

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Editor's note: For quite a while now, social media enthusiasts have been using the hashtag #tbt (or, in long-form, “Throwback Thursday”) as a way to reminisce about the past. Now Lawfare has decided to get in on the action by means of a new feature. Each week, Lawfare will turn back in time to a specific event, and briefly explain how it relates to today's security and/or legal environment.   Without further ado, welcome to Lawfare’s very first #tbt, on the Sykes-Picot Agreement.  [caption id="attachment_40976" align="alignnone" width="605"]Royal Geographic Society Royal Geographic Society[/caption] Introduction On Tuesday, the United States celebrated Veteran’s Day. To much of the rest of the world (and as Lawfare readers likely know), it's also known as Armistice Day. The latter celebrates the end of World War I, one of the most gruesome and deadly conflicts in human history. And while there can be little doubt that the peace established on November 11th, 1918 was far preferable to the Great War, many historians, such as David Fromkin, have written that the conditions of that truce may have created the Peace to End all Peace. One such condition was a confidential deal struck between the British and the French in the middle of the war: the Sykes-Picot Agreement. You can read the text here. In essence, the agreement, along with a number of subsequent addenda, led to the creation of the modern Middle East. Why does this 100-year-old pact matter? Because rightly or wrongly, the Sykes-Picot is seen by many in the Middle East as the first in a sequence of Western betrayals. Its history---or, at least the way its history is employed rhetorically---therefore helps to explain much of the ongoing instability in the Middle East. The Origins of Sykes-Picot In May 1916, Britain’s Sir Mark Sykes and France’s Francois Georges Picot entered into secret negotiations, with Russia’s tacit assent, to divide up the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire---the idea being to account for a British and French victory over the Central Powers of Germany, Austria, and their Ottoman ally. Under the terms of the agreement, Britain gained control of an area that comprises modern southern Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine; France gained power over Syria, Lebanon, south-eastern Turkey, and northern Iraq. Russia was set to get Istanbul, the Dardanelles, and the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian districts---acquisitions that the Russian Revolution would prevent some years later. The deal was kept secret for more than a year before the Bolsheviks revealed it. The news incited outrage throughout the Arab regions, mostly because it directly contradicted a promise by Britain that there would be a separate Arab kingdom in the event of an Ottoman defeat. This telling perhaps oversimplifies British policy, which then pursued multiple aims and drew on seemingly contradictory philosophical approaches---including that of “Arabists” like T.E. Lawrence, who sought the creation of an Arab kingdom that would be liberated by Arab hands. Ultimately, though, another British strategem won the day---and laid the foundations for Sykes-Picot. The agreement's architects were coldly opportunistic.  Of course, many British- and French-colonized nations knew a thing or two about ethnic identities, tribal cultures, and sectarian divisions of the Middle East. But such things mattered little by the time of Sykes-Picot's conclusion.  The lines along which new borders were drawn had less to do with creating stable, peaceful nations, and more to do with British and French imperialistic ambitions. The former needed oil; the latter wanted access to Mediterranean sea ports; both (especially the French) desired to block the rise of a major Arab nation that could challenge critical shipping and trade routes. To be sure, this is not to say the Sykes-Picot boundaries entirely ignored history. As historian Jennifer Thea Gordon notes, the loose regions of Syria and Iraq had long been ruled by distinct regimes, despite their occasional unification under various caliphs. Gordon explains that even in the Umayyad caliphate, which ruled in Damascus, Iraq was a hornets’ nest of dissent and rebellion. Later, when the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads in 750, they purposely moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. The two regions were ruled separately by Crusader kingdoms in Syria and the Seljuqs in Iraq. And even the Ottomans kept the countries as two individual administrative districts during their empire. The "Management of Savagery" and ISIS Propaganda  Sykes-Picot matters today, mostly because it informs the inciting rhetoric used by Islamist groups. Seeking to delegitimize the rule of modern states, some such groups have sternly criticized “the hand of Western governments” in dividing up territory. Consider, for example, the “Management of Savagery,” a book thought to be written by prominent Islamist strategist Abu Bakr Naji, and published on the internet in 2004. His volume contains a whole chapter on Sykes-Picot, and unsurprisingly casts it as thoroughly corrupt. Importantly, Naji's book also is believed to be a prominent inspiration for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the first issue of ISIS’s English language magazine, Dabiq, discusses guerilla warfare tactics---ones that closely resemble terminology used in the “Management of Savagery.” Even the very name, Dabiq, indirectly references the Sykes-Picot agreement: the word refers to a city in northern Syria where, according to a prominent hadith, the Muslim Ummah will clash with Rome (that is, the West) and, in the run-up to Armageddon, annihilate Rome's designs in the region.  Such designs presumably extend to the reviled Sykes-Picot deal. Other parts of Dabiq are not as ambiguous, and directly address political boundaries drawn by the century-old agreement:
After demolishing the Syrian/Iraqi border set up by the crusaders to divide and disunite the Muslims, and carve up their lands in order to consolidate their control of the region, the mujahidin of the Khalifah delivered yet another blow to nationalism and the Sykes-Picot inspired borders that define it. The establishment of a new wilayah (province), Wilayat al-Furat, was announced this month by the Islamic State in an effort to eliminate any remaining traces of the kufri, nationalistic borders from the hearts of Muslims.
For his part, ISIS' leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his designs on the Sykes-Picot agreement clear in his first public appearance at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul:
We have now trespassed the borders that were drawn by the malicious hands in lands of Islam in order to limit our movements and confine us inside them. And we are working, Allah permitting, to eliminate them (borders). And this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy (emphasis added).
(Considering al-Baghdadi's claims, it also comes as no surprise that ISIS militants would take to Youtube and lambaste Sykes-Picot along the same lines.) Suffice it to say Islamist groups seemingly would like, or at the very least expect, to see the Sykes-Picot lines relegated to the dustbin of history. But they are not the only ones. Several news sources carried comments made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this year, wherein he castigated the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and said “the artificially-made” borders of the Middle East are responsible for regional suffering. While Erdogan later remarked that Turkey could ameliorate widespread sectarianism “not by changing physical borders, but by instilling hope and trust,” he asserted that Ankara was the only power that could provide peace to the region. To Erdogan's we might add comments recently made by another regional heavyweight, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon. In an October interview with NPR, the notoriously blunt Ya’alon argued that the future map of the Middle East will look “very different” from the current one, and that the current boundaries “were drawn up by Westerners a century ago” and are “doomed to break apart.” While he alleged that some countries would escape this demise, including Egypt, other “Western creations,” such as Libya, Syria and Iraq, would all disintegrate. He also pointed to Syria as the catalyst of this fate, noting that Assad only controls only 25% of the country and that it would be tough to unify it.


Sykes-Picot might or might not be to blame for the region’s ills. In this respect, it's significance remains a matter of contentious debate---one which we certainly don't undertake to resolve here. Still, this much seems clear: the agreement undeniably has been consequential, so far as regional stability and ethnic sectarianism are concerned. For Sykes-Picot has been trotted out by jihadists and states alike---by the former, so as to rouse would-be compatriots to action, and by the latter, so as to deflect responsibility and to assign blame.

Cody Poplin is a student at Yale Law School. Prior to law school, Cody worked at the Brookings Institution and served as an editor of Lawfare. He graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012 with degrees in Political Science & Peace, War, and Defense.
Ben Bissell is an analyst at a geopolitical risk consultancy and a Masters student at the London School of Economics. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Virginia with majors in political science and Russian in 2013. He is a former National Security Intern at the Brookings Institution as well as a Henry Luce Scholar, where he was placed at the Population Research Institute in Shanghai, China.

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