“Shocking Document” That Shaped the Middle East Turns 100
By Daniel Pipes
May 9, 2016
The Sykes-Picot accord that has shaped and distorted the
modern Middle East was signed one hundred years ago, on May 16, 1916. In the
deal, Mark Sykes for the British and François Georges-Picot for the French,
with the Russians participating too, allocated much of the region, pending the
minor detail of their defeating the Central Powers in World War I.
Sykes-Picot (official name: the Asia Minor Agreement) bears
recalling because its profound two mistakes are in danger of being repeated: one
concerned form and the other substance.
Mark Sykes (l) and François Georges-Picot (r).
Form: Negotiated in secret by three European imperial
powers, it became the great symbol of European perfidy. Not surprisingly, the
Allied Powers secretly carving up the central Middle East without consulting its
inhabitants prompted an outraged response (George
Antonius, writing in 1938: "a shocking document ... the product of
greed at its worst ... a startling piece of double-dealing"). Sykes-Picot
set the stage for the proliferation of a deeply consequential conspiracy-mentality that
ever since has afflicted the region.
Sykes-Picot created a miasma of fear about foreign
intervention that explains the still widespread preference for discerning
supposed hidden causes over overt ones. What in 1916 appeared to be a clever
division of territory among allies turned out to set the stage for a century of
mistrust, fear, extremism, violence, and instability. Sykes-Picot contributed
substantially to making the Middle East the sick
region it is today.
Substance: In simple terms, France got Syria and Lebanon,
Britain got Palestine and Iraq. But it was operationally not so simple, as
borders, administrations, and competing claims needed to be worked out. For
example, French forces destroyed the putative kingdom of Syria. Winston
Churchill one fine afternoon conjured up the country now known as Jordan. Under
pressure from Lebanese Catholics, the French government increased the size of
Lebanon at the expense of Syria.
But the largest issue, of course, was the issue of control
over the area the Holy Land, or Palestine, a problem complicated by London's
having promised roughly this area to both the Arabs (in the McMahon-Hussein
correspondence of January 1916) and the Zionists (in the Balfour declaration of
November 1917). It appeared that
London had not just sold the same territory twice but also double-crossed Arabs
and Jews by arranging (in Sykes-Picot) itself to retain control over it.
The map that accompanied the Sykes-Picot agreement.
From the vantage point of a century later, Sykes-Picot has
an almost purely malign influence without redeeming qualities. It laid the basis
for the future rogue states of Syria and Iraq, the Lebanese civil war, as well
as exacerbating the Arab-Israeli conflict.
On its centenary, Sykes-Picot's central achievement, the
creation of the Syrian and Iraqi states, appears to be in tatters. In a
surprising parallel, each has rapidly devolved from the all-powerful
totalitarianisms of Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein into three micro-states.
Both have an Iranian-backed, Shi'ite-oriented central government; a Turkish- and
Saudi-backed Sunni opposition; and a U.S.- and Russian-backed Kurdish force.
Iraq's Saddam Hussein (l) and Syria's Hafez al-Assad
(r) in 1979.
The Islamic State (or ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) proclaimed "the
end of Sykes-Picot" when it eliminated border posts along the
Syria-Iraq border; nevertheless, many observers, including myself, see the
fracturing of these two rogue states into six mini-states on balance as a good
thing because the small states are more homogeneous and less powerful than the
Sykes-Picot has a lesson
for the present day, a simple and important one: foreign powers must not
attempt unilaterally to decide the fate of distant regions, and especially not
in a clandestine manner. This may sound like outdated or obvious advice but, at
a time of failed states and anarchy, the powers again find it tempting to take
matters in their own hands, as they did in Libya in 2011, where their
intervention failed dismally. Similar efforts could lie ahead in Syria, Iraq,
and Yemen. Beyond those conflicts, Michael
Bernstam of the Hoover Institution has argued for a broader redrawing
of the region's "antiquated, artificial map."
No. Rather than seek to impose their will on a weak,
anarchic region, the powers should hold back and remind locals of their own need
to take responsibility. Rather than treat Middle Easterners as perpetual
children, outsiders should recognize them as adults and help them succeed. Only
in this way, over time, will the volatile, brutal, failed Middle East evolve
into something better. Only in this way will it overcome the foul legacy of