Why there is a crisis in the Middle East: Where it started, the Sykes-Picot

Map of the Sykes-Picot Agreement

At the start of this academic school year, I began working on an academic research project for the National History Day competition. What started off as forced work simply for a grade led me to discover the reality behind the conflict in the Middle East. I had always wondered, “why?” Why are people fighting in Jerusalem, why is ISIS inflicting pain on millions, why are the Kurds displaced? All the answers are rooted back to World War One (WW1) and the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement; I present my research discoveries to you now.

Nevertheless, before starting — if you wish to have a more complete and visual analysis (which includes videos, images, etc.) visit this website link: https://site.nhd.org/58797060/home

THE SYKES PICOT: Blood-Stained Hands — The World’s Worst Diplomatic Disaster

For starters, what is the Sykes-Picot Agreement:

Considered a significant failure by historians, the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), disregarded ethnic and religious matters across the Arab hemisphere as new borders were established with a pencil and paper to suit Anglo-French interests. Throughout the rest of the twentieth century and even to this day, the Arab world has suffered the consequences of this diplomatic agreement between Britain and France, ushering violence and despair into the Middle East. Negotiated by Sir Mark Sykes (British diplomat) and François Georges-Picot (French Diplomat) with assent from the Russian Empire, the boundaries and mandates set by the Sykes-Picot have shaped 21st century life in the Middle East.

Context at the time:

  1. World War One
  • In the years leading up to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, World War 1 was ongoing. Commencing in 1914, World War One had spiraled the world into its most paramount military conflict. The Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mehmed V allied with the Central Powers in October 1914, alongside Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. The Entente Powers, however, consisted primarily of France, Great Britain, Russia, and Italy. With the conversation surrounding what would occur in Ottoman lands in the Arab world upon the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, Anglo-French designs on the Arab world were initiated between Sir Mark Sykes and Picot. Both of them commenced negotiations with tremendously differing standpoints, but both were committed to building towards a resolution.

2. Rising Anglo-French Tension

  • The diplomatic state of affairs between Britain and France was tense on the eve of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Disagreements over who had rights in Syria impelled high-ranking French officials, such as the French Ambassador in Britain, Sec. Cambon, to admonish the British. Cambon informed the British government that no infringement of French rights in Syria would be condoned. ​​​​​​​French Foreign Minister Delcassé responded that “Sykes ambitions couldn’t be realized without the risk of one day posing a problem to Anglo-French relations.” With rising Anglophobia in France as well as an unmovable position by the British to secure a foothold in the Arab world, the diplomatic state was chaotic.

3. Anti-Arabism

  • In the years leading to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, rising anti-Arabism was evident in both French and British society. Mark Sykes, the leading British diplomat, opposed Arab culture and way of life. Sykes remarked that unless an Arab’s education is handled properly, “you produce this devastating intelligentsia of parrots, who cheat, steal, kill, bomb, peculate or shatter as the evil spirit moves them.”

Causes of the agreement:

What were the motivating forces — simply put, oil. During that present era of colonialism, nations secured their economic development by exploiting petroleum in less developed portions of the world. Specifically, the British came to depend on the Abdan Arab refinery site in Persia. Global geography was redrawn based on resource supply. The British rule over the Port of Haifa (in the Sykes-Picot) would ensure them an efficient and continued supply of oil. Both sought out to gain a military and political foothold in the Middle East.

Crude Oil Prices at the time as well as a map of oil refineries in the region.

Overview of the agreement itself:

The arbitrary Sykes-Picot Agreement redefined borders in the Arab world. Different regions of influence (“Zone A” & “Zone B”) would come to be established after World War One, leading to thousands of deaths in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Sykes-Picot Agreement vs. Modern Borders

The Sykes-Picot Agreement established the following:

  • France would control Lebanon, with the capital at Beirut.
  • A “sovereign” Arab state would be established in Syria, based in Damascus, under French protection.
  • Britain would oversee the Port of Haifa, controlling the bay for their Mesopotamian oil.
  • Palestine would be under international supervision.
  • Britain would obtain Southern Iraq.
  • Russia would settle for Istanbul and the Armenian regions of Anatolia.

Much of the conflict in Palestine today is also traced back to the Sykes-Picot Agreement itself. Here I explain how and why:

To the Zionists:

In 1917, the Balfour Declaration was issued to the Nationalist Zionist Movement. It informed that Her Majesty’s Government supported an independent Jewish state in Palestine; the Sykes-Picot overwrote that, nonetheless.

The famous Balfour Declaration

To the Arabs:

The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, a series of back-and-forth negotiations between High Commissioner Henry McMahon and the Sharif of Mecca, expressed the British support for an independent Arab state in Palestine in return for an Arab revolt against the Ottomans. Nonetheless, the British abandoned their promise with the Sykes-Picot.

Hussein-McMahon Correspondence
T.E. Lawrence of Arabia quote & Defined area of independence for the Arabs; never met.

Although the Sykes-Picot Agreement wasn’t ever “legally” established, the 1920 Treaty of San Remo’s boundaries vastly resembled the negotiations by Sykes and Picot. The borders defined by the two men remain the default borders of the region despite subsequent agreements.

“In retrospect, this chain of actions and events looms as an egregious manifestation of European colonialism at its worst.”

- Itamar Rabinovich and Robbie Sabel, Former Ambassadors to Israel

The agreement also totally disregarded the Kurdish people, here I explain more about the significance of that.

Ethnically, the Sykes-Picot set absurd borders in the region that live to see the consequences. The Kurds were the biggest losers from the Sykes-Picot. During the agreement, the Kurds requested the establishment of a sovereign state, but their calls went unanswered. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Political cartoons on Kurdistan and the Sykes-Picot.

“The biggest losers were the Kurds, a distinct ethnic and linguistic group who weren’t given a state at all. Today the Kurdish heartland stretches into corners of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.”

- Henry Srebrink

Political cartoon.

Immediate Aftermath:

  1. Mandate System

Following the Sykes-Picot and the San Remo Conference:

  • In Iraq, the British installed Faisal, son of the Sherif of Mecca as king.
  • In Jordan, Faisal’s brother Abdullah declared himself Emir — the British accepted.
  • In Lebanon, the French introduced a complex system of ethnic quotas, often making Lebanese politics sectarian.
  • In Syria, a rise in Arab nationalism led to public distress against the British and French.
  • In Palestine, under international supervision, the number of Jews emigrating increased drastically, leading to mass displacement after WW2.

2. Arab Resentment and Revolts

In British Mesopotamia, the British lost control to an Arab revolt, regaining it in October 1920. Such revolt was a direct aftermath of the limited rights and betrayal the British granted ordinary civilians. The 1920 Arab revolt and the 1925–1927 Great Syrian Revolt commenced with frustration against both the British and French over their rules. In total, an approximate of 70,000 Arab rebels perished in the process.

Long-Term Significance:

“Lawrence of Arabia wouldn’t have been surprised by the rise of ISIS”

- Giles Fraser, Reporter “The Guardian”

  1. The Birth of Isis
  • ​​​​​​​​​The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement fundamentally shaped society and borders in the Middle East. Also known as the Asia-Minor Agreement, it paved a way for the rise of Arab nationalism, with hatred for Western beliefs amplifying. This resulted in the authoritarian dictatorships of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Hafez al-Assad in Syria, haunting the Middle East since. The legacy of the Sykes-Picot lives in the claims put forward by ISIS to try and legitimize their cause against the West.

After sweeping across Syria and Iraq in 2014, Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced, “This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.” ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

2. Palestinian-Israeli Violence

  • The Sykes-Picot, in Palestine has led to years of bloodshed. The British aimed to receive the support from the Jewish diaspora and the Arabs, two conflicting political groups. With both the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence (promising Arab state in the Arab world) and the Balfour Declaration (promising Jewish state in Palestine) being declared, the two ethnic groups believe Palestine to be under their control in a legal sense.

Visit the website (linked at the start of the article) for a proper and complete analysis with data to support each section.

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