Sykes-Picot: The Centenary of A Deal That Did Not Shape the Middle East

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One hundred years ago on May 16 Britain and France signed a secret deal to carve up the carcass of the moribund Ottoman Empire that has since become a byword in the Middle East for imperialist skullduggery – the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Indeed, it could be said that belief in a narrative that all the region’s ills can be traced back to this single act of big power infamy is the one thing that unites its present protagonists. As they survey the current turmoil in their region, secular nationalists, democrats, autocrats, jihadists, Kurds, Sunni and Shia can at least agree that Sykes-Picot is to blame.

Little surprise then that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the so-called Islamic state, saw the PR benefits of summoning the bogeyman when he described his newly-declared “caliphate” in 2014 as a nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy. ISIS even disseminated a 15-minute English-language video entitled “the End of Sykes-Picot” to reinforce the point.

Apologists for the 1916 agreement—these days it would be hard to find any serious defenders—would claim it was more muddle than conspiracy. The plan devised by two otherwise rather undistinguished diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes for Britain and François Georges-Picot for France, sought to map a post-World War I structure for Turkey’s Middle Eastern territories. With the conflict against Germany and its Turkish ally still under way and the outcome far from certain, they drew artificial lines in the sand which reflected their countries’ interests rather than those of the inhabitants.

Pointing to a map, Sykes told his political masters in London that he wanted to draw a straight line stretching from the ‘e’ in Acre, Palestine to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk. France would control the territories north of this border and Britain those to the south. ...




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