Vicken Cheterian

It is all the Fault of Sykes and Picot

It is the fault of Sykes and Picot. They destroyed the Ottoman Empire and divided the Middle East. It was them who drew the artificial borders of the region; it was them who divided the Arab World, segregated the Umma. It was the perfect colonialist conspiracy to divide and rule. It is the original sin, the source of all the current problems of the Middle East.

Have you heard this version before? On May 16 this year it will be 100 years following the Sykes-Picot agreement between two diplomats: one British and one French who during the height of the “Great War” negotiated on how to divide what was still at the time Ottoman lands at the conclusion of that war. 

But is it? Do the imperialist invasions and division of the region into nation-states cause the problems of the Middle East? This theory was very popular at the height of Arab nationalism, immediately after the end of the Second World War, the withdrawal of the French and the British, and the emergence of the new states in the region.  At the time, the greatest cause was that of Palestine, the central struggle in the Middle East was the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was the time when Arab unity was not considered just a project, but a political ideology that moved the masses, which considered the frontiers drawn between Syria and Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, as artificial barriers against the unity of the one Arab people.

That the theory of colonial invasions being the source of the problems of the Middle East continue until today is amazing, and continues to be popular in Europe as well as in the Middle East. Some go as far as to “understand” if not justify the “Islamic State” organization as a reaction to Sykes-Picot, and as a belated desire to break the borders drawn by them and “unite” the peoples of the Middle East. 

Isn’t it time to wake-up from the fairy tale and face the reality of the Middle East. It was not Sykes-Picot that destroyed the Ottoman Empire, it was the militarist adventures and imperialist dreams of Enver, Talat and Jemal, which took an exhausted Ottoman Empire to take part in a war which was not theirs. The Ittihadist leaders could have chosen neutrality in this European war and save the empire. Instead, they chose military adventures and risking all finally losing the empire. Second, it was not just the British and the French that drew the map of the Middle East, but local actors still influenced the outcome: it was the post-war balance of forces that finally decided the new map. Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal resisted the French, Greek and other forces and forged a new state; Kurdish aghas chose to stick into the old alliance with the Turks rather than come under British rule. The Russians, who were supposed to dominate over Armenian and Kurdish provinces in the east, were overthrown in the 1917 revolution, and the Bolsheviks were the first to reject and publish the secret documents. 

British and French influence over the region ended with 1945. The last attempt to salvage some influence terminated in a humiliating retreat following the Suez War of 1956. Since, Arab nationalists rule most Arab countries, yet all attempts to Arab unity ended in disaster. The infamous “United Arab Republic”, the 1958 marriage between Egypt under Nasser and Syria under desperation ended in a bitter divorce in 1961. The sister Baath parties in Syria and Iraq preferred to close their borders rather than to unite their countries. The Yemeni unity ended up in a bitter civil war in 1994. 

In Turkey, too, formal unity led to more divisions. The new unity came under a new ideology, that of Turkish nationalism, which continue its discrimination and violence not only against the Christian “millets” of the old empire, but also against all those ethnic groups namely the Kurds. 

The end of nationalism in Turkey and Arab countries, and the coming of Islamic politics did not change much. It was the same violent, ideologically driven political culture, and it did not matter under what ideological colour it gave expression. Can we explain the current fratricide war in Syria by Sykes-Picot? Can we explain the growing antagonism within Islam, between Sunnis and Shiites, by imperialism? Can we explain the lack of democracy, violation of basic human rights, incompetence in running the economy, and corrupt political class by US imperialism and Israeli Zionism? 

Palestine was the sacred cause behind which many of those dictators tried to hide their lack of legitimacy. Both nationalists and Islamists used and abused the Palestinian cause, again and again. Yarmouk is a large Palestinian refugee camp in the south of Damascus, home to over 100’000 people. When the Syrian war started, the regime imposed a blockade to suffocate its inhabitants by hunger. Do you remember that apocalyptic picture when thousands of people emerging among ruins to beg for food from the first UN convoy entering the camp? And then in 2015 ISIS attacked the camp, and after entering to some of its neighbourhoods it decapitated three Hamas leaders. 

No, we do not have much of an explanation to our decadence and decline, which is continuing for centuries now. We have no explanation to the masochistic violence we are torturing our own societies with. At least we have Sykes and Picot on whom we can throw the blame of our unbearable decadence.