Sykes-Picot is not to blame for Syria

Posted on August 16, 2012


For many in the Arab world, the Sykes-Picot Agreement is what the Yalta conference was for many conservatives in the United States during the Cold War. It is a betrayal of a people seeking freedom, a damning indictment of Great Power politics, and the source of all the problems in the Middle East. As with Yalta, all kinds of things are attributed to the Agreement that came much later: the veteran Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt said today that the Syria crisis is “unravelling” a deal that created the countries of the region. This lazy understanding was reinforced by The Guardian’s Martin Chulov writing that the Agreement was adopted in 1919, not 1916…

The Sykes-Picot Agreement gave to both Britain and France large areas of the Middle East; it did not create the nation-states we know today. France was supposed to receive not only Lebanon and Syria, but also northern Iraq and a sizeable chunk of Turkey. Although the eventual post-war carve-up resembled the deal, it actually started to unravel just as soon as Sir Mark Sykes had negotiated it. British officials in Cairo hated the Agreement and hoped to undermine it: they wanted Syria to be part of a Greater Egyptian viceroyalty that would rival the Raj. ‘I am afraid that swine Monsieur P[icot] has let M. S. badly down’, wrote the politician and diplomat Aubrey Herbert, who was serving in Cairo at the time. ‘This is what comes of disregarding the ABC of Diplomacy and letting Amateurs have a shy at delicate and important negotiations.’

 In 1917, the deal unravelled further when the Bolsheviks leaked the details in order to embarrass the Allies and there was a fierce reaction to what was viewed as outdated imperialist thinking. Sykes wrote that the sooner the Agreement was scrapped the better, as the world had ‘marched so far’ since it had been negotiated and it could ‘now only be considered as a reactionary measure’. His change-of-view coincided with one higher up in the British government after David Lloyd-George became Prime Minister. He wanted to increase Britain’s sphere-of-influence way beyond that which Sykes had negotiated just a few years before. In his book A Line in the Sand, James Baar reports a conversation between Lloyd-George and French premiere Georges Clemenceau in which the latter conceded to British demands. “Tell me what you want,” Clemenceau is supposed to have asked him.

“I want Mosul.”

“You shall have it. Anything else?”

“Yes, I want Jerusalem too.”

“You shall have it,” said Clemenceau. These concessions were recognised in the many peace conferences after the First World War, thus by 1922 the Sykes-Picot Agreement had completely unravelled.

The Middle Eastern order that Mr. Jumblatt worries about disintegrating was created long after this much-maligned deal was a dead letter, and centuries-old problems in the region cannot be reduced to what was even then considered to be old-fashioned thinking about Great Power politics.