- Could Different Borders Have Saved the Middle East? by By Nick Danforth May 14, 2016
- The Master's House 100 Years After Sykes-Picot by S.Sayyid 19 May 2016
- The Ongoing Attempts To Shape The Modern Middle East by Ali Murat Yel 19 May 2016
Could Different Borders Have Saved the Middle East? by By Nick Danforth May 14, 2016
THERE probably aren’t many things that the Islamic State, Jon Stewart and the president of Iraqi Kurdistan agree on, but there is one: the pernicious influence of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret plan for dividing up the Middle East signed by France and Britain, 100 years ago this week. It has become conventional wisdom to argue, as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. recently did, that the Middle East’s problems stem from “artificial lines, creating artificial states made up of totally distinct ethnic, religious, cultural groups.”
That Western imperialism had a malignant influence on the course of Middle Eastern history is without a doubt. But is Sykes-Picot the right target for this ire?. . .
The borders that exist today — the ones the Islamic State claims to be erasing — actually emerged in 1920 and were modified over the following decades. They reflect not any one plan but a series of opportunistic proposals by competing strategists in Paris and London as well as local leaders in the Middle East. For whatever problems those schemes have caused, the alternative ideas for dividing up the region probably weren’t much better. Creating countries out of diverse territories is a violent, imperfect process.
Sykes and Picot Hatch Their Plan
In May 1916, Mark Sykes, a British diplomat, and François Georges-Picot, his French counterpart, drew up an agreement to ensure that once the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I, their countries would get a fair share of the spoils.
Both countries awarded themselves direct control over areas in which they had particular strategic and economic interests. France had commercial ties to the Levant, and had long cultivated the region’s Christians. Britain intended to secure trade and communication routes to India through the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf.
To the extent the Sykes-Picot plan made an attempt to account for the local ethnic, religious or culutural groups, or their ideas about the future, it offered a vague promise to create one or several Arab states — under French and British influence, of course.
Faisal Dreams of a United Arab Kingdom
In March 1920, Faisal bin Hussein, who led the Arab armies in their British-supported revolt against the Ottomans during World War I, became the leader of the independent Arab Kingdom of Syria, based in Damascus. His ambitious borders stretched across modern-day Syria, Jordan, Israel and parts of Turkey. (But not Iraq.)
Would Faisal’s map have been an authentic alternative to the externally imposed borders that came in the end? We’ll never know. The French, who opposed his plan, defeated his army in July.
But even if they hadn’t, Faisal’s territorial claims would have put him in direct conflict with Maronite Christians pushing for independence in what is today Lebanon, with Jewish settlers who had begun their Zionist project in Palestine, and with Turkish nationalists who sought to unite Anatolia.
When France took control of what is now Syria, the plan in Paris was to split up the region into smaller statelets under French control. These would have been divided roughly along ethnic, regional and sectarian lines: The French envisioned a state for Alawites, another for Druse, another for Turks and two more centered around Syria’s biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
This cynical divide-and-conquer strategy was intended to pre-empt Arab nationalists’ calls for a “greater Syria.” Today, five years into Syria’s civil war, a similar division of the country has been suggested as a more authentic alternative to the supposedly artificial Syrian state. But when the French tried to divide Syria almost a century ago, the region’s residents, inspired by ideas of Syrian or Arab unity, pushed by new nationalist leaders, resisted so strongly that France abandoned the plan.
Americans to the Rescue?
In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson sent a delegation to devise a better way to divide the region. Henry King, a theologian, and Charles Crane, an industrialist, conducted hundreds of interviews in order to prepare a map in accordance with the ideal of national self-determination.
Was this a missed opportunity to draw the region’s “real” borders? Doubtful. After careful study, King and Crane realized how difficult the task was: They split the difference between making Lebanon independent or making it part of Syria with a proposal for “limited autonomy.” They thought the Kurds might be best off incorporated into Iraq or even Turkey. And they were certain that Sunnis and Shiites belonged together in a unified Iraq. In the end, the French and British ignored the recommendations. If only they had listened, things might have turned out more or less the same.
Nick Danforth, a senior analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center, blogs at midafternoonmap.com.
The Master's House 100 Years After Sykes-Picot
19 May 2016
The Sykes-Picot Agreement represents the absence of an authentic, legitimate successor to the Ottoman order and should be seen as part of the last stage in a sequence of when Europe asserted itself by directly organizing the world outside Europe
On May 16, 1916, two rather undistinguished civil servants – Mark Sykes representing the United Kingdom and François Georges-Picot on behalf of the French government – agreed on the division of the Ottoman Empire into British, French and Russian spheres of influence. A line was drawn on the basis of this plan, stretching from the border with Persia in the east to the Mediterranean. Britain would control the areas to the south of the line while France would do so to the north. In each of these regions France and Britain alone would "have priority of right of enterprise and local loans" and "supply advisers or foreign functionaries." More importantly, in the assigned regions Britain and France "shall be allowed to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire and as they may think fit to arrange with the Arab state or confederation of Arab states," which would be "recognised and protected" by both powers. The agreement would be approved later by then Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov, again, behind closed doors. In return for the acceptance of the British and French claims, Russia would get control of Constantinople and other territories carved out of Ottoman Empire.
A year later the secret plans were exposed by the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution and overthrow of the Tsar Nicholas II. The post-Ottoman order that emerged after end of World War I (1914-1918) did not correspond exactly to the map drawn up by Sykes and Picot, as according to the plan, Mosul was to be part of Syria and not Iraq.
WHY SYKES-PICOT STILL RESONATES
There is a legitimate scholarly dispute about the significance of this agreement and its relevance today. After all 100 years is a long time, and there have been lots of developments that cannot, with any confidence, be traced back to what Sykes and Picot were up to. Regardless of the details of the actual Sykes-Picot Agreement, over the years it has gained a symbolic importance that exceeds the details of what was agreed to on May 16, 1916. It is the metaphor of Sykes-Picot, i.e., what it represents, that continues to resonate today. In particular, I draw attention to three features of what the plan represents as being significant and that account for notoriety.
Firstly, the Sykes-Picot plan should perhaps be seen as part of the last stage in a sequence when Europe asserted itself by directly organizing the world outside Europe according to its own cartographic imaginings. Beginning with the Treaty of Tordesillas between the crowns of Spain and Portugal in 1494, through conferences such as Berlin in 1884, which formalized European colonial rule over most of Africa, European maps became templates for reshaping the non-European world. In these maps natural boundaries or historical bonds were often secondary to geometric principles, which filled the vertigo of experiencing space on a planetary scale. The Sykes-Picot Agreement represents not only the 1916 plan to distribute the spoils of victory over the Ottoman Empire, but a series of other unequal treaties, agreements and protocols by which the non-European world was classified, categorized and allocated to Western powers. Sykes-Picot is a sign of European power and authority. It has to be remembered that the British Empire reached its territorial peak five years afterward.
Secondly, Sykes-Picot meant not only new borders, it was also an attempt to transform the cosmopolitan realities of the Ottoman world into narrow nationalism and xenophobia. The Anglo-French carve up of the Ottoman domains meant not only the cultivation of elites willing to collaborate with London and Paris in exchange for privileges and power, it also established the template of patron-client relations throughout the region so that local rulers spent a great deal of energy cultivating their foreign patrons rather than providing for their own people. This pattern continues today when oil riches are used to buy influence in Western capitals at the expense of state sovereignty and popular accountability. In others words, ruling families are linked to Western capitals more than their own populations. So Sykes-Picot represents the history of clientelism in the region, and all that follows from the institutionalization of such client-patron relations.
Thirdly, Sykes-Picot represents the absence of an authentic legitimate successor to the previous Ottoman order. The spatial divisions of the region and divisions between rulers and ruled institutionalized by the Sykes-Picot system culminate in the production of a void and absent or lost center able to bring order, autonomy and prosperity to the region. Sykes-Picot did not allow for viable independent states capable of exercising sovereignty. It was designed to build a state system through which Anglo-French interests, influence and indirect rule could be exercised. This was the house that Sykes-Picot built and this is the house that people of the region still live in. So even though the architects of that house are gone, as the French and British Empires are shadows of their former selves, and the new owners, be they from Washington or Moscow, are able to use that that architecture for their own ends. The main losers remain the people of the region. The Sykes-Picot Agreement symbolizes the plans for building the master's house in the absence of the Ottoman Empire. Such a master's house spread across the globe as part of the process of European colonial world-making.
Audre Lorde, the Caribbean-American writer and thinker, declared that the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. For the last 100 years the only tools generally available have been the master's tools. The need to invent new tools to dismantle the master's house is something that has resonance around the world. So after 100 years the faulty map drawn by two undistinguished diplomats continues to frame the politics of the post-Ottoman world.
* Professor in Rhetoric, University of Leeds
The Ongoing Attempts To Shape The Modern Middle East
Ali Murat Yel
19 May 2016
Accomplished director Werner Herzog's film 'Queen of the Desert,' starring Nicole Kidman as British agent and writer Gertrude Bell, has been in the spotlight recently both in terms of its historical authenticity and cinematography
Those who had seen Anthony Minghella's 1996 film version of "The English Patient" might vaguely remember a conversation among some British soldiers on getting through some mountains for the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway. The answer was: "The Bell maps show a way," to which the response comes: "Let's hope he was right." This was an excusable mistake because it would not occur to them that a woman could have explored almost all the hills, mountains and deserts of the Middle East a century ago.
Having watched Werner Herzog's 2015 movie "Queen of the Desert," most viewers would leave the theater with the impression that they had witnessed the life of a kingmaker - Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell. However, this female version of Lawrence of Arabia, played by Nicole Kidman could never come close to Peter O'Toole's hero. Those who know Bell's life story and what she accomplished in the Middle East with her linguistic and political skills for the benefit of the British Empire, the movie is an utter failure. Unlike in "Lawrence of Arabia," this movie does very little justice to Bell's achievements in devastating the lives of Arabs living under the Ottoman administration.
The ongoing attempts to shape the modern Middle East
The movie opens with a scene from a windy desert and then we see some British men, including a young T. E. Lawrence, at the British Arab Bureau in Cairo discussing how the British Empire would snatch Mesopotamia away from the Ottoman Empire. The movie proceeds with a lively, innocent, attractive and very intelligent English lady who was bored with the luxurious life of the British countryside. We only passingly learn that she graduated from Oxford with the highest honors in history. She innocently insists her father send her anywhere, which could be either India or the Middle East, as if it is their backyard. Initially, she was sent to Tehran where the British council happens to be one of their relatives. One would expect that Bell would feel like a fish out of water, but on the contrary, she never has any culture shock and wants to explore the entire region as a scholar and "expert of archaeology." Then, we presumably see her wandering around, received at the palaces of a few sheikhs like an omniscient British diplomat. In between these travels come her two love affairs with staff at British consulates. Apart from very rare panoramic shots of the Arabian deserts, the movie does not deserve its title as the plot takes place mostly indoors. The film ends with her conversation with two Arab noblemen, Faisal and Abdullah, in the middle of a desert where she tells them sagaciously that they will become kings of Iraq and Jordan soon. Viewers will probably only remember her two loves and the word "kingmaker" from the movie. All things considered, even Nicole Kidman could not be said to have saved Herzog's film. I would suggest Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl's 2014 full-length documentary about Bell, "Letters from Baghdad," to get a better image of this British intelligence officer in shaping the modern Middle East.
As a Middle Easterner and descendant of the Ottoman Empire, I have heard of Bell's notoriety since my childhood and have read some biographical works on her life since then. If you do not know her real life story, you would little learn from this film. I do not claim that movies are sources of knowledge, but they are expected to at least give a glimpse of reality. Bell was fairly fluent in Persian, Arabic, French and German to the extent that "The Hafez Poems of Gertrude Bell" was an excellent translation with the original Persian on the facing page with her introduction on the life and works of Hafez. She was a gifted scholar that had authored some of the best travel writing, cartography and ethnography books. It would not be surprising that such a talented personality would be employed by the British colonial administration. She was quick to distinguish the Arabs, Kurds, Druze, and Shiite communities in the region and her advice to trust the Sunni Arabs in shaping the modern Middle East as an expansion of the British mandate was well-taken.
It is hard to draw a conclusion from the film that Bell was the person behind all the current problems in the Middle East, who delineated the borders with her ruler and pencil. She appears in the movie as if she did not have anything to do with dividing and conquering Ottoman lands with her friendship with the Arabs and knowledge of tribes. In fact, she was not any different from other British personnel in the region in terms of their overt orientalism in justifying their own position of superiority and influence, so much so that she remarked in one of her white papers: "The Oriental is like a very old child. ... He is not practical in our acceptance of the word, any more than a child is practical, and his utility is not ours." It might not be her personal decision to incite rebellions by the "vociferous minority" in the Bilad al-Sham against the Turkish victories at the Dardanelles or the Kut al-Amara siege, as she had lost her second love at the Gallipoli campaign, but it retrospectively seems like a retaliation of the British on the Ottomans. A century ago these orientalists accused the Ottoman Empire of irrational despotism that neglected and discouraged the delegation of power and contemporary orientalists are still trying to do the same by encouraging local ethnic and sectarian divides to rebel against the state authorities. This time not under the supervision of Britain only but a whole bunch of Western powers' modern "Major Bells" are trying to map the region according to their own benefit by supporting and encouraging some of the local tribes to establish their own states, but making sure that they are weak and feeble enough to follow the rules of their Western masters. This time they are wiser in realizing their objectives of divide and conquer through proxy wars and new neo-colonialism.
* Professor of anthropology in the Department of Radio, Television and Cinema at Marmara University