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The Sykes-Picot Agreement: What Is It? Why Should We Care?

When Vladimir Lenin derides a secret treaty as the machination of “colonial thieves”, there is an incentive to dig a bit further. However, to examine such a document, one must consider how it was situated contextually while extracting the minutiae, structure, tone, and shape it takes on. The Sykes-Picot agreement was first leaked by the ever-scheming ogeavda, and the tepid wording of its contents engendered a legacy of post-occupational strife, subversion, and unrest.

It would be speculative of this work to attribute every instance of tension to the treaty, although some of its provisions were to have ingrained ramifications for the Middle East. Bearing this in mind, is the colonial legacy of Sykes-Picot still present in Iraq or Syria, and how does this inform, complement, or crystallize our understanding of the communiqué itself?

The Sykes-Picot Agreement has its early formation in the British and French enticement of belligerents in the Arab Revolt (June 1916), promising independent Arab states in exchange for the extrication of Ottoman influence. Mark Sykes, the designer of the Revolt’s flag of Arab independence, was ironically also the chief architect behind reneging on the aforementioned commitment.This forces one to consider whether there was an intent to negate the contents of the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence – which calls the role of the venerated polyglot, T.E. Lawrence, into question. Regardless, this all conflates to depict the convoluted milieu in which Sykes-Picot came to life, swathed in hypocrisy.

When the victorious Entente divided up the Arabian territories of the Ottoman Empire, they had little consciousness of the practicality of their actions. France acquired present-day Syria and Lebanon, while the British were allotted Iraq, Kuwait, and what currently comprises Jordan. Palestine became an internationally administered site, while dominions beyond these corridors lay under the putative leadership of local Arab chiefs, at the behest of the British in the south, and the French in the north. Despite the lack of completeness, the calculative, self-interested maneuverings of the British and French can still be seen.

Scott Anderson, the author of Lawrence in Arabia, sums up his impression of Sykes-Picot rather unromantically: “they divided up clans and sub-clans. For example, the British wanted Transjordan as they had discovered oil in northern Iraq – what is, today, Northern Iraq. And they wanted a land bridge to take that oil on a pipeline to the Mediterranean. So that reason alone is why they grabbed Jordan.” In the formal agreement, which stated that they “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”, the two powers undertook a rather deified role that gave them political flexibility and prescribed little recognition of Arab perspectives. Similarly, stating that “in area (a) France, and in area (b) Great Britain, shall have priority of right of enterprise and local loans” … “in area (a) France, and in area (b) Great Britain, shall alone supply advisers or foreign functionaries at the request of the Arab state or confederation of Arab states”. Clear delineations defined who retains supremacy over what, and the discrepancies between the authority of each party.

It appeared as if the two powers have carved out both foreign and fiscal policy for their control, leaving the one curious as to what is being devolved to local leaders – especially considering the compulsory British or French consultation on all matters of internal, or external significance. If the initial goal, as expressed in the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, was to gradually introduce self-determination to Levantine states, the first few decrees of Sykes-Picot lends no credence to the idea that gradual autonomy is possible under the outlined conditions.

Exemplifying the demands of the times, the bulk of the agreement’s middle section is concerned with the parameters of railway routes, who has the right to use them for transportation, and where alterations can or cannot be made. The agreement stipulates “That Great Britain has the right to build, administer, and be sole owner of a railway connecting Haifa with area (b), and shall have a perpetual right to transport troops along such a line at all times. That in area (a) the Baghdad railway shall not be extended southwards beyond Mosul, and in area (b) northwards beyond Samarra, until a railway connecting Baghdad and Aleppo via the Euphrates valley has been completed, and then only with the concurrence of the two governments.”

Evidently, the Europeans only desired a monopoly on transportation and the maximization of trade efficiency. Attention was paid neither to logistical issues on the ground, nor the civilians that would feel the effects of railroad construction. This resulted in the reorientation and disruption of communities.

“For a period of twenty years the existing Turkish customs tariff shall remain in force throughout the whole of the blue and red areas, as well as in areas (a) and (b), and no increase in the rates of duty…shall be made except by agreement between the two powers. The customs duties leviable on goods destined for the interior shall be…handed over to the administration of the area of destination.” There was little federalization occurring, while the British and French retained a firm grip on finances and taxation.

One would presume that taxation could be a relatively sensible concession to make to the local rulers – in the absence of this, how could administrations have sought to accumulate any political legitimacy? The proposition of “suzerainty implies that certain tasks and policy duties are delegated to the provincial or municipal level, nonetheless, this theme did not across conspicuously, if at all. Throughout, one is left questioning whether citizens considered such paltry devolution a satisfactory result.

Another recurring concept is that of Britain and France solidifying their hegemonic dyad. “The British and French government, as the protectors of the Arab state, shall agree that they will not themselves acquire and will not consent to a third power acquiring territorial possessions in the Arabian peninsula, nor consent to a third power [Russia] installing a naval base either on the east coast, or on the islands, of the red sea.” There was an onus placed on restricting channels of local arms-accrual – “It is agreed that measures to control the importation of arms into the Arab territories will be considered by the two governments – The British and French were aware of the possibility of insurrection, which only makes their negligence more puzzling.

Inadequately considered plans, and Sykes and Picot adopting a Machiavellian streak, are potential explanations for this decision. Upon consulting a map and distilling this information, Britain’s interests were clearly fixated on preserving the pathway to India, shielding itself from financial pitfalls, and securing oil routes. Analogously, the French appeared intent on a bulwark for their North African empire, and as is geographically evidenced, procuring a potential advantage in the domination of the eastern Mediterranean.

Within the document itself, there seemed to be no preoccupation with the concerns of the local populations, and an overwhelming focus on access to trading routes and tariff regulations. Not a single word was devoted to laying out the foundations of what form Arab governance would take, or how any of Sykes’ and Picots’ edicts would affect or be absorbed by the local populace.

Based on the text, it is inferable that the Levant was perceived as one large arena for economic expansion, stratagems of supply routes, and colonial fortification. Furthermore, the nature of it assumed passivity on the part of the local populations. Both the British and French did not appear to consider the potential for their ‘high-handed approach’ stirring up nationalist sentiments. Notwithstanding the barrage of blame doled out to the imperial powers, it is worth bearing in mind that the specific process of directing the activities of Levantine states was quite novel for Britain and France. They had a plethora of colonial experience, but no background in the delicate practice of state-building. There is a key difference between the two systems, and it is related to sustaining oversight, as opposed to the establishment of institutional structures. The latter set of tasks are more deep-seated. This underestimation of required structural attention may be one reason why the mandate states were never consolidated as sites of representative, cohesive civil governance.

There is no assurance, on any grounds, that Sykes-Picot eventually became the death knell of Arab coexistence; however, there are unsettling similarities between two of its more oft-cited poster children. After British mandate Iraq gained independence in 1932, a slew of military coups bedeviled the country  – it seemed as if this was the only body ameliorated through British rule – and culminated in a new period of occupation, ending in 1947 because of the rise of a fascist, anti-British government in 1941. Its neighbors subsequently became counter-Soviet, US allies, and thereafter, the original goal of preparing Levant states for emancipation became secondary to furthering Cold War-related geostrategic ambitions. By 1979, relative stability (at least compared to the status quo ante) was restored under Saddam Hussein, albeit at the expense of a tolerant and pluralistic society. His deposal further exposed the frailty of the Iraqi state’s framework, which could be viewed as a manifestation of British naivety.

To simplify matters extraordinarily, Syria followed a similar path. The French attempted to appease factions by distinguishing six different ‘mini-states’, but nevertheless, the friction between centralization and autonomy proved corrosive. France’s numerous forceful attempts to suppress uprisings were ultimately fruitless, and the onset of official Syrian independence, in 1946, brought endless political upheaval. It is unsurprising that the totalitarian rule of the Ba’athist Assads from 2000 to 2011 was a necessity to counterbalance the immense instability in Syria. One could conclude that the Syrian and Iraqi conditions of political fragility, unaccountability, and institutional enfeeblement had some genesis in the French and British mandatory methods.

On the other hand, had the Sykes-Picot agreement never been produced, would a more organic process render less arbitrary ‘lines in the sand’? What avenue should determine the ‘natural’ borders of the Levant? Patterns of invasion, religious rift, and migration meant that it was impossible for any hypothetical Levantine state to have an ethnically homogeneous population. Even within such a robustly defined ethnic group, like the Kurds, ambiguity abounds. How would a single Kurdish state cbe crisply cut out, when a multitude of them could potentially emerge within pockets of each contemporary country? 

Likewise, instantly transforming kleptocratic states into pluralistic democracies is equally delusional. Although democracy would address the issue in a markedly tolerant fashion, there is no guarantee that it would prove more efficacious or realistic. Yugoslavia’s first multiparty elections, in 1990, correlated with the dissolution of the state. The tenuous political clout leveraged by recent governments in Iraq and Afghanistan is emblematic of the complexity of this process. Even Lebanon, with an avowed but flawed legislative and executive framework to accommodate a variety of religious and ethnic groups – through “consociational governance –  is highly prone to volatility example.

Applying the same formula elsewhere might prove futile. Remedying any of the historical challenges associated with the agreement is elusive on a theoretical level, never mind a logistical one.

Conversely, it’s reasonable to infer that even in the absence of Sykes-Picot, and its aftermath (plus the Balfour Declaration), the Levant may yet have found itself in a discordant situation. Even if that is the case, the agreement undoubtedly expedited, protracted, and magnified such an outcome. With additional research, a variety of permutations – ranging from sectarian polarization, repression of civil society, the rise of religious zealotry, and fluctuating nationalist, socialist, and regionalist sentiments – could likely be traced back to the fumbling attempts at British and French statecraft.

Moving forward, however, using the agreement as an expedient scapegoat yields no benefit. Belaboring this point detracts from the urgent reality of debilitated political climates in desperate need of civil society-driven reconfiguration.

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