Despite the fact that the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed 100 years ago, the debate and controversy surrounding it is ongoing. This does not seem to be stopping in light of the severe political turbulence in the region, the conflicts on a local, regional and international level, intellectual, cultural and ideological considerations, the rise of some doctrinal and sectarian trends and the fall of others, and the re-emergence of national aspirations that remained latent among specific ethnic groups over the past 100 years. This requires us to take the time to re-read the content of this agreement and what it established and provided for over the past 100 years. We must also consider if now is the time for the Sykes-Picot agreement to collapse, as some believe, or if the matter is more complicated than this.
To begin with, we must realise that what we are talking about is not merely an agreement with 12 clauses reached by the two diplomats, Frenchman Francois Georges-Picot and Briton Mark Sykes, after which the agreement was named, with the involvement and auspices of Russian diplomat Sazonov, who represented Tsarist Russia, an ally of France and Britain in WWI. This agreement addressed the division of the Ottoman Empire’s states in the Fertile Crescent area between France and Britain, and dictated the special arrangements made for their authorities in the area. Meanwhile, Tsarist Russia was given control of Asia Minor, including Istanbul, Armenia and Northern Kurdistan.
The agreement was reached after secret talks took place in Cairo and then moved to St Petersburg, Russia. They ended with the signing of the agreement in May 1916. However, only a few months passed until Tsarist Russia fell into the hands of the Bolshevik rebels in 1917 and the revealed the Sykes-Picot agreement. This provoked the anger of the Arabs, especially in light of the talks and communication between Sharif Hussein and McMahon, and the shiny promises made by Britain to the Arabs to support them in the war and revolution against the Ottoman Caliphate state. One of the most important promises made was supporting Sharif Hussein in restoring the Caliphate state to the Al-Hashimi house. The revelation also provoked the ire of the Jewish and Zionist movement, which considered the idea of internationalising Palestine, which was included in the agreement, as contradictory to the goal of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Britain finished McMahon’s task and issued the Balfour Declaration as soon as it occupied Palestine. This declaration promised the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
This was followed by the San Remo Conference in 1920 to arrange the regional situation based on the results of the war. In addition, the British Mandate over Palestine was adopted in 1922. Hence, a new geopolitical arrangement of the Fertile Crescent area was imposed by establishing new entities, including Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. Meanwhile, the Arabian Peninsula united and the rest of the Arab entities remained including Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, and the Gulf emirates and Aden remained under British protection.
This was the essence of what the Sykes-Picot resulted in given the aftermath of WWI, including the drawing of the borders of the region’s counties and determining the nature of the ruling system in each, the majority of which is an inherited monarchy. The exception to this is Syria and Lebanon given their special nature; instead a British and French control was imposed over them. There was also the exception of Libya, which was under Italian control.
What happened during the 100 years of the Sykes-Picot agreement? No changes were made to the borders outlined by the agreement, and these countries adhered to this borders and considered them sacred borders that represented the essence of their sovereignty making protecting them a national duty. On the other hand, critical changes were made in the legal situation, and some ruling systems in these countries. Some of the most prominent changes are the changes in the Palestinian territories, as the decision to divide Palestine was made followed by the consequential establishment of Israel, the successive Arab-Israeli wars, the complete occupation of Palestine, and the special situation in the Gaza Strip.
As for the rest of the region, the major changes were the independence of Sudan from Egypt and then the division of Sudan and the separation of the south. In Yemen, the south became independent after Britain withdrew from Aden followed by the unity of the north and south. In the Gulf, its emirates grew independent and then the UAE was established and consisted of a number of emirates grouped together in a federal union. As for the ruling systems, the monarchies in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia fell, however, no changes was made in the geopolitical situation in terms of the borders and sovereignty of the countries. Instead, they became more established.
So why is there controversy now surrounding the fall of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the restructuring of the region? Who will benefit from this? Is this actually possible or is it just a fantasy? Who are the parties in this controversy, or rather, who are the parties in the conflict over the Sykes-Picot agreement?
We must look for the parties that would benefit from the remainder of the Sykes-Picot agreement and those who would benefit from its fall, because this is frankly the core of the ongoing bloody conflict in the region.
Those benefitting from the remainder of the situation as is, are those in power in every country or entity. This is because as long as a state remains within the same borders, their authority will survive. Those in authority are the ones benefitting from the situation remaining the same, because as long as the situation is the same, they will remain in power. However, those who would benefit from the fall of the Sykes-Picot agreement are many. This includes those who are behind the Islamic Caliphate project, on the ruins of which Sykes-Picot was established. There are many behind the caliphate project, including extremist radical groups represented by Daesh, which already declared the establishment of a Caliphate in the areas it took control over in Iraq and Syria. There are also the groups representing moderate political groups, which also promote the caliphate project, but consider the project to be a postponed project that requires time to promote and requires various execution phases, between phases that are more extreme and others that are more moderate. Many groups and trends dream of the project and bless it and are preparing to join whoever succeeds in achieving it.
Other than those behind the Islamic caliphate project, there are nationalists behind the Arab unity project from the Gulf to the Ocean, who call for the fall of the Sykes-Picot agreement and consider it an imperialist colonial legacy that must be eliminated. There are also ethnic groups who believe that the Sykes-Picot agreement is an injustice that has befallen them and they seek to rectify it. The most prominent of these groups are the Kurdish groups who seek to establish a Greater Kurdistan and view it as a national dream.
The question remains, will the Sykes-Picot agreement fall 100 years after it was declared under the pressure of the turbulence and conflicts across the region, as well as the proposed new Middle East projects? The truth is that despite the fact that the geopolitical distribution set by France and Britain in the region, which produced mostly artificial entities which remained within the same authorities and borders, no one will benefit from re-drawing the Sykes-Picot borders or recognising its redrawing at the moment. Neither America nor Europe, Russia, or China wants this. It may be acceptable, and maybe desired for there to occur an internal dismantlement or the establishment of de facto ruling authorities in specific areas, but without a change in the international borders, the regional and international forces will intervene to help their allies in the internal conflicts and disputes. Such conflicts may remain ongoing as long as they remain within the borders drawn by the French and Britons 100 year sago. This explains the agreement amongst the major international and regional forces regarding maintaining the elements and main structures of the ruling systems in all of the countries that were subject to the winds of the Arab Spring.
Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 21 January 2016.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.