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British-French imperialism today: the Sykes-Picot legacy

June 12, 2024 at 9:48 am

A British Union flag on top of the Victoria Tower, part of the Houses of Parliament in London, UK, on Thursday, May 23, 2024. [Bloomberg via Getty Images]

In the 20th and 21st centuries, thirteen conflicts and wars have occurred between Israel and its neighbours. There have been three wars between close allies of Israel and neighbouring Arab countries. Each of these engagements can trace their origins back to the humiliation and contempt wrought upon the Middle East by Britain and France through the transgressions of the legacy of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. Today’s British and French imperialism in the Middle East stems from the “line in the sand” approach taken by Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot more than 100 years ago.

To witness the effects of Sykes-Picot in the Middle East, one need only consider the contemporary status of Lebanon as a nation state and France’s neocolonial behaviour towards the country and its people.

Following the devastating 2020 ammonium nitrate blast in Beirut, Human Rights Watch reported that 218 people had been killed, 7,000 were wounded and 300,000 were displaced. French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to be by Lebanon’s side always, exclaiming,

“France will never let Lebanon go.”

He was met with cries of “Vive la France!” It seems that the Lebanese people should, literally, take the French president at his word.

Lebanon’s economic and political difficulties have their genesis in the French-imposed confessional system. Similarly, its economic concerns are a consequence of Western created neo-liberal policies and the international rule-based order advocated by its “US vassals”, Britain and France.

It was not the Lebanese people who insinuated the country into the politics of the region for the purpose of ensuring France’s own political agenda. Corrupt Lebanese politicians in successive governments, trained and educated in France, certainly share the blame. However, there is an overarching issue also at play in the region: Western political hegemony, especially the French imperialist variety.

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During the Paris conference Macron “let it slip” when he tweeted that, “Lebanon’s future is being determined.” No doubt, but that has been the problem since the Mandate was allocated in 1923. The French president spoke the truth when he said this, but he failed to mention that it was being done without Lebanese input. This was reminiscent of Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, when the refrain was “…about us but without us”.

Lebanon’s future is again “being determined” in the Elysee Palace and the International Monetary Fund, via the Bretton Woods protocols. It’s the same old colonial system.

Western propaganda is, of course, playing its customary role in Lebanon by manufacturing consent in the minds of the populace. Just look at the Western media narrative around who is giving aid to Lebanon. Non-Western aid has barely been acknowledged in political, media or public discourse. Instead, the Paris conference amassed the overwhelming majority of political, media and public attention. This type of Western assistance undermines Lebanon’s potential for self-determination, endangering its future. It effectively keeps the Lebanese dependent on states that care little about them unless they decide to manipulate them to their own ends.

By fostering Europe’s political centrality, assistance to Lebanon is employed as a tool by the West to control the levers of political power.

For this reason, and through this mechanism of control and concealment, it is not only colonial, it is re-colonisation.

Historians date the beginning of British imperialism in the Middle East to 1798, the year Napoleon invaded Egypt. From this episode until decolonisation in the mid-twentieth century, British policies in the region reflected the interplay of Great Power rivalries and the balancing of strategic and economic interests, and they never left. In 1908, oil was discovered in Iran. From that point Britain became interested in the stability of the region for its own political agenda. It was mere political expediency, and it continues today.

The following excerpt from recounts T.E. Lawrence’s intelligence memo to his British superiors in 1916 demonstrating Britain’s then political leanings: “The Revolt is beneficial to us, because it marches with our immediate aims, the breakup of the Islamic ‘bloc’… The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks,” wrote the famed “Lawrence of Arabia”. “If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of cohesion.”

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It is interesting that the Sykes-Picot political divisions of the Fertile Crescent were based on strategic, commercial interests like oil. Today, the British psyche is a prime motivator in foreign policy decisions; perceived status and prestige in the world are pivotal drivers of British foreign policy. The decision makers are people with prestigious liberal educations and privilege which makes one wonder why British foreign policy in the Middle East abuses human rights and prioritises Britain’s power status over others.

Britain, far from being a true democracy, is actually more like a “cabal” that promotes the interests of a privileged elite. The idea that Westminster is the “mother of all parliaments”, setting forth a democratic model for the world, is a myth. Real power is under the auspices of an elite few who control policy-making institutions and the dominant ideas in society.

In 1976, Lord Hailsham termed the British system an “elective dictatorship” whose parliament is easily dominated by the government of the day which faces few constraints on its power. Yet, this was before former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher centralised decision-making still further, bypassing the cabinet regularly and relying on a small set of advisers.

British foreign policy-making is tightly controlled; a prime minister (with a handful of backing) can and does deploy troops worldwide without consulting “the mother of all parliaments”. Special forces, for example, are operating in Yemen now and in Syria (since 2011) despite parliament approving only air strikes against the Islamic State (Daesh) group in Syria and Iraq. The Guardian reported in 2019 that there remains almost no discussion on the matter by elected MPs.

As far as Gaza and the Palestinians are concerned, Nicola Perugini, a senior lecturer in international relations at Edinburgh University, asserts that, “Britain was the original sin.” The Balfour Declaration, he said in Open Democracy 2023, “was the moment that instituted the impossibility of political rights for Palestinians.”

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The British elite still see themselves as an empire and the appearance of having power is critical to their psyche. It’s just who they understand themselves to be; it’s their sense of identity. The “deep state” in Whitehall is deeply embedded; it, like the British in the Middle East, is seemingly there to stay. But so are the latent effects of Sykes-Picot, and the people of the region endure yet another year of humiliation from, and have contempt for, British and French Imperialism.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.