Ian Black, theguardian.com
Image from article, with caption: When Islamic State fighters broke through the desert border between Iraq and Syria they triumphantly pronounced the death of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
The agreements that shaped the region may be forgotten in the west, but in the Middle East their significance still looms large
In 2014, when Islamic State fighters broke through the desert border between Iraq and Syria – flying black flags on their captured US-made Humvees – and announced the creation of a transnational caliphate, they triumphantly pronounced the death of Sykes-Picot. That gave a half-forgotten and much-misrepresented colonial-era deal a starring role in their propaganda war – and a new lease of life on Twitter.
Half truths go a long way: the secret agreement between Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in May 1916 divided the Ottoman lands into British and French spheres – and came to light only when it was published by the Bolsheviks.
It also famously contradicted earlier promises made by the British to Sharif Hussein of Mecca before he launched what TE Lawrence called the “revolt in the desert” against the Turks. It did not draw the borders of Arab states – that came later – but it has become a kind of convenient shorthand for western double-dealing and perfidy.
And it was undermined too by the Balfour Declaration in November 1917 – mourned for decades by Palestinians remembering how “his Majesty’s government viewed with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people” when Zionism was a novel response to European antisemitism and Jews a small minority in the Holy Land.
Looking ahead, officials in the UK Foreign Office are brainstorming anxiously about how to mark these agreements. It is far harder than remembering the first world war’s military anniversaries – Flanders, Gallipoli, the Somme – because while British and allied sacrifices and heroism can be celebrated and honoured, these were political acts that have left a toxic residue of resentment and conflict.
Pro-Palestinian campaigners have demanded Britain apologise for Balfour’s pledge – but that seems unlikely given that it was made in very different circumstances from today and cannot be undone. It and the other wartime agreements are likely to feature in statements and public diplomacy designed to generate a “more nuanced understanding” of the UK’s controversial historical role.
The focus on Sykes-Picot – famously based on drawing a line “from the ‘e’ in Acre [now in northern Israel] to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk [in Iraq]” – is because of the argument that states have lost their legitimacy or cohesion in the bloody years of the Arab spring. Kurds in Iraq, autonomous since 1991, emphasise this, though they are the exception. Syria seems to be facing de facto partition but that is because of five years of vicious civil war, not because it is seen as an “artificial” colonial creation.
In fact, many historians insist – flatly contradicting Isis propaganda – that the post-first world war Arab nation states have proved remarkably resilient. And it is wrong to portray the jihadis, as the Iraq expert Reidar Visser has put it, “as the implementers of some kind of deep-rooted popular urge for pan-Arab and pan-Islamic unity that supposedly pulls the Syrian and Iraqi people towards each other”. ...