PARIS: The Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed a century ago on Monday, drew the borders of the modern-day Middle East from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, but has often been blamed for many of the region’s problems.
Two historians, in interviews with Agence France-Presse, address questions about the secret deal that are still being asked today.
Is the modern-day Middle East the direct descendant of this agreement?
Henry Laurens, a professor at the prestigious College de France university, said the Sykes-Picot borders were largely renegotiated between 1916 and 1922, so the initial map “bears no resemblance” to the current situation.
Sykes-Picot is often accused of having divided up the Arab world, but in fact the original text only foresaw the creation of “one or several Arab states” in the shared areas under French and British influence. The agreement makes no mention of “a Jewish state or of Lebanon,” the researcher said.
Palestine and Mosul — seized by the Islamic State jihadist group in Iraq — were supposed to be part of the areas under French influence.
But France renounced those areas in 1918 under pressure from Britain. It also renounced Cilicia (modern-day Turkey) when nationalist Turks liberated Anatolia between 1919 and 1922.
The original agreement was named after the two diplomats who drew them up, Britain’s Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot of France.
Laurens said the choice of the name Sykes-Picot “was a British invention to diminish the importance of the agreement because they no longer wanted to respect it,” especially when it came to Palestine.
In 1922, the League of Nations confirmed the mandates of Britain over Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq while France was given mandates over Syria and Lebanon. The modern-day countries of the region were born.
Is the Middle East still paying the price for these arbitrary borders?
“In some ways, yes,” said Jean-Paul Chagnollaud, a historian and author of a recently published French-language book about the roots of conflict in the Middle East called “Atlas du Moyen-Orient” (Atlas of the Middle East).
“On a symbolic level, the Sykes-Picot Agreement evokes a strong sensation in the collective memories of the peoples of the region, and that is humiliation… Decades later they have different problems but they all have their root, in some way or another, in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.”
Laurens disagrees, saying those countries should “stop having a feeling of victimhood”. Even if Arab nationalists denounced these arbitrary borders, “they were never seriously questioned because they actually suited everyone”, he argued.
He said the current instability in the region “is mainly linked to a perverse political system which keeps the region’s political life locked in a game of interference and involvement from regional and international powers” that has ancient roots.
Who were the big losers in Sykes-Picot?
Mainly the Palestinians and the Kurds, says Jean-Paul Chagnollaud. “Two arbitrary territorial divisions were imposed on populations, but the people and their identities were forgotten,” he said. That led to “states without a nation,” such as Jordan, or “nations without states.”
“The Kurds almost got a state. They obtained one in the Treaty of Sevres in August 1920, but the balance of power on the ground changed all that,” he said.
For the Palestinians, it was not Sykes-Picot but Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour’s letter on November 2, 1917, expressing the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, that sounded the death knell at that time for their ambitions.
Is it still possible to redraw the borders?
“Sykes-Picot imposed borders on peoples and things need to be put right — now it’s up to peoples to impose their will to create a state,” said Jean-Paul Chagnollaud.
He defends the Palestinians’ right to have their own state, and that of the Iraqi Kurds to exercise their right to self-determination “even if the conditions have not yet been met for the creation of a Kurdish state.”
When the Islamic State group unilaterally proclaimed a caliphate in 2014 spanning Syria and Iraq in 2014, it showed the jihadists were destroying a wall between the two countries and they talked about “breaking down the Sykes-Picot border.”
But as far as Henry Laurens is concerned, “IS did not abolish Sykes-Picot, on the contrary, it reinforced it” because the territory held by the extremist group now corresponds to the former zone under French influence which encircled Badiyat al-Sham, the Syrian desert.