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How Britain and France laid the groundwork for Isis’s reign of terror in the Middle East

By Kim Sengupta

One hundred years ago this week, Sir Mark Sykes was at a meeting in Downing Street persuading Herbert Asquith’s War Cabinet to accept a plan he had drawn up with the French diplomat, François Georges-Picot, to carve up the Middle East between Britain and France.

Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, a Conservative MP from Yorkshire, had already played a part in one of the greatest disasters of the Great War for the allies, being the first to suggest to Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, that it would be a good idea to land troops in Gallipoli. 

The 36-year-old baronet had manufactured a reputation for himself as an expert on Islam. He claimed to speak Arabic and Turkish fluently but, in reality, spoke neither. He had also written a number of travel books which focused on the squalor of cities such as Damascus and Mosul and the general ineptitude of Arabs.

Picot, a lawyer who became a diplomat, the grand uncle of the future French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, used ardently to proclaim France’s “mission to civilise” and stress that “Syria was very near the heart of the French”.

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The terms agreed by Sykes and Picot, signed in 1916 under the official title of the Asia Minor Agreement meant that Britain reneged on a deal T E Lawrence had made with the Arabs, promising a homeland in return for help in fighting the Ottoman Empire. What happened became synonymous among the Arabs with Western perfidy; the anger and hatred sown continue to this day, as do the conflicts caused by the deal.

Isis, in its rampage through Syria and Iraq, has declared that one of its main goals is to right the wrongs of Sykes-Picot. It has even produced a video called “The End of Sykes-Picot”. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s “caliph”, in his address at the Great Mosque in Mosul pledged: “This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of Sykes-Picot.” In London, the recent Commons debate was about whether air strikes would be extended across the now non-existent Sykes-Picot border from Iraq to Syria, although one wonders if much was known about Sykes-Picot by many of the MPs present.

Sykes-Picot was the start of a whole series of European manoeuvres in dividing up Ottoman lands. It was followed by the Balfour Declaration which led to the creation of the state of Israel. Tsarist Russia was supposed to occupy Istanbul, and exercise controlling influence in Armenia and northern Kurdistan. Following the revolution, Lenin’s Bolshevik government found a copy of agreement in the Kremlin archives and made it public, savouring the outrage it caused in the Arab world.

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Kurdish as well as Arab aspirations were stymied by Sykes-Picot. Any chance of a change to it disappeared when the British discovered oil in Kirkuk. Today, as the upheavals in the Middle East have given fresh impetus to the hopes of an autonomous Kurdistan, the perceived iniquities of the agreement are again being aired loudly.

Masrour Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Security Council, maintains that the UK has a duty to arm Kurdish fighters because of the pact. “Britain had the greatest role in the creation of the modern Middle East. For how long do the Kurds have to pay for the mistakes that were made? We are victims of Sykes-Picot. How long do we have to be held hostage?” he asked. Two days ago, the chief of staff of the Syrian opposition umbrella group the Free Syrian Army (FSA), General Ahmed Berri, accused the Russians of supplying arms to the Kurdish PYD group, under the cover of fighting Isis.

The complaint highlighted the dysfunctional nature of the supposed coalition against Isis – both the FSA and the PYD’s militia wing, the YPG, are backed by the West against the extremists – but also traditional ethnic territorial rivalries between Arabs and Kurds. While denying that they were getting Russian weapons, a PYD official stressed its rights to take the fight wherever necessary. “We shall not be constrained by artificial restrictions when it comes to facing Daesh [Isis]. That will be abiding by Sykes-Picot which is now irrelevant.”

The Italian occupation of Libya, and the suppression of its population, was a spin-off from Sykes-Picot. The current semi-anarchic state of the country is due to another Anglo-French production, the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime for which David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were the chief cheerleaders.

Libya is now split between rival governments and rival militias. The West is desperate for a “unity government” so that the Isis expansion out of Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi’s home town, can be checked. The plan is for a 6,000-strong European force to be led by Italy with a UK contingent. The Isis presence is composed of local and foreign fighters, including hundreds arriving from Syria and Iraq. Weapons and fighters filter in and out of Sahel countries such as Mali, with Western-imposed borders largely obliterated.

Last month, William Hague, the former Foreign Secretary, acknowledged that Sykes-Picot may not have been a good idea after all. “The UK and our allies should signal their openness to new solutions,” he said. “The borders of Iraq and Syria were largely drawn by two British and French diplomats in 1916. They should not be considered immutable.”

It is not, however, easy to undo the damage that has been done by colonial greed and arrogance. The legacy of Sykes-Picot is not just the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa; it is in the jihad which has been coming to Paris and London with such devastating effect.


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