Sykes-Picot at 100: the failure of nation states

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, along with the 1915 promises to Sherif Hussein of Mecca and the 1917 Balfour Declaration, was one of three British promissory notes issued during the First World War which shaped the political geography of the modern Middle East. It ensured that the region would remain under imperial tutelage once the Ottoman Empire […]

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, along with the 1915 promises to Sherif Hussein of Mecca and the 1917 Balfour Declaration, was one of three British promissory notes issued during the First World War which shaped the political geography of the modern Middle East. It ensured that the region would remain under imperial tutelage once the Ottoman Empire had been defeated.

As a classic imperial spheres of influence agreement, it laid down which areas would fall under British and French control, although the final territorial outcome differed somewhat from what had been agreed by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot.

The view in London over the next couple of years was that too much had been conceded to the French, and that Britain needed a strategic buffer in Palestine for the security of the Suez Canal. In consequence the provision under the Sykes-Picot Agreement that Palestine should be placed under an Anglo-French-Russian condominium was set aside in favour of the Balfour Declaration. But France gained its main objective of Syria, which it proceeded to divide into the modern Syria and Lebanon. Emir Feisal and Emir Abdullah were compensated with the crowns of the two British creations of Iraq and Transjordan.

In his biography of Feisal, Ali Allawi says the agreement mixed “the implausible and unsustainable together with the downright stupid”, with relatively advanced populations along the Syrian coastlines and to a lesser extent around Baghdad and Basra placed under direct rule, while desert lands with nomadic populations gained independent status.

No less important, Sykes-Picot also ensured that the post-Ottoman Middle East would be divided along European lines into nation states. The nation state model, however, was ill-suited to provide a substitute for the Ottoman millet system which had ensured the security of the region’s many minorities, a failure at the root of many of the region’s current problems.

Peter Mangold is the author of What the British Did: Two Centuries in the Middle East.

Source: art & life

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