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Although their motivations varied, many senior British officials who were expert in imperial and Middle-Eastern matters condemned the Sykes-Picot treaty as a mistake almost as soon as it was signed. T.E. Lawrence wanted the British government to repudiate it and was assured by Gilbert Clayton, the head of the Arab Bureau in Cairo, in a letter he wrote to Lawrence in 1917, that “‘It is in fact dead and, if we wait quietly, this fact will soon be realized’.” Lord Curzon denounced the treaty as “not only obsolete ‘but absolutely impracticable,’” and further declared that only “gross ignorance” could account for the boundary lines in the treaty. Sir Mark Sykes was said to be ashamed of his involvement in the Treaty that was to bear his name. Despite these efforts, so soon after its birth, to announce the demise and irrelevance of Sykes-Picot, its complex, variegated, and evolving legacy has survived and is still very much with us.
The Sykes-Picot agreement is the foremost example of Western double-dealing in the Middle East since the discovery of oil. The agreement, formalized in an exchange of notes between the British Foreign Secretary and the French Ambassador to the United Kingdom in London, is named after its principal negotiators Sir Mark Sykes (1879-1919) and Georges-Picot (1870-1951). As one of several overlapping arrangements affecting the postwar settlement in West Asia secretly negotiated during the First World War, the agreement provided for the division of the region into spheres of influence comprised of nominally independent Arab states under the “tutelage” of British and French advisers.
A century after they met to conclude a secret agreement dividing Ottoman territories into British and French zones of influence, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot have been back in the news. Images of an ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) bulldozer rolling over a small section of the frontier between Syria and Iraq in order to destroy the “Sykes-Picot” border shone a spotlight on the agreement. Western commentators reflecting on the centenary of the agreement have tended to share the view that colonial borders bear a share of responsibility for the ills of the region. The underlying argument is that the “artificial” boundaries drawn by European colonial powers produced faultlines that have driven subsequent conflicts.
What was the geopolitical scale of the Sykes-Picot agreement (May 1916)? What did the British and French mid-level officials who drew lines on its maps imagine as the territorial scope of their negotiations? This essay claims that the Sykes-Picot agreement cannot be understood strictly as the beginning of a story about territorial division in the Middle East, but also as an end of a story of perceived regional potency. Rather than a blueprint for what would later become the postwar division of the region into artificially created independent states, the Sykes-Picot agreement was still based on a powerful vision of a broad region that is open for a range of developmental possibilities. This forgotten regional aspect of the Middle East’s colonial history should be revisited today in view of the disintegration of its more obvious legacies. Perhaps the significance of the Sykes Picot agreement is not strictly the enduring impact of its “lines in the sand” but rather the light it sheds on the roots of a more regional oriented system.
The Sykes–Picot agreement embodies a certain style of diplomacy: an assumption of European predominance, given expression through cartographic line-drawing, terms of art (“protection,” “independence,” “interests”), and a structural secrecy which kept agreements from rival European powers, on the one hand, and from the peoples most affected, on the other. It is this element of secrecy that constitutes the focus of the present contribution. I situate the Sykes–Picot agreement in a prewar pattern of secrecy as diplomatic technique, explore its role in spurring a new regime of publicity for treaties, and take it as a touchstone for exploring whether this new regime could achieve a fundamental transformation of prevailing modes of diplomacy.
Even before its hundredth year anniversary on 16 May 2016, the Sykes-Picot agreement had become a widely cited historical analogy both in the region itself and in Europe and the United States. In the Middle East, it is frequently deployed as an infamous example of European imperial betrayal and Western attempts more generally to keep the region divided, in conflict, and easy to dominate. In Europe and the United States, however, its role as a historical analogy is more complex—a shorthand for understanding the Middle East as irrevocably divided into mutually hostile sects and clans, destined to be mired in conflict until another external intervention imposes a new, more authentic, set of political units on the region to replace the postcolonial states left in the wake of WWI. What is notable about both these uses of the Sykes-Picot agreement is that they fundamentally misread, and thus overstate, its historical significance. The agreement reached by the British diplomat Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, in May 1916, quickly became irrelevant as the realities on the ground in the Middle East, U.S. intervention into the war, a resurgent Turkey and the comparative weakness of the French and British states transformed international relations at the end of the First World War. Against this historical background, explaining the contemporary power of the narrative surrounding the use of the Sykes-Picot agreement becomes more intellectually interesting than its minor role in the history of European imperial interventions in the Middle East.