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The Sykes-Picot Agreement’s Regional Moment: Drawing Lines of Development in a New and Open Space

  • Karin Loevy (a1)

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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.

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References

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1 Consisting of the Prime Minister Asquith, Secretary of War Lord Kitchener, Secretary of Munitions Lloyd George and First Lord of the Admiralty Arthur Balfour, War Committee, Meeting held at 10, Downing Street, on Thursday, December 16, 1915, National Archives, CAB/24/1 1-7.

2 Id. at 2 (emphasis added).

3 Id. at 3.

4 Id. at 4.

5 Id. at 5.

6 According to that narrative, during the war Britain made conflicting assurances regarding the region’s future and thus created expectations for independence that informed the violent conflicts that followed on. See for example in Victor Kattan, From Coexistence to Conquest: International Law and the Origings of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1891-1949 (2009); Michael J Cohen, The Origins and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist Conflict (1987); Gideon Biger, The Boundaries of Modern Pal Estine, 1840-1947 (2004); Isaiah Friedman, Palestine, A Twice-Promised Land (2000); Sahar Huneidi, A Broken Trust: Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians, 1920-1925 (2001); Nick Reynolds, Britain’s Unfulfilled Mandate for Palestine 4–25 (2014).

7 For an introduction to the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, see Kedourie, Elie, In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth: The McMahon-Husayn Correspondence and its Interpretations, 1914–1939 (Routledge 2000). For an online full text of the corre spondence (consisting of ten letters), see The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, Jewish Virtual Library.

8 See Jukka Nevakivi, Britain, France, and The Middle East 1914–1920 2-33 (1969), Nevakivi sees the Sykes-Picot agreement as a direct continuation of British attempts to manage their relations with the Arabs (Id. at 22-26).

9 For a full text of the Agreement, see The Sykes-Picot Agreement, Jewish Virtual Library.

10 Id.

11 On 23 November 1917 Pravda and Izvestia began to publish the secret agreements including the various plans to partition the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire and the proposal to hand over Constantinople and the Straits to Russia. See James Bunyan & Harold Fisher, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917–1928: documents and Materials 24 (1934).

12 For a detailed description of the impact on Anglo-Arab relations, see Kedourie, supra note 7, at 159-184. For the Impact of the agreement on the shape of subsequent borders and regional relations, see International Relations of the Middle East (Fawcett, Louise ed., 2013).

13 A number of scholars have in recent years examined the idea of development in historical context (see: Gilbert Rist, The His Tory of Development: From Western Origin to Global Faith 35-40 (2008); Thomas McCarthy, Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development 42-68 (2009). For the context of Middle East colonial regional development, see The Syrian Land: Processes of Integration and Fragmentation: Bilad Ash-Sham from The 18th to the 20th Century (Philipp, Tomas & Schaebler, Birgit eds., 1998) and recently Jacob Norris, Land Of Progress: Palestine in the age of Colonial Development, 1905-1948 (2013).

14 Loevy, Karin, Reinventing a Region (1915-1922): Visions of the Middle East in Legal and Diplomatic Documents Leading to the Palestine Mandate, 49 Israel L. Rev. (forthcoming October 2016 ).

15 In the words of Elie Kedourie, “as lawyers, say, would argue over the wording of a contract or the proper construction of a statute,” Kedourie, supra note 7, at 4.

16 See supra note 8. The correspondence consists of a number of letters exchanged between Sir Henry McMahon the British high commissioner in Egypt and Sherif Hussein, the custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Very early on, the correspondence became the subject of conflicting interpretations and for more than half a century it “haunted Anglo-Arab relations”, Kedourie, supra note 7, at 3.

17 The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, supra note 7, translation of a letter dated 14 July 1915.

18 Id., translation of a letter from Hussein to McMahon, dated 24 October 1915.

19 The British were deliberately vague in expressing the particular political rule demanded and recognized. See, for example, Ronald Storr’s telegram from 14 May 1915 (quoted in Kedourie, supra note 7, at 25):

The expression “Arab Empire”, “Kingdom”, “Government”, “Possessions” etc. is used throughout the Sherifial correspondence, on both sides, in a general and undefined sense: and is variously rendered by the words Hukuma (Government) Mamlaka (Possesions) and Dawla (Power, Dynasty, Kingdom). Neither from these terms, nor from any phrase employed by H.M.G. throughout the negotiations, is it possible to elaborate any theory as to the precise nature of this vaguely adumbrated body.

20 The British Government, The Balfour Declaration, 2 November 1917:

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use its best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

21 See, for example, in Theodore Herzl’s 1876 plea to European Powers and particularly to the Ottoman rulers of Palestine, envi sioning a potent role for the Jews in the region:

If His Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey. We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence. The sanctuaries of Christendom would be safeguarded by assigning to them an extra-territorial status such as is well-known to the law of nations. We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfillment of this duty with our existence. This guard of honor would be the great symbol of the solution of the Jewish question after eighteen centuries of Jewish suffering.

Theodore Herzl, The Jewish State Chapter 2 (1876). For a detailed analysis of later Zionist regional visions, see Loevy, supra note 14.

22 See Loevy, supra note 14. The origin of the regional vision of Article 22 is traced from Wilson’s fourteen propositions, through its practical translation by a number of international commentators, architects of the league and the mandate system and particularly the South African General Jan Smuts’ December 1918 pamphlet which had tremendous influence on the final draft of Article 22 of the Covenant (The Pamphlet titled, The League of Nations: A Practical Suggestion (reprinted in David Hunter Miller, 2 The Drafting of the Covenant 23 (1928)), was termed “the most effective contribution made by individual enterprise” (Frederick Pollock, The League of Nations 77-78 (1920). Also see Smuts’ influence in the drafting process documented in Miller, Id. at 654-656; 679-681; 691-691. Note that while Wilson and other international reformers were promoting a form of anti-imperialism their geo-political im agination was very much in line with imperial images of a world divided into regional spheres of influence (see Loevy, supra note 14).

23 Covenant of the League of Nations art. 22(4).

24 Loevy, supra note 14.

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The Sykes-Picot Agreement’s Regional Moment: Drawing Lines of Development in a New and Open Space

  • Karin Loevy (a1)

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