Sykes-Picot at 100: Arabs must take the lead
It is fashionable these days to deride the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. One surveys the Middle East today with a shudder, recalls the great Anglo-French carve-up of the region and perhaps and asks what on Earth were they thinking?
We are all familiar with the charge sheet against the great Anglo-French carve-up: above all, the double-dealing, promising the Arabs freedom and independence with one breath while contracting a secret deal to divide the spoils of the Ottoman Empire between them the next. Little wonder the Bolsheviks leaked the agreement to the intense embarrassment of the British, the glee of the Ottomans and the dismay and anger of the Arabs. Let us not forget the Kurds either, who were robbed of a national state by this bilateral agreement. Woodrow Wilson’s call for the “consent of the governed” to be honoured was studiously ignored by Britain and France then and – let us be honest – by Arab leaders ever since.
At the risk of being counter-intuitive, could one not suggest that one of the most extraordinary things about Sykes-Picot has been its longevity? That in itself might constitute a certain success in such a turbulent region. Criticism of Sykes-Picot is eminently understandable in 2016. One man’s realpolitik is another’s downright shabbiness.But we should not forget that the world then looked rather different from both London and Paris, and great power rivalry and influence were then straightforward matters of fact. The Ottomans may have been more sensitive to their co-religionists as imperial overlords but they were hardly saints when it came to ‘good governance’ in the Middle East, another 21st century preoccupation.
It is no apology for Sykes-Picot to observe that it is too easy to lump all the problems of the Middle East at the feet of Britain and France. That would be to suggest that we are merely prisoners of history rather than masters of our own destiny. Try telling that to countries scarred by colonialism in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Unlike too much of the Arab world, they have moved on.
If there is a lesson to be learned for a new settlement for Syria, and perhaps Iraq, it is surely the resounding echo of Wilson’s “consent of the governed”. Arab leaders, supported by the international community, must rise to the occasion.
Justin Marozzi is the author of Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.
Updated: May 12, 2016 04:00 AM