Sykes-Picot 100 years on: “Homogenous nation-states don’t actually exist”

The present Middle East borders, particularly those of Iraq, “were not created with the stroke of a pen”. To follow the artificial state narrative “leads to one place: ethnic and sectarian cleansing.”  Interview with Princeton University postdoctoral fellow Sara Pursley. (Read more…)

© The Economist

On the morning of 16 December 1915, Sir Mark Sykes hurried into the Prime Minister’s official residence in Downing Street, in London, for a meeting.

The 36-years-old baronet, an “expert on the Middle East”, was called by H. H. Asquith to advise him on how to avoid the breakup of a “fragile alliance” between Britain and France after of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, defeated in World War I.

For the meeting with Asquith and other members of the war cabinet, the young Conservative MP, who would die from influenza four years later, “brought a map and a three page précis of what he was about to say”, writes James Barr in A Line In The Sand: Britain, France And The Struggle That Shaped The Middle East (Simon & Schuster, 2011).

Sykes vigorously defended an agreement in which London and Paris would divide the Ottoman spoils between them. And he was “the man to mastermind that deal”.

Among those who listened to this advice with much attention was Arthur Balfour, who led the British Government between 1902 and 1905.

“What do you mean to give [the French] exactly?,” he asked. “Sykes sliced his finger across the map that lay before them on the table. I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk”, he said.” (A Line In The Sand, page 12)

Sykes’ partner in this enterprise would be the 43-year-old lawyer François Georges-Picot, a man who, according to James Barr, “had in his blood the belief in France’s imperial ‘civilising mission’”. On 16 May 1916, after many negotiations and disagreements, deadlocks and failures, the two men signed a “shameful” secret pact.

“Territory north of the line drawn by Sykes – from Acre, on the Mediterranean coast to Kirkuk near the Persian frontier – would come under French protection [or “influence sphere “]; territory to the south, the British protection.”

“Within each of these two areas, France and Britain would establish full control. The ‘Blue’, French, zone encompassed the Syrian and Lebanese coast, mushrooming into modern Turkey to the north. The ‘Red’ zone, British, expanded the existing bridgehead in southern Iraq up to Baghdad and, separately, covered the port of Haifa. Palestine was designated the colour brown. The two parties sought the approval of their ally Russia.”

Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916Royal Geographical Society (Map), Mark Sykes & François Georges-Picot (Annotations) Collections of The National Archives (United Kingdom)

Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and “areas of control and influence” agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. © Collections of The National Archives (United Kingdom)

After one hundred years, many analysts still deem the Sykes-Picot Agreement as the “source of all evils”. Not Sara Pursley, historian of Iraq and Princeton University postdoctoral fellow, who counters prevailing myths.

“My point about maps and the real world was that maps are part of the real world,” said Sara Pursley, in an email interview. “There’s this very weird idea that the current borders are somehow less real than some imaginary borders that don’t exist and that nobody would ever be able to agree on, because people don’t live in little conveniently bounded homogeneous communities.”

In what concerns the Iraq’s borders, she added: “They are what we have. They are what exist. They were not created in 1916 with the stroke of a pen, which is why they don’t actually look very much like the Sykes-Picot map, a bizarrely ignored fact.”

“Iraq’s borders were created over many decades, through a lot of violence. It’s how all nation-state borders have been created. If they are to be re-created, that will require a lot more violence. People should think about that before they advocate the ‘re-drawing’ of borders, whatever that means.”

Quoting from her own article in Jadaliyya (here and here), Sarah Pursley clarifies: “The belief that Iraq was a colonial imposition is simply false, historically speaking. There were some Kurdish demands to not be included in Iraq, but there were no demands for separate Shia and Sunni states, and both Iraqi and so-called Arab nationalists supported the creation of Iraq’s border with Syria in the 1920s.”

“At that time, the notion that Iraq was an artificial entity was almost entirely a colonial discourse, used to argue that Iraq was not yet coherent enough to govern itself and must therefore be governed by Britain.”

Sir Mark Sykes in 1913. © HultonArchive | Getty Images

Sir Mark Sykes in 1913
© Hulton Archive | Getty Images

The question of Iraqi Kurdistan is “a different issue” for the researcher who works on the cultural and social history of modern Middle East. “Iraqi Kurds have some very good historical reasons to find rule from Baghdad unacceptable.”

“This story is a tragedy with particular historical roots. I certainly don’t see it as the inevitable outcome of people of different ethnicities living within the same borders. In fact, an argument repeatedly made by Kurds who are striving for their own state is that they will not seek homogeneity within that state but will welcome Christian, Arab, and other minorities. If they do succeed in establishing a separate state, I hope that will be the case.”

No one should compare “an indigenous nationalist movement with a very long history demanding an independent state”, with those in the West “imagining that, for example, separate states for Sunnis and Shia in Iraq would be a good idea, just because it would make for less ‘artificial’ and more stable states.” This is “a horrible idea, one with no historical foundation”.

It is “pretty obvious that without some current disaster to explain, the artificiality of Iraq’s borders would be as forgettable as that of the borders of most nation-states. But the problem remains that the borders are just not a good explanation for the disaster.”

“Nation-states with ethnically and/or religiously homogenous populations don’t actually exist, in spite of many pretty unsavory attempts to create them: ethnic cleansing, genocide, and so on,” Sara Pursley said. “Nobody should be encouraging anybody to try to create a homogeneous state – it is one of the worst ideas humans have ever come up with.”

“The logic of the artificial state narrative, in its dominant manifestation today, is the logic of ethnic cleansing. This is what we should be learning from the ‘Islamic State’ [IS/Daesh]: that following the artificial state narrative to its logical conclusion leads to one place – and that place is not peace in the Middle East but the violence of ethnic and sectarian cleansing.”

François Georges-Picot © L'Illustration, n° 3908, 26 January 1918

François Georges-Picot
© L’Illustration, N° 3908, 26 January 1918

Daesh proclaimed “the end” of the centennial covenant also known as the Asia Minor Agreement, shortly after taking over the Iraqi city of Mosul, on 10 June 2014, but Sarah Pursley rectified this death certificate. “The borders of the region claimed by IS are closer to the Sykes-Picot map than are the internationally recognized borders between Iraq and Syria.”

“The reason is simple: Sykes-Picot put the western half of Iraq’s Mosul province – the region IS considers to be its ‘Ninawa province’ – in Syria, not Iraq. By joining that province with Syria, IS was fulfilling Sykes-Picot, not undermining it. This is glaringly obvious to anyone who actually looks at the two maps – which apparently most recent commentators on Sykes-Picot do not.”

Why has the West been so comfortable with the idea that it was/is the only agent contributing to decades of “ethnosectarian” wars in the Middle East, ignoring the role played by Turks and Arabs and clearing them of any responsibility?”

To this question, Sarah Pursley reacted: “A prevalent Western belief is that the region is inherently dominated by primordial ethnosectarian sentiments, and that somehow it is up to the West to create borders that conform to that belief.”

“Not many people seem to think that states in the West should try to make themselves ethnically or religiously homogeneous, at least not since Nazi Germany’s attempt. Yet many Westerners seem to believe that that is somehow the appropriate form for states in the Middle East. It is essentially a racist idea, based on the notion that civic identities are only possible for some people.”

“What is relevant about the Sykes-Picot moment (1916) is that the British military had already occupied the Ottoman province of Basra and was battling Ottoman forces for control of Baghdad. It was a very violent occupation. As far as those two provinces are concerned (the red area on the Sykes-Picot map), Sykes-Picot was simply illustrating the military reality on the ground.”

Why, then, all the focus on the map, rather than the actual occupation? “I think by imagining they were responsible for the God-like drawing of maps, and pretending to beat themselves up over it, Western actors are actually not taking responsibility for more tangible acts of violence, both then and now. I do agree that there is also a refusal to acknowledge the agency of local actors. The ignoring of that role again goes back to racism.”


This article was originally published in the Portuguese newspaper EXPRESSO, on May 14, 2016

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