A few years back a group of Arab journalists was invited to the European Union headquarters in Brussels. The objective was to learn more about the EU’s MENA programme and the numerous grants Europe was offering the then-booming Middle East. One Palestinian participant could not hold back his anger, breaking into a fit of rage during one session and addressing his hosts, “Sir; do you know Sykes-Picot?”
The EU officials smiled, explaining that they were born long after both Mark Sykes and George Picot were dead.
Sykes-Picot agreement was in 1916; the confrontation in Brussels was at the turn of the 21st century. Not satisfied with the answer, the Palestinian journalist took out a huge map of the Middle East, tucked tightly in his pocket.
Eaten away at the edges because of age, the old map contained the borders of Sykes-Picot and spheres of influence of the European Great Powers; blue for French territory (Syria and Lebanon), red for that of Great Britain (Palestine and Iraq).
He broke into an animated monologue about the ills of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, banging his first for added emphasis. The EU wanted to speak about the future of the region; all he wanted was to find answers to the past. “Why did you do this to us?” he snarled.
The dramatic scene gives but a glimpse of how emotionally scarred and psychologically damaged Arabs are when it comes to the legacy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
This is especially true for the residents of Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, and of course Damascus. Referred to as “Anglo-French” treason, it is taught at all government schools from Grades 5 to 12.
Students are indoctrinated to believe that destroying Arab unity was the ultimate aim of Sykes and Picot.
If it weren’t for Sykes-Picot, the Arabs would have been powerful and united and Israel would not have existed in their midst.
Ebrahim Al Shaikh Fadli, a middle schoolteacher in Damascus, spoke to Gulf News saying: “We used to tell our students about the Sykes-Picot Agreement from an earlier age than Grade 5. It was slightly mentioned in grades 3-4. For the past 30 years it has been limited to Grades 5-6, 9-10, and 12.” Asked if his students still show interest in the subject, Fadli responded; “Strangely, and despite all that is happening around them, they still feel enraged by Sykes-Picot. If it were not for Sykes-Picot, they feel all of this wouldn’t have happened, not only to Syria but to Iraq as well. The events of the so-called Arab Spring have not overshadowed Sykes-Picot.”
Ironically on the agreement’s 100th anniversary, there is very little media attention or scholarly work as most Arabs feel ashamed that they were unable to maintain even the comical and artificial borders of Sykes-Picot. No television documentaries are being made, no academic books printed, and no cultural programs about the wrongs of Sykes-Picot.
Fahd Abdul Salam, a cab driver in central Damascus, scoffed when asked about the Sykes-Picot Agreement. “Yes, I heard something about that when in school may years ago but why should I care now? It’s history and I care more about the present. I am more interested in re-taking Aleppo than in liberating Jerusalem!”
Zena Al Khodor, a hospitality management student in Damascus, added: “I am too busy following the atrocities of Daesh in Raqqa. I almost forgot what Sykes-Picot was all about!”
If the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement was before 2011, then few people would have noticed or bothered to say anything about it. Only historians and scholars would have written anything about the famed agreement that gave the Middle East its present shape and form. Interestingly, it comes this May, at a time when these very same borders are collapsing and Levantines are desperately trying to salvage what they have refused for an entire century.
When the Sykes-Picot agreement was first announced a 100 years ago it took the Arabs by storm. They felt betrayed by Great Britain and France, the two countries that had promised them their independence once freed from 400 years of Ottoman rule.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, spoke to Gulf News saying: “Oddly the national borders that Arab nationalists rejected for the past 100 years have now become the object of great nostalgia. The vast majority of Syrians dream of retaining the borders imposed on them by Europe 100 years ago.”
This is difficult for the people of Syria, who have always been Arab nationalists at heart and believed that Damascus is the heart of the greater Arab world that spreads from the Arab Gulf to North Africa, via the entire Middle East. They never accepted the Sykes-Picot borders to start with. Some longed to reunite with neighboring Lebanon while consecutive governments tried to hammer out a Syrian-Iraqi Union in 1933, 1949, 1963, and 1979.
Others wanted to reunite southern Syria, or Palestine, with the Syrian motherland and President Shukri Al Quwatli famously called on Jordan to return to “Mother Syria” in 1946, claiming that its breakaway was orchestrated by foreign powers and thus both null and void. In 1958, Syria famously went a step further in challenging Sykes-Picot, merging with Jamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt and calling on other Arab states to challenge Sykes-Picot and do the same. The current borders of the region are temporary, they argued, and will be united by a single Arab nation. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine that these borders would erode and, instead of greater Arab unity, mini-states would emerge over the remains of Sykes-Picot.
Indeed, after five years of war, the Syria we once knew has collapsed into chaos, with the Syrian Government holding Damascus proper, entire chunks of central Syria, and the entire Syrian coast. Turkish-backed rebels hold the city of Idlib, Syrian Kurds control their three districts in the north-eastern province, while Daesh rules important cities like Al Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour along the Euphrates River. The same applies to war-torn Iraq, of course, where Daesh controls important cities like Mosul. Professor Landis adds, “Not only do they embrace the borders of ‘smaller’ Syria today, but they long for their return and fear that their future holds even greater fragmentation and confinement in yet smaller cantons.”
Khairieh Qasmieh, a veteran Palestinian history professor at Damascus University, adds: “The Sykes-Picot Agreement ignored the geographic, political and psychological of the region, and it neglected to address what the people of the region wanted in terms of Arab unity.”
Everything about the agreement is relevant to the world of today, but perhaps one aspect is acquiring more attention than others, thanks to Russia’s newfound role in the Middle East. Containment of Russia at the end of the First World War was gravely on the minds of decision-makers in Paris and London. When the British allocated parts of Arab land previously controlled by the Ottomans to the British, they wanted the French sphere of influence to extend all the way from the Mediterranean coast on the west to the east so that it paralleled and adjourned with Russian ambitions in the Middle East.
Boston University Professor David Fromkin, author of the classic, Peace to End all Peace, comments: “The French zone was to provide Great Britain with a shield against Russia. France and Russia would be balanced out against each other.”
Gulf News, 9 May 2016