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In case anyone doubted that history is relevant

A map of the land division set out in the Skyes-Picot AgreementIt may be weird, but remains true, that the Middle East is still convulsed by the implications of a little known diplomatic agreement hammered out 100 years ago this week.


Even a history buff, let alone a professional historian, might be taken aback at how directly relevant to contemporary Middle East conflicts were two secret diplomatic  agreements reached during WW I. That’s right, 100 years ago. Even the Versailles Treaty, which imposed onerous conditions on Germany, which aided the rise of Hitler and fomented WW II, seems so distant in impact. WW II, after all, ended 71 years ago and has since long been eclipsed by the EU, the collapse of the USSR and the rise of nuclear weapons and of terrorism.

But the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916)? The Hussein-McMahon-Hussein correspondence (1915)? Really. Does anyone but the professional historian even remember these arcane diplomatic forays of WW I? The answer, it turns out, is yes — with a vengeance. Partisans on many sides of the Middle East conflict look back to these two diplomatic agreements, such as they were, as the root cause of much of the turmoil still roiling the region 100 years later.

There is even a full-blown conference in Jerusalem this week, replete with ambassadors from Germany and France, with university presidents and professors from Israel, Turkey, England and the US: “100 Years Since the Sykes-Picot Agreement: Lessons for the Middle East.”

“Sykes” was Britain’s Sir Mark Sykes, not a professional diplomat. “Although well born, the scion of an affluent Catholic family of Yorkshire, Sykes had abandoned his studies at Cambridge for a free-ranging career as traveler through the Middle East and had written several rather erratic volumes of observations on the area. He spoke Arabic easily, if not grammatically, and in 1911, elected to the Commons on the Tory ticket, he became his party’s acknowledged authority on Islam and the Middle East” (historian Howard Sachar’s The Emergence of the Middle East, to which we owe other facts, formulations and the map).

“Picot” was Francois Georges-Picot, the former French consul general in Beirut, and now special adviser to the Quai d’Orsay on Middle Eastern affairs.

Armed with a long list of inflexible demands by their respective governments, Sykes and Picot met 100 years ago this week and hammered out an agreement to divvy up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire — this, mind, you, while the war was not going well for the Allies.

Also mind you, there was substantial duplicity by the British (on which more below).

Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, both Britain and France would take for themselves major segments of the Middle East, and would further assert “indirect influence” over segments of the rest. (See map.)

Britain took the north Persian Gulf, the Tigris-Euphrates crescent up to and including Baghdad, and the Kirkuk oil region. This was supposed to be territory for a new Arab state, which Britain would control and supervise. Britain’s region of indirect influence encompassed southwestern Mesopotamia and most of Transjordan and southern Palestine to Sinai.

France took Syria, Lebanon and Cilicia, where French religious orders had established schools, colleges and hospices — Marians, Dominicans, Lazarists, Franciscans, Trappists, Benedictines and others. France’s region of indirect influence would be the large area south of its direct control.

Observe: No assumption of local control or independence was made by either Britain or France.

Further observe: Where was Palestine in all of this? France demanded it. Britain pushed back, and not just out of imperial design. While Sir Mark Sykes was divvying up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire, Britain had already divvied up some of them in 1915 in a separate, secret agreement known as the Hussein-McMahon correspondence.

“McMahon,” as in Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt. “Hussein,”as in Emir Hussein ibn Ali al-Hashimi, ruler of the Hejaz and sherif of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina by virtue of a blood connection which his Hashimite dynasty traced back to Muhammad.

Under the heat of war with its expectation of major changes in the Ottoman Empire, both Hussein and Britain were angling for control of the spoils. But which side should Hussein bet on? And what enticements did he have at his disposal? Long story short, he convinced the British that he could mount a powerful “Arab uprising” against the Ottomans, in return for which he expected territory — lots of it. The British complied with promises, including Palestine and Syria, Arabia and Mesopotamia.

So while Picot was demanding of Sykes this very territory, Sykes was in a bind — who exactly would Palestine belong to? If it sounds like a familiar question, the contemporary relevance of seemingly arcane discussions 100 years ago begins to acquire its bite.

And that’s only the beginning of the bite. Who, in fact, would all of those other territories — supposedly to be under British and French control, direct and indirect, end up in the hands of? It was naive of both  sides to believe they could actually control this vast region. Instead of a single Arab state under its control, wily Emir Hussein ibn Ali al-Hashimi ended up wrangling several states out of the British, among them Jordan and Iraq — both totally artificial creations meant to resolve Hussein’s family politics, and in response to an almost totally artificial record of an “Arab uprising,” led by the flamboyant and hyperbolic “Lawrence of Arabia,” one Thomas Edward Lawrence, whose experience eerily resembled that of Mark Sykes.

The so-called Arab uprising was actually a very minor affair, with very limited results on behalf of the British against the Ottomans, but it was invoked — and is still invoked — as the justification of the Arabs to Palestine. That the British ended up issuing the Balfour Declaration in 1917, envisioning a “Jewish national home” in Palestine, and accepted a League of Nations mandate over Palestine in 1922, became the leitmotif of Western imperialistic betrayal of the Arabs, in favor of the Jews, in Palestine.

Of course, the irony here is stinging. It was this same “Western imperialism” that created all of Hussein’s — and other Arab leaders’ — Arab states that soon enough would become independent. The hypocrisy is sharp: Western imperialism was a useful instrumentality when it granted Arabs independence, but a malevolent instrumentality when it did the same for Jews.

Not to mention, the territories carved up for the Arabs — their borders entirely artificial — were larger than the territory for the Jews by millions of square miles.

Incidentally, among Hussein’s demands of the British were that he personally be awarded public recognition as “caliph.” Also incidentally, who was Sir Henry McMahon’s chief British adviser? None other than Sir Mark Sykes, he who later negotiated some of this same territory with France’s Francois Georges-Picot. But even while negotiating with Hussein, Britain coveted Palestine. Excepted from the huge territories it promised Hussein — Syria, Arabia, Mesopotamia — were “those portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo.” Where exactly is that? This vague diplomatese signals another familiar question of contemporary relevance: What are the borders of Israel?

What, for that matter, is “international law” that fixes these and other Middle East borders? Ottoman borders? British borders? French borders? League of Nations borders? British borders as defined in the correspondence with Hussein? British borders as defined in the agreement with Picot? The fact is, international “law” is but a vaguery inextricably entwined in the politics, promises, deceptions and betrayals of two sets of diplomatic forays, the first 101 years ago, the Hussein-McMahon correspondence; and the second 100 years ago, the Sykes-Picot agreement.

It is no wonder that diplomats and academics are gathering in Jerusalem 100 years later still trying to hash out the implications of an agreement triggered by the vast political and geographical upheavals of WW I.

Never doubt that history is relevant. Its bite is particularly poisonous in the Middle East.

Copyright © 2016 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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