Reflections on the 100th Anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement


Monday marks 100 years since the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France. With the then-secret agreement, they planned to divide up much of the Mideast between them at the end of World War I, which was still going on at the time. This post was the result of an interview conducted by accuracy.org, an independent media outreach organization.

JAMES PAUL james.paul.nyc at gmail.com Author of Syria Unmasked, Paul was executive director of Global Policy Forum, a think tank that monitors the UN, for nearly 20 years. He was also a longtime editor of the Oxford Companion to Politics of the World and executive director of the Middle East Research and Information Project.

He said today: “This is an opportunity to take the long view and see how Western powers have shamelessly drawn and redrawn Mideast borders as it suited their purposes. The story includes not only Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot but also T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill and many more. The redrawing borders continued after Sykes-Picot when the British seized Mosul Province from the French in 1918 by continuing fighting north and westward after the Armistice had been announced. Today in Washington there continues to be discussions of ethnically-based redrawing of borders in Iraq and Syria and the Kurds are part of this discourse, while oil remains the main driver.” See video about Sykes-Picot featuring Rashid Khalidi and other scholars.

RICHARD DRAKE, richard.drake at mso.umt.edu, @rrdrakesr Professor of history at the University of Montana, Drake’s books include The Education of an Anti-Imperialist: Robert La Follette and U.S. Expansion about how the noted U.S. progressive awoke to the realities of U.S. foreign policy.

In his piece “This Is When Muslims in the Middle East Turned to Extremism,” Drake writes: “T. E. Lawrence, another eyewitness to the Paris Peace Conference [1919], recorded his impressions of the treachery that annihilated the legitimate hopes of the Arabs for independence. Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the account of his exploits as ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ is a book chiefly about betrayal, his own and that of Britain in dealing with the Arabs. He presents himself as a double agent, ostensibly fighting for Arab freedom while really working for the British Empire. …

“He described the negotiations as the culmination of deep-laid plans of imperialist exploitation. British and French colonial policy, enshrined in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, completely eclipsed the rights of the Arabs, as he had feared all along would be the case. The Balfour Declaration [1917] granting a homeland to the Jews in Palestine set a second seal on the fate of the Arabs. Oil, empire, and Zionism formed an invincible combination against them. Violence erupted in Palestine in 1920. It has not finished yet.

“That same year, in August, the Treaty of Sèvres made its long-deferred appearance, sixteen months after the Middle East first came up for discussion at the Paris Peace Conference. Sèvres took the form of a diktat even more draconian than the one inflicted on Germany. The Ottoman Empire ceased to exist, its territories stripped away by Great Britain, France, and Italy in blatant repudiation of the Fourteen Points.”

Drake writes in “The Hope and Ultimate Tragedy of the 1919 King-Crane Report” of an altogether different effort: “The King-Crane Report, a little-known and even less understood historical document, prophetically warned of the conflicts raging in the Middle East today. Created during the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference by President Woodrow Wilson, the King-Crane Commission set out in May 1919, to determine ‘the real wishes and true interests’ of the people in the Middle East. President Wilson, chief among the victors at the conference, which opened in January of that year, had become concerned by reports of Arab restiveness.

“The Arabs had hoped for fair and generous treatment under the auspices of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, reputed to be the moral foundation of the Peace Conference. In his famous address of January 1918, the president had proclaimed a new agenda in international relations, including open covenants openly arrived at and — most welcome from the Arab viewpoint — ‘an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development’ for nationalities under Turkish rule.

“Yet in Paris, the open covenants principle soon gave way to closed-door decision-making, and months went by without any word about the fate of the Arab lands long held by the defeated Ottoman Empire. …

“To lead the commission, Wilson chose … [Henry] King, the president of Oberlin College, [who] subscribed to Wilson’s vision of the war as a righteous struggle for democracy against German militarism. … Millionaire businessman Crane had been a major donor to the president’s political campaigns and a close adviser. Since the 1870s, he had traveled extensively in the Middle East and knew the region well. He, too, viewed the Fourteen Points as a sacred pledge for a moral renewal of mankind. …

“King and Crane feared that Zionism and imperialist policies of the Allies would introduce unprecedented mayhem into the Middle East and give an excuse for a pan-Islamist movement. They counseled that it would be wiser to respect the Arabs and work for the economic and moral uplift of the entire region than to appear before them as the worst kind of conquerors: exploiters mouthing fine phrases having nothing at all to do with the fundamental realities of their colonial rule.

“The final sentence of an appendix to the King-Crane Report echoed the many assertions scattered throughout the document about the crucial need for the West to adopt an intelligent and judicious policy toward the Arabs: ‘Dangers may readily arise from unwise and unfaithful dealings with this people, but there is great hope of peace and progress if they be handled frankly and loyally.’”

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