Exactly One Hundred Years Ago Today, The Middle East’s Fate was Sealed
Let’s face it, the Middle East is in shambles. Syria is caught in a bloody civil war, Iraq loses ground to ISIS everyday, Lebanon deals with internal strife, the Gulf States are ruled by authoritarian governments, and there seems to be no resolution in sight between Israelis and Palestinians. Middle Eastern politics are… tumultuous to say the least. However the disasters unfolding today are products of a series of foreign policy blunders fashioned decades ago. The Middle East we see today did not unfold overnight, but is in fact, exactly one hundred years in the making.
On May 19, 1916 — exactly one hundred years ago — the ill-fated Middle East of today was conceived by French and British officials through the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The agreement carved up the Middle East into three zones of influence under British, French, and Russian control in the event of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. British interests were outlined by British Diplomat Sir Mark Sykes while French interests were ratified by his French counterpart Francois Georges Picot.
The borders seen today roughly follow the borders of the proposed boundaries mandated in the agreement. France was to gain control over the North Western half of the Middle East, exerting its influence in present day Syria and Lebanon. Britain on the other hand would take hold of the Palestinian Mandate, Trans Jordan, and most of modern day Iraq and Kuwait. The French’s longstanding commercial and Christian ties with Syria helped spur its desire for a colonial outpost in the Middle East, while the British sought after geographic influence over important trade routes in the region.
So what are the main problems caused by the Sykes-Picot Agreement? Besides having foreign powers exert their influence and dominance over native peoples, the reshaping of the cultural, national, and geo-political face of the Middle East was done so recklessly. European powers redrew boundaries on the basis of sectarian differences, and instilled animosity amongst different groups. Divide and conquer tactics used by the French marginalized ethnic and religious groups throughout Syria and Lebanon.
Borders were drawn arbitrarily, without consideration of the ethnic, religious, or socio-cultural interests and aspirations of the people who lived there. Arabs, Kurds, and other ethnic groups — who were already wary of Ottoman Rule — hoped to seek out self-determination and autonomy after five centuries of Turkish rule. Although they were promised independence for revolting against the Ottomans, Britain and France had no intentions of letting the region go.
As decades passed, Arabs rallied behind national and religious movements to repel European rule. Arab nationalism paved the way for authoritarian figures to uproot European-appointed leaders and institutions. Any differences in opinion would be quelled brutally and punitively. In response, dissenters rallied behind a unifying commonality that interconnected the entire Middle East: Islam. In time, these movements developed extremist branches that would eventually envelop the Middle East.
The results are apparent and widespread in the media today, showcased with images of violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Israel.
Today ISIS promises to erase the lines drawn by the Sykes-Picot and replace them with the boundaries of its new Caliphate. Sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites continues to take place in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Britain’s negligence and incompetency made it incapable of properly partitioning the Palestinian Mandate. To this day, Palestinians and Israelis still cannot compromise on how to divide the lands promised to both of them.
En fin, if British and French officials envisioned what would take place one hundred years after the agreement, one would wonder if any agreement would still take place. One thing is certain however, the role that the Sykes-Picot Agreement has had on destabilizing the Middle East is undeniably evident today. Let us hope that the next one hundred years are not also riddled with violence and bloodshed.
This post has been edited
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on May 19, 2016.