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Sykes-Picot: Franco-British secret deal still divides Middle East

Sir Mark Sykes (L) and François Georges-Picot (R)
Sir Mark Sykes (L) and François Georges-Picot (R) Public domain/RFI

A hundred years ago a French and a British diplomat sat down to carve out the Middle East into countries and spheres of influence. The borders laid out by Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot, which have since shifted, still have an impact in the region today, both physical and symbolic.


In 1916, anticipating the end of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Picot and Sykes put to paper an agreement that would ensure that France and Britain got to control areas that held particular interest for them.

France would take control of an area that included current-day Lebanon, the Syrian coast and parts of what is now Turkey. Britain would get southern Mesopotamia - today's Iraq - including Baghdad, along with the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Acre.

There was to be an Arab state, or confederation, in between the two, under French and British protection. Palestine, including Jerusalem, was to be under international administration

Those borders have changed, but the Sykes-Picot agreement has been blamed for introducing artificial divisions in the region – what political scientist Karim Emile Bitar, of St Joseph’s university in Beirut, has called the Sykes-Picot syndrome.

He argues that the current problems in the Middle East should be considered in light of more recent history.

“Yes there was a conspiracy in 1916, which was traumatic,” he told RFI.

But “the time has come to stop focusing on this so-called issue of artificial borders. The alternative would be natural borders, which would be ethnic cleansing.”

This is a reference to proposals to divide the region along ethnic lines, creating a Kurdistan, and other countries bringing together the Shia or Sunni Muslim communities.

The Islamic State armed group is trying to create its own state or caliphate across the region. The group symbolically destroyed the so-called Sykes-Picot barrier between Iraq and Syria in 2014, using the destruction of the checkpoints as a propaganda tool.

But Bitar warns that the IS vision of a wide-reaching Islamic caliphate across the Middle East has nothing to do with others’ visions of a pan-Arab state.

"[IS] is a consequence of the fact that we neglected to foster pluralism and democracy in this part of the world,” he says.“We are witnessing a return to authoritarianism, identity politics and radical currents. But this should not lead us to say that it’s unrealistic to dream of liberalism and democracy.”

Redrawing borders?

While the Sykes-Picot can be criticised as contributing to the current crises in the Middle East today, Nicholas Danforth, a policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Centre in Washington, DC, says redefining borders would be unlikely to improve the situation.

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“Would you want bigger borders or smaller borders? Bigger countries or smaller?” he asks, giving the example of Syria, which at the time also had proponents of a big country bringing together the present-day country with Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and parts of Turkey.

“For many people, had it not been for the French and British, this was the true natural border,” he explains. But there would have been problems.

“These were areas where people had different ideas of their future. And many of the conflicts you see now – border disputes between Syria and Turkey; tensions between Israel and the rest of the region; conflicts between Maronite Christians in Lebanon and their neighbours – these problems would have been inherent no matter how you drew the borders.”


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