Hundred years of the Sykes-Picot Treaty
By Lal Khan
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has once again pushed Syria’s colonial past to the fore. More than ever, sectarian violence is increasingly coming to characterize a country with one of the Middle East region’s richest and most extensive histories of religious and cultural diversity. The Middle East has been frequently afflicted with war since then, but the situation now—with ISIS holding territory in Iraq, Syria and across the Fertile Crescent, civil war in Syria, government paralysis in Lebanon, a rapid shift towards authoritarianism in Turkey, and possibility of another intifada in Palestine against brutal Israeli occupation and repression has inspired particular debate on the century-old agreement’s legacy.
The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution
The two British and French mandarins signed the agreement behind closed doors. Had it not been for the 1917 Russian Revolution it would have remained secret and the two colonial powers would have continued with their deceit and plunder unhindered. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution exposed this sorry tale of intrigue that serves as a reminder of how imperial powers conducted deceitful closed-door diplomacy and how fast cloak and dagger handshakes can cause the public backlash. With the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II in Russia in February 1917 and the subsequent demise of the Kerensky’s provisional government, the Russian working class under the leadership of the Bolsheviks took power through the greatest event in human history, the Russian Revolution of November 1917 — the same month the Balfour Declaration was being announced. The Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, came across the Sykes–Picot agreement gathering dust in one of the many archives of the Kremlin. Lenin called this agreement a “treaty of the colonial thieves’.”
The uncovering and publication of this imperialist conspiracy by the Bolshevik government proved that the foreign policy of the Bolsheviks was based on the concerns of the oppressed classes on the basic Marxist principle of ‘workers of the world unite’. The principles of their foreign policy were based on class solidarity rather than narrow national interest. Their policy was to strive to achieve unity of the struggle of the toilers across man-made borders rather than on the basis of nationalism or the nation states where the vested interests of the ruling classes determine the friendships and enmities between the countries.
On November 23, 556 days after the deal was signed, Trotsky, the former chairman of the Petrograd Soviet during the Russian Revolution and in his capacity as a Peoples Commissar for Foreign Affairs, published the Treaty in the Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia. This revelation by the Bolshevik revolutionary government shook the imperialists and the treachery against their ‘Arab allies’ was exposed far and wide. Foreign correspondents in Moscow ran with the story as they relayed back to their eager editors at home. In Britain, it was the Manchester Guardian that was first to break the news of the Sykes-Picot Agreement to the English-speaking world on 26 and 28 November 1917.
The publication of the Sykes–Picot secret treaty was a great embarrassment to the British and the French, showing them carving up the Middle East, and in particular showing Britain making incompatible promises to Husayn and the Arabs as well as to the Zionists. The Ottoman government seized on the revelations to denigrate the rebel Emir of Mecca, Sharif Husayn and his son Faysal, in command of the Arab army. In a speech delivered in Beirut on 4 December 1917, just days before the fall of Jerusalem, the Ottoman general Kemal Pasha leader of the ‘Young Turks’, disclosed the conditions of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that shocked the bewildered audience. He termed Sharif Husayn and his sons as the foolish stooges of the British, and laid full responsibility “for the enemy’s arrival at the ramparts of Jerusalem” on the leaders of the ‘Arab Revolt’ simmering against the Ottoman Empire mainly in Syria.
Prior to the outbreak of the World War I, the once-mighty Ottoman Empire (1516-1924) stretched from the outskirts of Vienna to the shores of the Morocco was considered as the ‘sick man of Europe’. In the last century before its final collapse, it lost control of many of its territories to the growing powers of European colonial countries. France took control of Algeria (1830) and Tunisia (1881); Italy took over Libya (1911), while Britain gained control of Aden (1839), Oman (1861), the Arabian Gulf chiefdoms (1820) and Kuwait (1899). Egypt was taken over by Muhammad Ali, a powerful Ottoman leader, until the country fell into British custody in 1882. Sudan similarly fell under British control in 1899. In addition, the Ottomans lost a large swathe of territory in Europe to the Russians and Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as to the nationalists in the Balkans. Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and Montenegro all formally became independent. Bosnia-Herzegovina was taken over by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the British occupied Cyprus.
As the Ottomans went into the Great War, France and Britain were convinced that the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire were not ready for self-government. The issue they wanted to settle was not whether these areas would be under foreign colonial rule or supervision, because that was a foregone conclusion, but which areas would be controlled by France and which by Britain. The Sykes–Picot agreement was negotiated by Mark Sykes, an aristocrat and a soldier on the British side and on behalf of the French by François Georges-Picot, a career diplomat who had been stationed in Beirut and Cairo. Both Britain and France had existing interests in the region that they wished to protect and expand.
On the French side, the arms of finance capital were heavily invested in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, alongside a battery of francophone religious and cultural institutions. French railway companies also had substantive interests in the Syrian cities of the interior, as well as in the Cilicia region of southern Anatolia – part of present-day Turkey. In an era when empires were still built on maritime power, the French foreign ministry coveted the coastal strip of the Eastern Mediterranean because of the area’s proximity to France’s North African possessions in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Britain, for its part, was determined to have its own coastal access – both to the Mediterranean, through the port of Haifa in Palestine, as well as to the Gulf, through Basra in Iraq. The promise of recently discovered oilfields also dictated British interest in Mesopotamia – roughly, present-day Iraq.
The Terms and Conditions of the Sykes-Picot Agreement
The Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the spoils, with Britain getting complete control over an area of “Mesopotamia” starting north of Baghdad and extending through Basra all the way down the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula. France was promised complete control over an area extending along the Mediterranean coast from Haifa to southern Turkey and inland to a part of Anatolia. Britain and France could do what they wanted: putting these areas under direct administration by colonial officials or indirect control through local subservient rulers of their own choosing. In addition, France and Britain also awarded themselves their respective zones of influence, where they would set up independent Arab states, or a confederation of states, under their supervision. Finally, an area comprising roughly today’s Israel and the West Bank would be declared an international zone controlled jointly by Britain, France, and Russia. The Arabian Peninsula, with the exception of the east coast claimed by Britain, would be left under Arab control. The text of the agreement and British-French correspondence around it show clearly that the main concern of both France and Britain was to protect their interests against the other—there is much discussion about access to ports and the impositions of tariffs but none about the interests of the local population.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement signified the vicious role and lustful nature of colonialist imperial powers whose interests have always hedged upon the lands and resources rather than the people that inhabited and worked on these lands. In the documents of the agreement, there was a map marked by straight lines drawn with a china-graph pencil. The map largely determined the Balkanised fate of the Arabs, dividing them on the basis of different religious, ethnic, tribal and sectarian lines.
In negotiating the agreement, Britain and France had ignored not only the issue of the rights of the Arabs whose territories they were disposing of, but also their probable reaction. Convinced that Arabs were not ready to govern themselves, the colonial powers also seemed to believe that they would remain loyal subjects. Instead, the high-handed approach of the European powers stirred nationalist reactions through the region, where currents of Arab nationalism had been evident for a long time. With the weakening of the Ottoman hold on these territories, nationalists gained prominence in Cairo, Damascus-Baghdad, and many other centres. When they were trying to coax him to support them against the Ottomans, the British themselves had contributed to stirring up Arab nationalism by dangling in front of Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, a vision of an independent Arab state under his rule. On top of that, Britain did not want to antagonise the Muslim population across their Empire, particularly as they had large numbers of Muslim soldiers in the British Indian Army who were facing the Ottoman army on the fronts in the First World War. The British had secret reports from their military intelligence that Muslim soldiers, particularly in the British Indian Army, were extremely restless and circumspect about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. There was widespread knowledge of the concept of the ‘Khilafat’ and there was a serious possibility of a revolt against the colonial masters.
Finally, the issuing of the Balfour Declaration by Britain in November 1917, which avowed support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, encouraged the Zionist movement. This inevitably led to an Arab nationalist resurgence. In addition to all this, after the defeat of the Ottomans, Turkish nationalists under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk fought fiercely against attempts to dismantle the Turkish core of the Ottoman Empire and formed a new strong Turkish state that had not been part of the Sykes-Picot agreement. Local actors, in other words, had no intention of remaining passive and allowing Britain and France to design a post-Ottoman Levant as they saw fit.
Sharif of Mecca
As World War I erupted in July 1914, the weakening Ottoman Empire joined with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a war alliance to confront Britain, France and Czarist Russia. It was then that the political regimes and the region’s maps began to transform. The Ottoman ruler declared the war as a jihad and called on all Muslims across his Empire and beyond to defend Islam and the Caliph. The British not only wanted to protect their maritime routes to India but also their subjugation of it as well. India undoubtedly was the jewel in the crown of their Empire and the British were worried about unrest amongst Muslim soldiers in the British Indian Army. The British also did not want the Arabs to rally behind the Ottomans call for jihad against the Allies in the war. This explains the deceitful promise of British imperialism to the Emir of Mecca Sharif Husayn, for an Arab state stretching from Damascus to Yemen encompassing Baghdad and including Mecca and Medina, the holy cities of Islam along with Jerusalem. Arabs, including, Palestinians, were promised instant independence.
The Picot–Sykes agreement was concluded in secret partly because it represented a betrayal of promises the British government had already made to the Sharif of Mecca. During the war, in an effort to foment Arab rebellion against the Ottomans, the British sought the Sharif ‘s support by agreeing to back the creation of an independent Arab state, with a few caveats. In what is known as the McMahon-Husayn Correspondence, Britain laid out the conditions: it wanted to maintain rights in Baghdad and Basra and it wanted to set aside parts of present-day Syria, which it claimed were not fully Arab. The correspondence between McMahon and Sharif Hussein contains ten letters from 14th July 1915 to 30th March 1916 in which those terms are outlined according to which Sharif Hussein would ally himself to Britain and lead the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire with Britain’s promise for support of Arab independence.
The understanding among Arab leaders was that Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations was to apply to Arab provinces that were ruled by the Ottomans. Arabs were told that they were to be respected as “a sacred trust of civilization” and their communities were to be recognised as “independent nations”. Palestinians were made to believe that they were also included in the agreements and treaties although it turned out in a fact that they were not worth the paper they were written on. The Arabs duly revolted against the Ottomans but after the war, the British were to maintain that the correspondence did not represent a formal treaty, though Husayn and his family insisted it did. In any case, the promises made to the Arabs were in direct conflict with the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
During its negotiations with the Sharif of Mecca, Britain took up the responsibility of establishing “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, another promise incompatible with the Sykes-Picot agreement. This declaration was contained in a letter written on November 2, 1917 by the then British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Baron Walter Rothschild, a close friend of the Zionist movement leader Chaim Weizmann. It stated that the British government viewed “with favour” the establishment in Palestine of “a national home for the Jewish people, and [Britain] will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”
Strains ran high in Palestine in 1920 as Jewish immigration, encouraged by the Balfour Declaration, started to gather a swifter pace. Between 1919 and 1921, over 18,500 Jewish immigrants flocked to Palestine. Rioting broke out in Jerusalem in the first week of April 1920, leaving five Jews and four Arabs dead and over two hundred injured. The worse violence followed in 1921, when Arab tribesmen intervened in a fight between Jewish communists and Zionists’ in the port of Jaffa during May Day parades. In these clashes forty-seven Jews and forty-eight Arabs were killed. The contradictions created by the Balfour Declaration— in its declaration of intent to create a national home for the Jews that would not adversely affect the rights and interests of the indigenous non-Jewish population—were already exploding.
When Balfour had sent his letter to Rothschild, the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine was very much plausible. Theoretically, Palestine was granted to the Zionists. This act would have been tantamount to sealing the fate of Palestine to perpetual occupation, colonisation, war and turmoil. The dispossessed Palestinians are still suffering today from the historical crime of the imperialist policy of divide and rule. The British commitment was endorsed in 1920 as Herbert Samuel, a British Zionist, arrived in Palestine as Britain’s first High Commissioner. In that year, the British ‘mandate’ of Palestine was formalised by the League of Nations in a special article in its legislations.
1920 San Remo Conference
Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Britain’s capture of Syria, Palestine and Iraq, Britain gave up the idea of partitioning the Ottoman Empire, as it had been initially proposed in the Sykes-Picot agreement. Britain was temporarily in a relatively stronger position compared to its other European colonial partners. Britain attempted to wriggle out of its earlier commitment but was forced to share the spoils of the war at the 1920 San Remo Conference based around a mandate system. This in many ways defined the destiny of the occupied Arab provinces for the following century.
The nation-states of the Middle East as we know today were decided at the 1920 San Remo conference and their borders were finalised in fragmentary method during the following decade. The Arab regions were split up between the French and the British imperialists, according to their strategic and financial interests. The horrific repercussions of incessant conflicts, sectarian bloodshed and the horrors of terrorism now being inflicted upon the masses of these lands are due to these artificial and cruel cleavages. This slicing up of an entire civilization was carried out without any remorse.
The shifting territorial claims reflected a number of changing realities in the four years following Sykes-Picot, such as the success of Turkish nationalist troops in reclaiming most of Cilicia under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, the Ottoman general who led the beleaguered remnants of the Ottoman Empire’s armies to a negotiated settlement. He was later dubbed Ataturk, or “father of the Turks”, and became the President of the new Turkish republic.
In Palestine and Iraq, Britain claimed a variety of interests, but one of the most important motives was to control the shortest route between the Mediterranean and the Gulf for access by sea to India. In addition, they had a strategic interest in seeing that in the area on the other side of the Egyptian frontier (modern-day Israel-Palestine) there would be no railway building, such as could be used by the Ottomans for troops movement.
After the armistice, US president Woodrow Wilson had also promised the Arabs, along with other subjected peoples of the Ottoman Empire, “an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development”. However, after the imperialists betrayed and sealed the fate of the Arab peoples at the Paris Peace Conference, on 9 March 1919 Egypt exploded in demonstrations that rapidly spread in a common demand for independence. Egyptians in towns and villages attacked every evident manifestation of British imperial power. The railways and telegraph lines were sabotaged, government offices burned, and government centres confronted with huge crowds of protesters. The British dispatched soldiers to restore order, but soldiers are not very potent weapons for crowd control, hence the casualties began to mount.
The Egyptians accused British soldiers of atrocities — of using live fire against demonstrators, burning villages and even committing rape. By the end of March, 800 Egyptian civilians had been killed and a further 1,600 injured. But with the movement’s lack of a revolutionary leadership and after the wily British imperialists had dissipated the upsurge through a carrot and stick policy, the British prime minister David Lloyd George declared that Egypt was an “imperial and not an international question”. President Wilson, despite earlier promises, recognized Egypt as being a British ‘protectorate’. Lloyd George needed French consent to secure British claims to Mesopotamia and Palestine. And from the very outset of the war, France had put up Syria as its price.
Dismemberment of the Levant
The First World War concluded on November 11, 1918, after which the division of the Ottoman Empire was completed and colonisation through local puppet regimes put in place in a short span of time, according to strategies designed in advance. British and French mandates were extended over divided Arab entities, which were converted into new colonial ‘nation states’ without any national revolutions ever having created them.
As the British were trying to force the Ottoman army from the Levant, Arab forces, led by Sharif Al Faisal, the third and most popular son of Sharif Husayn had entered Damascus on October 1, 1918. Generally, Arabs perception about Syria at that time in history was not the modern-day Syrian state, but the whole of the region what are now Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan and most of Lebanon and Iraq. The British installed Faisal as leader of Syria, in recognition of the contribution of the Arab revolt to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the past promises made to Faisal’s father. From the outset, the whole of Syria was in revolt. Faisal wanted a truly independent Syrian state that included Palestine and Transjordan, and so did the Syrian nationalists who were well represented in the parliament elected in 1919.
In 1920, in accordance with the Paris Conference, France took over the administration of Damascus and the territory to the north, just as Faisal and the nationalists declared independence from the ‘Kingdom of Syria’. The French reacted by marching in with heavy troops and artillery and after defeating Faisal at Maysalun, forced him to abdicate and ending of the ‘kingdom’ after only four months. The Maysalun defeat marked the beginning of France’s shaky military occupation and mandate over what became modern-day Syria, (then including Lebanon) which would last a little over a quarter of a century.
The partition of the region between the French and British interests in accordance with Sykes-Picot Treaty was a major amputation of the Levant as it then had been. The division line passed south of Jebel Druze and the Hawran, leaving all the territory south of this line to Britain, which established the principality of Transjordan. Thus, a vast stretch of land, previously an integral part of Ottoman ‘Syria’, was detached by the two predatory colonial powers.
In order to enforce their control over this region as nationalist dissent was simmering into a potential revolt, the French further dismembered Syria by creating Greater Lebanon for their clients, the Maronite Christians. The French also annexed to the colonial state of Lebanon, Beirut and Tripoli in the north, some districts of Tyre and Sidon in the south and Baalbek, Bekaa, Rashiaya, and Hasbaya in the east. These four districts had been an integral part of Syria before Maysalun. In September 1920, the French created another new state in the north, the state of Aleppo and a “State of the Alawites.” Several months later Jebel Druze was detached. The list of political creations was complete with the addition of the Sanjak of Alexandretta (which became part of Turkey in 1939). The remaining area of Syria after the loss of its territories in the south, north, and west could no longer justify being called the “State of Syria” and was christened as the “State of Damascus.”
The division of Syria into mini-states did not stabilize Syria. The Sunni population in general opposed decentralization, while other states wanted more autonomy than the French were willing to grant. At that point, Syria exploded in an anti-French uprising in which disparate population groups participated. Responding to growing national movement and its pressure, the French merged Aleppo and Damascus states in 1932 under the “State of Syria”, which later became known as the “Syrian Republic”. They later annexed to it the states of Jabal al-Druze and the Alawite areas. It still took the French another two years and much brutality to pacify the country, but they could not unite it. During World War II, Vichy France lost control of Syria to a new British occupation, with the support of the Free French, creating yet another upheaval. Modern ‘Syria’ became formally independent in 1943, although French troops remained for another three years. Not surprisingly, given this history, Syria remained extremely unstable after the mandate ended.
The political elites in Iraq watched events in Egypt and Syria with mounting concern for their own future. They had been reassured in November 1918 when the British and French issued a declaration pledging their support for “the establishment of national governments and administrations” in the Arab lands through a process of self-determination. But the Iraqis grew increasingly suspicious as the months passed without any tangible progress towards the promised self-government. News in April 1920 that the Great Powers had agreed in San Remo to award their country to Britain as a ‘mandate’ confirmed the Iraqi’s fears. At the end of June 1920, Iraq erupted in rebellion against British rule. Disciplined and organized, the insurgency threatened the British in Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, but the centre of operations lay in the same Shiite shrine towns of the Middle Euphrates that had risen against the Ottomans during the First World War.
As the uprising spread, the British were forced to move additional troops into Mesopotamia to suppress determined Iraqi resistance. Reinforcements from India were rushed to bolster the 60,000 troops yet to be demobilized from the Mesopotamia campaign, raising British forces to over 100,000 by October. Using aerial bombardment and heavy artillery, the British re-conquered the Middle Euphrates region with scorched-earth tactics that crushed the resistance. “In recent days there has been bloodshed and the destruction of populous towns and the violation of the sanctity of places of worship to make humanity weep,” a Najaf journalist wrote in October 1920. By the time the uprising was crushed at the end of October, the British claimed that 2,200 of their own forces and an estimated 8,450 Iraqis had been killed or wounded.
The Sharifs who had led an Arab revolt against the Ottomans followed events in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq with a deepening sense of betrayal. Having aspired to be king of the Arabs, Husayn was now confined to the Hejaz, the hinterland of the Arabian Peninsula — and he wasn’t even secure there. He ended up also losing the Hejaz, with its holy cities of Mecca and Medina, to Abdel Aziz bin Saud, a Bedouin chieftain from the Nejd, who was backed by Britain. Together with his Wahhabi religious fanatics, the Al Saud family founded ‘Saudi’ Arabia. The Sharifs who had been led to expect a great Arab kingdom ruled from Damascus, were given a few tiny state lets. One of them, Faisal II, went on to rule Iraq but was killed in the Revolution of 1958; another branch survives to this day in ‘Jordan’ a state hurriedly partitioned off from Palestine by the British.
The House of Saud
In a similar vein to the Sykes–Picot Treaty, another imperialist conspiratorial agreement was concluded in December 1915 in the form of the Anglo-Saud Friendship Treaty. This treaty made the house of Saud an outpost of the British Empire. Britain was given trading privileges and was made superintendent of Saudi foreign policy. A guarantee of British military protection and arms supplies ended the Ottoman writ in the Arabian Peninsula. Between1917-1926, Abdul-Aziz Bin Abdul-Rehman or Ibn-Saud and his armed Wahhabi desert hordes with the help of the British military took control of what was known as Najd and Hejaz. As King Sharif Husayn refused to accept conditions in the British post-war settlement, there was no scope for an Anglo-Hejaz treaty of alliance.
On 6 October 1924, King Husayn abdicated in favour of his eldest son, Ali, and went into exile. King Ali’s reign ended in late 1925 when the Saudis completed the conquest of the Hejaz. Like the Ottomans before them, the Hashemites made their last stand in Medina, surrendering the holy city in December 1925.
On 8 January 1926 Abdul-Aziz Bin Ibn-Saud was proclaimed king of Arabia through manoeuvres of the British agents. King Abdul-Aziz was embroiled in discussions with the British representative, Percy Cox, for the determination of the borders of the new entity. The British Public Records described Ibn-Saud’s demeaning stature at these meetings. When Cox insisted it was his decision as to create frontiers between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Ibn-Saud almost broke down and pathetically remarked that, “Sir Percy made him and raised him from nothing… and he would surrender half his Kingdom, nay the whole, if Sir Percy ordered.” Cox took out a map and pencil and drew a line of the frontier of Arabia. For his loyalty to the British crown, like so many other British stooges, Ibn-Saud was awarded a knighthood presented to him by his mentor Percy Cox. On September 23, 1932 the ‘Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’ replaced the historic names of Najd and Hejaz. Since then this reactionary monarchy has been in power through mainly US imperialist support and has fomented the vicious Wahhabi sectarian fundamentalist terror to sustain its regional and sectarian hegemony.
British betrayal of their Arab allies and toadies goes back decades. They used the Arabs as pawns in their Great Game against other colonial contenders, only to betray them later on, while still casting themselves as friends bearing gifts. Nowhere else was this hypocrisy on full display as was in the case of Palestine. It began with the first wave of Zionist Jewish migration to Palestine in 1882, European countries helped to facilitate the movement of illegal settlers and resources, where the establishment of many colonies, large and small, to enslave the peoples of the region.
There are over 30 million Kurds who are indigenous people of the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands straddling the areas what are now South-eastern Turkey, North-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, North-western Iran and South-western Armenia. About 20percent of the Turkish population are Kurds. While about 12 percent of Syria’s and seventeen percent of the Iraqi population comprise of the Kurdish people.
Kurds make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never obtained a permanent nation-state due to the treachery of the colonial powers who were only interested in maintaining and protecting their interests, particularly the new-found wells and reservoirs of oil in the territory inhabited by the Kurds. Kurds have been fighting for the creation of a homeland – generally referred to as “Kurdistan” – ever since the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed. Today, they form a distinctive national and cultural community spread across the region.
After World War One and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies made provision for a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. They set aside a small territory adjacent to Armenia for a possible small Kurdish state. There was supposed to be a referendum in that region on whether it wanted to remain part of the Ottoman rump state or if it wanted to become an independent Kurdistan. Kurds living in modern Syria or Iraq – territory under direct Britain and France control were not offered a referendum as the two colonial powers were not prepared to give up their occupied territories.
In 1920, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the young Turks fresh from their victory at Gallipoli refused to accept the terms of the treaty and set up a rival government in Ankara. They declared that if the Allies wanted to scissor up the Anatolian Peninsula, then they’d have to fight to do it. The Allies figured that Kemal – now known to history as Atatürk – was bluffing and sent in troops. Greece, in particular, sent a large number of soldiers. The Turks fought the Greeks and the Allies for another two years, finally forcing the Greeks out, dismantling the proposed zones of influence. Armenia was absorbed altogether as the Ottoman government was overthrown and the Kurdistan referendum cancelled. All of this was formalized by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which imposed the new borders.
France and Britain had never been at all interested in the concept of a Kurdistan made from lands they already controlled. Kurds even revolted against British rule during the mandate era in the north of Iraq, but were brutally crushed.
The Arab regimes and Palestine
All the Arab states created after the Great War were the creation of British and French colonialism, which was also responsible for the balkanization of the region. In other words, these native elite regimes did not achieve power through a radical struggle leading to the expulsion of colonialism, but through compromise and subordination. Ever since these Arab states have been unable to sever the umbilical cord of dependency on their former colonial masters and the new imperialist power of the Unites States of America. However, there always was opposition to the Zionist immigration and colonization. This opposition crystallised immediately after the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration that sanctioned the creation of a Jewish ‘national home’ in the biblical mythological homeland of Judea and Samara that was actually now part of Palestine.
With the rise of Zionist influence in Palestine, the Palestinians’ struggle also escalated, most notably in the 1930s. The most prominent opposition to the Zionist colonisation was that of the Shaikh ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam, who was a Syrian Muslim preacher and a leader in the local struggles against British and French Mandatory rule in the Levant. He led his own group of rebels against French colonial forces in northern Syria in 1919–20 but after being defeated he migrated to Palestine and led armed resistance against the British and the Zionists.
He was eventually killed and this was a prelude to a general uprising, culminating in the famous six-month general strike of 1936. After this event, Arab volunteers from the neighbouring countries began to join the struggle of the Palestinians, who were desperately short of the basic requirements of guerrilla warfare, especially weapons.
But while these volunteers were coming to the Palestinians’ aid, the Arab regimes were toeing to the line of the British imperialists (and, by implication, to the interests of the Zionist movement) by helping to paralyse the Palestinian and Arab peoples struggle. On Britain’s behalf, the regimes of Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Trans-Jordan did their best to induce the Palestinians to call off the general strike. They exerted pressure mainly through Hajj Amin al-Husaini, the traditionalist Palestinian leader who belonged to one of the country’s top landowning families. He believed that the emancipation of Palestine could be achieved through a deal with Britain and was generally restricted to the political, intellectual and ideological horizons of the Arab regimes.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, through his usual colonial treachery, worked through the Egyptians and helped to create the League of Arab States in 1944 and by doing so institutionalised the regional borders dividing the Arab homeland and excluded the latter’s organic unification. The League was conceived and set up as a political alliance between countries that – despite their cultural and historical affinities – were strictly separate ‘nation-states’. In joining this organization, the Arab regimes in effect renounced the aim of unifying the balkanized region.
The declaration of the Jewish state in 1948 came as a serious and embarrassing blow to the prestige of the Arab regimes, some of which declared war against Israel. The war, as it was conducted on the Arab side, was a charade. The Zionist narrative of ‘massed armies’ of Arab states invading the incipient Jewish homeland is largely a myth. The two main Arab armies in Palestine were the Trans-Jordanian and the Egyptian. The former was commanded by British officers, led by Brigadier Sir John Bagot Glubb and the outcome of the war on this front was largely fixed in advance through secret negotiations between Jordan’s Emir ‘Abdallah and the Zionist leaders including Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir and others. The Egyptian army was badly trained and under-equipped; indeed, the scandalous way in which it conducted the war discredited the Egyptian regime and led directly to its downfall in 1952. These two Arab ‘armies’, far from collaborating or even co-ordinating with each other, were in fact gleefully looking forward to each other’s defeat. Syria’s role in the war was strictly limited; and the Iraqi forces, which initially penetrated Palestine in two sectors of the eastern front, were soon withdrawn.
During the post-1948 period, these Arab regimes prevented the Palestinians from actively participating in a struggle against the Zionist Israeli state and were reduced to the role of spectators to an Arab calamity. More importantly, these reactionary Arab regimes pursued a policy of suppressing Palestinian identity and trying to eliminate it altogether. Soon the Arab governments became involved in armistice negotiations with Israel, ostensibly on behalf of the Palestinians, but in fact only to carve up between them what remained of Palestine, in accordance with an implicit agreement they had reached with Britain after 1937. Thus Trans-Jordan swallowed the West Bank and accordingly renamed itself ‘Jordan’; Egypt grabbed the Sinai and the Gaza Strip and Syria kept a small pocket of land around al-Hamah. During the following two years, the so-called General Government of Palestine, located in Gaza, was eliminated and the Gaza Strip came under Egyptian military administration, although it would have been possible to keep Gaza as the germ of a Palestinian state. At no time up to its occupation in the 1967 war did Egypt make the slightest attempt at the economic or political development of Gaza, keeping the Strip, much as Israel does today, as an open, festering ‘sore’.
Sykes-Picot 100 years later
Decades after the formation of Israel and a century after Sykes-Picot, Palestinians are still enslaved and suffering in their own lands. A fierce repression is being inflicted upon them by the atrocious Zionist state under the auspices of the US and European imperialists. Their own leaders of the Palestinian elite have failed them. Their plight is worse than their status at the time of the Balfour declaration and there is no end in sight within the present socio-economic system. What the experience of the previous century has shown is that it is only on the basis of a class unity that the stranglehold of the Zionist state and its western backers can be decisively broken.
Yet the Arab-Israeli conflict, more than any other legacy of the post-World War I partition, has defined the Middle East as a war zone. Four major wars between Israel and its Arab neighbours — in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973 — have left the Middle East with a number of intractable problems that remain unresolved despite peace treaties between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and between Israel and Jordan in 1994. Palestinian refugees remain scattered between Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Israel continues to occupy the Syrian Golan Heights and the Shebaa Farms in southern Lebanon and is rejecting to relinquish its control over the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. While Israel and its Arab neighbours share primary responsibility for their actions, the roots of their conflict can be traced directly back to the fundamental contradictions of the Balfour Declaration. The legitimacy of Middle Eastern frontiers has been called into question since they were first drafted. One century later, the borders of the Middle East remain controversial — and volatile.
The states created by imperialism through the Sykes–Picot Treaty are crumbling and societies are being torn apart with bloodshed and the mass slaughter of ordinary people. Iraq, Yemen and Libya have collapsed and are in a catastrophic phase of bloody fragmentation. The oppressive Syrian state is threatened by the fundamentalist proxies of all variants of sectarian trends supported by the Arab monarchs, imperialist mafias and vigilante militias who are no less sectarian monsters. Genocide and mayhem has devastated the once relatively prosperous and egalitarian Syrian society. These are crimes of the Sykes-Picot treaty and other such imperialist policies. Their puppet rulers are filthily rich, obscenely hedonistic and viciously tyrannical.
The spirit of Sykes-Picot, dominated by the interests and ruthless ambitions of the two main competing colonial powers, prevailed during that process and through the coming decades, to the Suez crisis of 1956 and even beyond. As it epitomised the concept of clandestine colonial carve-ups, Sykes-Picot has become the label for the whole era in which outside powers imposed their will, drew borders and installed client local leaderships, playing divide-and-rule with the “natives”.
Sykes-Picot has become a byword for imperial treachery. George Antonius, an Arab historian, called it a shocking document, the product of “greed allied to suspicion and so leading to stupidity”. It was, in fact, one of three separate and irreconcilable wartime commitments that Britain made to France, the Arabs and the Jews. The resulting contradictions have been causing mayhem and catastrophes ever since.
Despite the controversy when the text was revealed, the British and French were not deterred from signing another secret agreement in 1956, five years after Georges-Picot’s death. That deal, which also included Israel, set in motion a plot to topple Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser over his seizure of the Suez Canal. The British, French, and Israelis were militarily successful in ensuing war but were forced to retreat under pressure from the Americans and the Soviet Union. The secret protocol was revealed, and U.K. Prime Minister Anthony Eden was forced to resign.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, a new period of mass upheavals opened up in most of the colonial world. In the Middle East, there were numerous revolts and revolutionary takeovers in several countries against the semi-capitalist, semi-feudal order under imperialist hegemony. The US imperialists who now had assumed the role of the world policeman once again employed the reactionary Islamic fundamentalist scourge as a counterrevolutionary force to sabotage and subvert these left wing regimes. From the 1950s to the 1980s it was used in countries from Egypt to Indonesia and from Syria to Pakistan. In Pakistan, the elected government of left-wing populist Z A Bhutto was toppled by the arch-reactionary general Zia ul Haq, in connivance with US imperialism. Zia’s eleven-year long Islamic rule was a nightmare for the masses and it mutilated society beyond redemption. Bhutto was assassinated through the gallows and the vicious Zia dictatorship unleashed a harrowing tyranny upon the working classes and the youth in the name of Islamisation. The CIA and US bosses were complicit in these brutalities.
The counter-revolution against the left wing government in Afghanistan was launched in 1978 under the supervision of the CIA, MI6 and the Pentagon. The Gulf States provided huge sums of money, while Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) under the despot Zia liaised on the ground with the Islamicist terrorist networks being coordinated by Osama bin Laden and others. In the 1980s the Reagan administration provided $2 billion to the Afghan mujahideen, was matched by another $2 billion from Saudi Arabia. According to the Washington Post, “USAID invested millions of dollars to supply schoolchildren with textbooks filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings. Theology justifying violent jihad was interspersed with drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines. The textbooks even extolled the heavenly rewards if children were to pluck out the eyes of the Soviet enemy and cut off his legs.”
Today, the United Kingdom and United States governments, along with a cast of allies, are trying to contain ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while desperately trying to bring about the end of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It is a complicated process, involving both public and secret diplomacy, as well as military operations both covert and announced. But those efforts have been confounded by the intervention of Russia, which has staunchly backed Assad and attacked rebel groups allied with the US and UK. Lazy commentators like to trace Middle East strife to the spurious explanation of “ancient hatreds,” ethnic and sectarian conflicts running back centuries in the region. As Russia’s continuing role in confounding Anglo-American efforts shows, however, one of the most intractable geopolitical conflicts in the Levant is just turning in this 100th year of the imperialist cleavage.
The ‘Arab Spring’ movement of 2011 transcended the artificially carved borders and spread throughout the region. It proved beyond doubt that there is no salvation on a national basis in the whole region. Above all this upheaval from the coast of the Mediterranean to the shores of the Arabian Sea exhibited unprecedented events of class unity. The most pertinent example that outshone in the upsurge was the mass demonstrations of the Arab and the Israeli youth and workers marching in different cities and countries for the same cause of socio-economic emancipation.
However, what such a resurgence of the youth and the toilers will direly require is a policy of class struggle with a perspective of a mass mobilisations and revolutionary insurrections to overthrow these rotten reactionary states and the capitalist system that these were set up to protect and preserve, at the costs of terrible suffering of the toiling masses.
A victorious revolutionary movement is the only way-out for the toiling masses and ordinary souls of the region from this lingering gloom of barbarism that represents the two sides of the same coin—imperialism and religious fundamentalism. A revolutionary victory in any crucial part of the region shall unleash a revolutionary storm throughout the region. Its ultimate victory shall move forward to create a voluntary socialist federation of the Middle East.