Middle East still rocking from first world war pacts made 100 years agoThe agreements that shaped the region may be forgotten in the west, but in the Middle East their significance still looms large
In an idle moment between cocktail parties in the Arab capital where they served, a British and French diplomat were chatting recently about their respective countries’ legacies in the Middle East: why not commemorate them with a new rock band? And they could call it Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration.
It was just a joke. These first world war agreements cooked up in London and Paris in the dying days of the Ottoman empire paved the way for new Arab nation states, the creation of Israel and the continuing plight of the Palestinians. And if their memory has faded in the west as their centenaries approach, they are still widely blamed for the problems of the region at an unusually violent and troubled time.
“This is history that the Arab peoples will never forget because they see it as directly relevant to problems they face today,” argues Oxford University’s Eugene Rogan, author of several influential works on modern Middle Eastern history.
In 2014, when Islamic State fighters broke through the desert border between Iraq and Syria – flying black flags on their captured US-made Humvees – and announced the creation of a transnational caliphate, they triumphantly pronounced the death of Sykes-Picot. That gave a half-forgotten and much-misrepresented colonial-era deal a starring role in their propaganda war – and a new lease of life on Twitter.
Half truths go a long way: the secret agreement between Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in May 1916 divided the Ottoman lands into British and French spheres – and came to light only when it was published by the Bolsheviks.
It also famously contradicted earlier promises made by the British to Sharif Hussein of Mecca before he launched what TE Lawrence called the “revolt in the desert” against the Turks. It did not draw the borders of Arab states – that came later – but it has become a kind of convenient shorthand for western double-dealing and perfidy.
And it was undermined too by the Balfour Declaration in November 1917 – mourned for decades by Palestinians remembering how “his Majesty’s government viewed with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people” when Zionism was a novel response to European antisemitism and Jews a small minority in the Holy Land.
Looking ahead, officials in the UK Foreign Office are brainstorming anxiously about how to mark these agreements. It is far harder than remembering the first world war’s military anniversaries – Flanders, Gallipoli, the Somme – because while British and allied sacrifices and heroism can be celebrated and honoured, these were political acts that have left a toxic residue of resentment and conflict.
Pro-Palestinian campaigners have demanded Britain apologise for Balfour’s pledge – but that seems unlikely given that it was made in very different circumstances from today and cannot be undone. It and the other wartime agreements are likely to feature in statements and public diplomacy designed to generate a “more nuanced understanding” of the UK’s controversial historical role.
The focus on Sykes-Picot – famously based on drawing a line “from the ‘e’ in Acre [now in northern Israel] to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk [in Iraq]” – is because of the argument that states have lost their legitimacy or cohesion in the bloody years of the Arab spring. Kurds in Iraq, autonomous since 1991, emphasise this, though they are the exception. Syria seems to be facing de facto partition but that is because of five years of vicious civil war, not because it is seen as an “artificial” colonial creation.
In fact, many historians insist – flatly contradicting Isis propaganda – that the post-first world war Arab nation states have proved remarkably resilient. And it is wrong to portray the jihadis, as the Iraq expert Reidar Visser has put it, “as the implementers of some kind of deep-rooted popular urge for pan-Arab and pan-Islamic unity that supposedly pulls the Syrian and Iraqi people towards each other”.
Still, perception is reality. In Rogan’s words: “The wartime partition agreements left a legacy of imperialism, of Arab mistrust in great power politics, and of a belief in conspiracies (for what are secret partition agreements if not conspiracies?) that the Arab peoples have held responsible for their misfortunes ever since.”
Palestine remains an open wound.“The period since the Balfour Declaration ... has witnessed what amounts to a hundred years of war against the Palestinian people,” wrote the American-Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi. Yet no official British response to its anniversary is likely to go beyond affirmation of the need for two independent states for the two peoples who now inhabit the Holy Land, however contentious the past.
Recent events have proved as troublesome as past ones. Summer 2016 will see the long-overdue Chilcot report into Britain’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq – a prime factor behind the current mayhem in the region. As Toby Dodge of the LSE has expressed it: the advances of Isis were “not caused by a century-old legacy of Anglo-French colonialism” but by “the contemporary flaws within the political system” set up after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
And 2016 will see yet another awkward anniversary – the 60th of the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, in collusion with Israel, in the Suez crisis of 1956 – a classic episode of western duplicity and high handedness that is still remembered as the “tripartite aggression” in Cairo and other Arab capitals.
“As we approach these anniversaries, we need to acknowledge that history, and our place in it,” insists Tom Fletcher, a highly regarded former British ambassador to Lebanon. “But we also need to ensure that the role of the west isn’t used as an alibi for every problem of the region. If we were as cunning as some still think, we would still have an empire. In fact, we need to see more security, justice and opportunity across the Middle East – that’s a conspiracy we should be part of.”