When Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot met in London and took a pen to a map of the Middle East 100 years ago this week, only one of them had ever been there. It was, some say, as if the two were playing a game of Risk.
Even if that’s an analogy too far, analysts are virtually unanimous that the subsequent Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and Britain – signed hastily in 1916 amid a world war – ill-defined a region, and consigned that region to its ill fortunes for the next century.
“Their lines are now falling apart,” says Miri Eisin, a former senior officer in Israel’s military intelligence now at the IDC in Herzliya. Eisin is one of only a small handful of women ever to make the rank of colonel in the IDF, and takes a hard-nosed view when it comes to Israel’s security.
“We all need to be on the same page: the Middle East is going through enormous upheaval,” she tells a UJIA delegation in Israel’s north.
Pointing to the map drawn by the Englishman and Frenchman, she says: “The only thing [about the Middle East] that will stay the same 100 years later is a photo taken from outer space, and even then, Palmyra is being erased.”
From Israel’s point of view, she says, the lines drawn “are colonial lines, lands conquered by the British and the French in 1917-18… This is our heritage, borders defined by somebody outside, not by the peoples of the Middle East”.
At least Sykes knew the Middle East, she says of the son of Orientalists who spoke Arabic. Picot had never been there.
“They took a map of the Ottoman Empire and divided it, before they’d even conquered it, like they were playing a game of Risk.”
Alongside the French and British portions, Palestine – the Holy Lands – came under a supposedly “international” section, the line drawn from Haifa (Acre/Akko) to Kirkuk, the heart of the Kurdish area, which may soon declare itself an independent state, and where Kurds are currently leading the fight against Islamic State.
One hundred years ago, this was “a place, a nation, a people, a language, a culture, with Christians, Jews and Muslims,” says Eisin, noting similarities with Israel. But their mountainous homeland was divided between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. “If I was Kurdish, and wanted to make a statement,” she says, “I’d declare Kurdistan this year, 100 years after it was wiped off the map. The Kurds existed in 1916, but they didn’t really matter to the British and French.”
The 1916 lines began unravelling from the start, say some, with early Zionists behind the first challenge. Last week, at a “lesson-learning” conference in Israel held by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), Martin Kramer of Shalem College argued that Zionism had one aim in the early part of the 20th century: to swap the Sykes-Picot Agreement for a British protectorate in order to allow the Jewish project to flourish.
“The Balfour Declaration was the first attempt to unravel Sykes-Picot,” he says. “Israel would never have been born if Sykes-Picot had remained [in-place].” Former Israeli ambassador Freddy Eytan says the region became one of confrontation in part because of “the rivalry between the US and USSR, the control of natural resources, gas and oil, the arms race, arms supplies and freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal” which “all prompted a power battle”. The centenary, he says, is “a reminder to avoid the naiveté and mistakes of the past”.
Prof. Efraim Karsh of King’s College London is even more scathing, and says the centenary shouldn’t even be commemorated. “A celebration of Sykes-Picot is misconceived… It had no impact because it never came into existence.”
Alan Baker, former deputy director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, agrees it is a “curious, even sad” centenary. “The whole character of the region is changing beyond all recognition. From Libya to Iraq, authority has collapsed. People are reaching for their older identities – Sunni, Shi’ite, Kurdish, even tribal. Sectarian groups, often Islamist, have filled the power vacuum, spilling over borders and spreading violence.”
Moreover, the problems of the peoples of the region are so distinct from times past as to be unrecognisable. “Half of the Middle East’s population today was born after 1990, after the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian process,” says Eisin.
“You have to put it in perspective. Their heritage isn’t the 1948 battles [for the State of Israel], as mine is.” The challenges aren’t about recognising Israel, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but about jobs, housing, water, getting married so their family will let them leave home. It’s a different world.”
No longer a game of Risk, then.