“Everything Old Is New Again” The Tale of Sykes and Picot

Poor Sykes and Picot are getting bad press from all sides, with blame being assigned to them for the mess in the Middle East. Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were the officials charged by their governments, British and French with input from Tsarist Russia, to set the boundaries in the Middle East where conflict now flourishes. No one was, is, or probably could be satisfied when their decision was confirmed at the 1919  Paris Peace Treaty. At this time, Russia was having troubles at home and played a lesser role.

 

“Britain was allocated control of areas roughly comprising the coastal strip between the sea and River JordanJordan, southern Iraq, and a small area including the ports of Haifa and Acre, to allow access to the Mediterranean. France was allocated control of south-eastern Turkey, northern IraqSyria and LebanonRussia was to get Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and the Ottoman Armenian vilayets. The controlling powers were left free to decide on state boundaries within these areas. Further negotiation was expected to determine international administration pending consultations with Russia and other powers, including the Sharif of Mecca.(Wikipedia)”

 

More is known about Sir Mark Sykes (1879-1919), the son of Sir Tatton Sykes and Christina who was thirty years his junior. The parents separated soon after Mark’s birth and his upbringing was split between both parents. He spent time travelling with his father in the Middle East and associated with the pro-Arab gang of T.E.Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and others interested in carving up the defeated Ottoman Empire. From this and other postings he developed expertise in the region which was the basis for his choice as the British negotiator.

 

The British were interested in protecting their trade route to India and in limiting access of Russia to the Mediterranean Sea. Once the British navy was converted from coal to oil, the Iranian oil fields were also of interest. The three Afghan wars which Britain engaged in disastrously from 1839 to 1919 were also undertaken to block any southerly moves by Russia which might imperil trade routes. Sykes may also have had a hand in drafting the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which stated:

 

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”

 

Sykes died in 1919, a victim of the Spanish flu. In 2008, his lead coffin was opened and body exhumed to allow research into the nature of the flu strain which might prove useful in combating current flu epidemics for which today we are offered flu shots.

 

Less is known about François Georges-Picot (1870-1951). He was a French diplomat, son of a historian and great uncle to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. His interests were the Middle East.

 

Could anyone have sliced up the Ottoman Empire in 1919, especially the Middle East parts, to provide lasting peace? Probably not. Going back further in time, today appears to be a rematch of the Crusades starting in 1095 and lasting over two hundred years, and perhaps up to the present. Originally, it pitted Catholics backed by the Pope to push back Islamists, especially to restore Christian access to Jerusalem and places nearby after attack by Islam. Some historians see this as Rome defending Christianity, others the attempt by Christianity to expand its lands. Islamists choose the latter interpretation. Each side eagerly records the atrocities of the other to buttress their case.

 

Different religions seem to get in the way of peace. They fight each other and themselves such as warring Catholic and protestant brands of Christianity, Shia and Sunni Muslims, and different strains of Judaism. This is not a happy prospect for future generations, but there are some good news stories to recount such as lack of violence between religions in mixed communities in India (176 mil Muslims) and Indonesia (209 mil Muslims), and general religious tolerance in many other societies. The rise of right-wing parties in parts of Europe are a mix of racism and poor economic conditions.

 

It seems to me that nothing much has changed over the centuries except the way war is conducted as a result new technologies. Beheadings were a common practice in the past. Note the demise of Thomas More in 1535 at the Tower of London, when he defied various matrimonial and religious requests of Henry VIII. Today we are supposed to be more civilized, but this has different meanings in different parts of the world and at different times.

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