Friday, May 20, 2016

Sykes-Picot Centennial

This past Monday, May 16, was the centennial of the signing of the then secret Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided up former Ottoman territories between UK and France, with substantial remnants of the division still abiding, even as I write this it is still for a few more minutes the 81st anniversary of the death of T.E. Lawrence, aka, "Lawrence of Arabia," whose role in connection with the Sykes-Picot Agreement was ambiguous and now a matter of debate.

His public image and his conduct at Versailles put him as apparently an enemy of Sykes-Picot and a supporter of  Arab nationalism, supposedly suppressed by Sykes-Picot, but more recent scholarship has Lawrence's position as more complicated.  He and Sykes were both on the UK delegation at Versailles, even as he was also representing the interests of Prince Faisal ibn Hussein al Hashim, direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammed and the traditional local rulers of Mecca. His father, Hussein, held the old position of Sharif of Mecca, but would also as a result he would become the King of Hejaz, the long strip of land along western Saudi Arabia containing both Mecca and Medina.  So while Lawrence did  not get his unified Arab nation, but his friend Faisal and his brother and father would all become kings with British support.

The other view is that while Lawrence put on this grand show of  opposing the Sykes-Picot division of the Arab Middle East between France and Britain, he was not as opposed as it  appeared he was. More  precisely his accounts of being shocked when he learned  of  it after the Bolsheviks released the word, with the Russians also supposed to be getting serious chunks of  Turkey that Ataturk militarily kept them from getting.successfully.  But France and UK got most of what they wanted.

I saw the film Lawrence of Arabia with Peter O'Toole as  Lawrence when it first came out over a half century ago, when I was at an impressionable age and it impressed me greatly.  I still consider the early desert cinematography and the great score by Jarre as some of the finest in all film.  At that age I found some of the later scenes annoying and upleasant, but educational as I saw  the film more times as I got older.

A particular scene involved Lawrence's supposed learning of Sykes-Picot.  He was in Cairo in the office of the very real General Allenby (played by Jack Hawkins), who would take Jerusalem from the Ottomans with the assistance of troops of Prince Faisal (played by Alec Guinness), who was also in attendance, as Lawrence spoke passionately with them about the need for an Arab nation, only to break out into bleeding on his back,  Faisal informs him of his naivete advocating the Arab nation given that the Sykes-Picot agreement already divided its territories between them, with Lebanon and Syria coming out of the French  side of it and Jordan, Iraq, and Israel came out of the British side, although France was supposed to get northern Iraq where now Daesh-ISIS-ruled Mosul is, and also a lot of oil, which British troops from Basra came to hold and did. And while they were promised a nation at Versailles, the Kurds did not get one when the final agreements were drawn at San Remo in 1920, which ratified that the British would get Mosul, which would end up in Iraq rather than Syria.

After Faisal informs him of the supposed perfidy in fact Faisal demands that the fourth person in the room explain what was up, so the mysterious Dryden, not a real person and played by Claude Rains, explains the Sykes-Picot agreement there to Lawrence, who is suitably upset.  However, this is one place where the film is historically inaccurate more seriously.  Most of  the major characters shown in the movie were real historical people even if occasionally there was a misrepresentation of what they did.  But this Dryden never existed.  However, near the beginning of the movie he is shown asking Lawrence to "assess the situation" just before Lawrence goes off to run around in the Arabian desert with Faisal blowing up Turkish rail lines among other things. It is now known that Lawrence was advised by a senior Whitehall official before he left to be with Faisal.  But that figure was none other than Mark Sykes of the Sykes-Picot agreement.  So this "Dryden" figure who is given the job of explaining the Sykes-Picot agreement was none other than Sykes himself in reality, although probably forewarning  Lawrence of the basics of the agreement before Lawrence ever left to see Faisal.

In the early 1920s Lawrence would work for Winston Churchill and with Gertrude Bell would draw the boundaries of Iraq, with a line from the Sykes-Picot agreeement dividing Iraq, Syria, and Jordan (the latter nation a pure creation of the Sykes-Picot agreement), although their moving the southernmost boundary a bit north from that of the old Ottoman province of Basra became Saddam Hussein's excuse for invading Kuwait, to gain the northern part of it to overcome this great wrong committed by Gertrude Bell and Lawrence, with Gertrude Bell rumored to be a mistress of Faisal's, whom they all installed as King Faisal I of Iraq.  He also  played bridge a lot with Bell and was just fine interacting in European society while appearing fully western in suits and all that, unlike he did  at Versailles with Lawrence, all in his proper Arab robes. Faisal I was succeeded by his son, Faisal II, who would be assassinated in 1958 when his monarchy was overthrown by a military could that would lead to the leadership of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein some years later, with this bringing to an end the Hashemite monarcy in Iraq.

In contrast to Iraq, the new nation of Jordan has done quite well, not falling apart like either Iraq or Syria.   Its current king is Abdullah II ibn Hussein al Hashim.  His great grandfather, Abdullah I, was the more obscure brother of Faisal I and never made appearance in any of the movies.  He was made king of Jordan even as his brother was made king of Iraq.  Abdullah I would be assassinated outside the al-Aqsa mosque, third holiest site in Islam in the Haram al Sharif or for the Jews, the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem.  The man who shot him was a Palestinian nationalist under the impression that Abdullah was on the verge of recognizing the state of Israel, which ha may have been.  But his son Talal did not, although Talal's long-ruling son, Hussein, would eventually make a peace deal and recognize Israel.  His son, Abdullah II  rules a still mostly peaceful Jordan.

The other Hashemite monarchy was Hejaz, where Sharif Hussein, father of Faisal I of Iraq and Abdullah I of Jordean, was made king.  However he would fall from power when Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman al Sa'ud came storming out of the desert from Riyadh to conquer Hejas and then take the title of  King of Saudi Arabia and Protector of the Holy Cities (Mecca and Medina).  This whole business would manifest itself  at Whitehall in a debate between Lawrence who sided with the Hashemites and Hussein against Harry St John Philby, who advised Abdulaziz and converted to Islam, marrying extra wives, while also being the first European to cross the Empty Quarter and fathered Kim Philby, the famous Soviet spy.

Today Daesh-ISIS emphasizes Sykes-Picot as the ultimate western imperialist design that they are undoing, wiping out the boundary of Iraq and Syria.  They imitate the Ottomans by claiming to be caliphs (or at least this al-Baghdadi) whose sultans were caliphs until Ataturk decided to end  the remnant of the empire in the early 1920s, controlling the core Turkish remnant of the  Ottoman Empire, so he abolished it and declared the Republic of Turkey, which still exists.

I do not have a bottom line on this.  Sykes-Picot certainly was a bunch of European colonial powers dividing up territories of the Ottomans successfully, with some of the borders and governments it established still in place, with some other parts not resembling its design well at all (no Israel in the agreement, Mosul and its oil were  supposed to be French not British).  Much did not follow it and much has changed from even what followed it initially. Nevertheless, its shadow continues.

Barkley Rosser


Peter T said...

Sykes-Picot was nearly the last in a long series of agreements that tried to cope with progressive Ottoman decay (San Stefano, Berlin 1880, Lausanne...). While the UK and France wanted their slice (and the UK at least had a strong interest in the area as crucial to its links with India), the real problem was that there was no obvious way to a non-Ottoman settlement among the local parties (various flavours of Sunni Arab, Christians, Kurds, Iran, Shi'a, Turks, Turkmen, the surviving Armenians...). The post-Ottoman history of the Balkans did not offer encouragement.

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Antoni Jaume said...

It seems there is an error as you write " opposing the Sykes-Picot division of the Arab Middle East between France and Spain, ". AFAIK, Spain did not intervene in the Middle Orient. If it was the Maghreb, it would be different. said...

Thanks for catching thatg, Antoni, now corrected. No, Spain had nothing to do with this business.b

Myrtle Blackwood said...

Re: "Today Daesh-ISIS emphasizes Sykes-Picot as the ultimate western imperialist design that they are undoing, wiping out the boundary of Iraq and Syria. They imitate the Ottomans by claiming to be caliphs..."

Putin is claiming that 40 countries are funding ISIS.

Sounds like World War 3.