The current actions of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq are a result of religious and political conditions which exist due to irresponsible foreign diplomacy and the imperialistic tendencies of both Great Britain and France over one hundred years in the past. In a viral video declaring the establishment of their Islamic Caliphate early in the summer of 2014, the Islamic militants of ISIS expressed their goal to reverse the territorial lines established by the Sykes-Picot agreement.1 By the end of 2014, the group’s advances in Northern Iraq and at the Turkish-Syrian border had, in fact, destabilized the existing borders drawn in the Sykes-Picot agreement.2
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The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a deal negotiated between the Entente Allies, minus America, in anticipation of the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One. The agreement split the Middle East, which had been under Ottoman Rule for nearly four hundred years, between the three Western nations. Britain would maintain control over what is modern day Iraq, France the region of what is now Syria and Lebanon, and Russia initially partitioned a small section of land north of Iraq. The Russian zone was removed with the rise of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and subsequent collapse of the Russian Imperial State. The boundaries drawn in the Sykes-Picot agreement would be used post-war as the basis for the formation of the mandate system in the Middle East under the League of Nations, giving Great Britain and France their mandates to “develop” their respective regions.3 The Sykes-Picot agreement ultimately failed for several reasons. First, they used a negotiator who was centered on imperial interests and refused to listen to those who had experience with the people and history of the region. Second, they sought to use King Hussein as a political tool and negotiated in bad faith to make sure that things went in their favor. These mistakes showed a flawed understanding of the people and culture of the region, an error that haunts the American military today as they too refuse to learn the history of the area and use errors of past Empires to their advantage.
The first problem the British encountered in the agreement was made before the deal even being signed. The British used a negotiator who was not objective enough to realize what would be necessary for a lasting peace and control, a negotiator who was focused on imperial interests and expansion.
Mark Sykes was the representative of the British Empire in the negotiations. Sykes was an imperialist member of the Tory Party who, to his credit, possessed a broad personal experience in the region. Sykes was atypically tolerant of different religions but still suffered from the typical racial and cultural prejudices of the time. These biases would affect his decision-making process during negotiations.4 Sykes was convinced the Arabs were incapable of self-rule, not being as capable and civilized as the British, a common feeling in the Empire at the time. Due to these arrogant Imperialist ideals, Sykes sought to help them prosper through continuing advancement of the British Empire and its beneficial, benevolent influence in the Middle East. Sykes’ lack of understanding of the local population and his Britain-centric ideals of Empire made him a poor choice to negotiate the fate of the Middle East due to his lack of proper analysis or to use any of resources available to him.
Sykes’ negotiations ignored the proposals made by a group of scholars known as the British Arabists who were very familiar with the issues of the region. These men and women were members of the British foreign service, a branch of British Government similar to the U.S. State Department, who worked almost exclusively in the Middle East. The unique experiences of this group led them to develop a deeper understanding of the local population than that of most close minded imperialist subjects. Their deeper understanding led them to develop ideologies about the local culture and people based on self-determination of the indigenous peoples vice outside rule and interference. The most famous and easily recognized of the Arabists were T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell. Lawrence and Bell both petitioned the British Empire to move forward with a policy supporting independence in the Middle East to avoid future conflict in the region due to the Governments complete lack of understanding of local cultures.
Despite their considerable knowledge and experience, both Lawrence and Bell were marginalized by the bureaucracy of British political intrigue. The borders drawn by the Sykes-Picot agreement were recognized during the San Remo Conference of 1922 through the League of Nations mandate system.5 Had the British government looked at, analyzed and understood any of the Arabists policies, the post-war borders drawn for the Middle East would have considered the myriad differences in culture and religion, differences that still complicate regional politics. By ignoring the Arabists, the Sykes-Picot Agreement altered the development of Middle Eastern society and politics in the twentieth century from its natural tribal based system into a Western, nation system with definite borders that did not consider religious and cultural differences. This modified system contributed to several unintended consequences. It motivates militant groups such as ISIS. Additionally, perhaps, more importantly, it grants them a level of legitimacy with the local population that makes them a larger threat. The militant groups have developed into an idea to be eliminated not just insurgents to be killed.
The second issue in the agreement was the faithless negotiations they conducted with King Hussein. In early 1914 the British initiated discussions with the ruler of Mecca, Emir Hussein, the King of Hejaz, who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Because they were direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, Hussein, and his sons would be a powerful and symbolic tool to unite the various religious sects in a revolt.6
As Britain was drawn into the War with the Ottoman Empire, Hussein’s son Abdullah reached out to the British to garner support for an Arab revolt in Hejaz.7 Discussions in support of this revolt continued over the next two years with both sides specifying demands.8 These negotiations were primarily carried out through a series of letters between Hussein and Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt. Hussein’s desired an independent Arab state in the Middle East in return for his cooperation in defeating the Ottoman Empire, conversely, while the British badly needed the local Arab support they would not abandon their imperial ambitions in the region. by October 1915, with negotiations having stalled on this point, Hussein had become increasingly angered by Britain’s unwillingness to agree to his terms. To move past the negotiations stalemate, Hussein gave the British an ultimatum of thirty days in which to concede to Arab independence following the war in return for his support. If the British declined, Hussein informed them that he would sign an agreement with the Turks who were willing to consent to his demands in return for his allegiance to the Axis powers at this point of the war.9
Britain now had an important decision to make. They could grant Hussein his wishes, gaining crucial support in what had become a long and costly war, but in doing so give up any hope of acquiring any new post-war provinces in the Middle East. Alternatively, they could decline his offer turning potential allies into yet another enemy to contend with, making gains in the Middle East more costly and endangering vital territories already held such as the Suez Canal. Given these choices, and in the grand fashion of Brittania waving the rules as she sees fit, McMahon combined the choices into a less than optimal choice.
McMahon informed Hussein of his consent to Hussein’s conditions in return for aid in defeating the Turks, consent which of course came with stipulations in favor of the British. The most significant demand by the British was that certain regions of Mesopotamia, those rich in oil, be placed under “special administrative arrangements.”10 McMahon also specified that such conditions could only be enforced with the approval of Britain’s ally, France. McMahon and his advisors knew of the French desire to acquire more territory in the Middle East and the potential trouble which would be caused by overtly opposing them following an Allied victory.11 By making these requirements including the stipulations on France, the British had virtually made Hussein a promise which they would not and could not keep. The French ambassadors discussed their determination to take hold of the entire region but the British having special administrative arrangements now had the upper hand. Now British diplomats were willing to negotiate in regards to Syria, however, they were absolutely unwilling and had no reason to relinquish any claim to the area that is now modern day Iraq. With this impasse, France and Britain set out to negotiate an agreement which would split the Middle East between them following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire instead of honoring any agreement they had with Hussein. By May 1916 British representative Mark Sykes finished his meetings with Georges-Picot of France, mainly in the pub over a few pints per Professor Kohnen, and had drawn a map which would ultimately determine the boundaries of the modern day Middle East.12
Looking at the map of the modern Middle East and the ongoing conflict involving ISIS in Syria and Iraq today you can see the geographical connections to the negotiations between McMahon and Hussein which centered around Hussein’s desire for an independent Arab state in the Middle East. At the height of its power the Islamic State had established territories under their control stretching over parts of Syria and Iraq up to the border of Turkey. The Areas that ISIS has reclaimed were the areas originally promised to Hussein for Arab independence by McMahon in his correspondence. This rapid rise and success of ISIS has come about due the direct results and the inadequacies of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and British Imperialism as well as the dispute between Sykes and the Arabists. ISIS seeks to create the promised independent Arab State envisioned by Hussein, though this time based on Islam, promised in the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence and Sykes-Picot agreement one hundred years prior. The problem now is that they have a desire to expand beyond what was promised and turn it into a worldwide caliphate in revenge for the past.13
The Peshmerga, Kurdish fighters from Turkey and Iraq, are in opposition to ISIS and its policy of ethnic cleansing. The Peshmerga are fighting for an autonomous Kurdish state in competition with the Arab state desire of ISIS. At least these two opposing forces in the Middle East and its current conflict are motivated by ethnic and religious differences exacerbated Sykes-Picot and the arbitrary lines it drew in the sand without considering culture and religion.
Because of the imperial ambitions of Sykes and the desire of France to control Syria and the disregard of input by the Arabists and the individual Arab groups affected by the agreement, the borders of the Middle East were artificially created by Sykes and Picot. These artificially created countries have populations who fundamentally oppose each other ethnically and religiously. Had the Arabists and affected Arab ethnic groups been involved in creating the new Middle East map instead of just the Governments of France and Britain focusing on imperial aspirations, many of today’s problems could have been avoided. If the British Government had acted in good faith in the negotiations with King Hussein, they would have been regarded more as allies than enemies whose word could not be trusted. The locals of the Middle East have a strict code of ethics and honesty is important. With the British being the visible representative of the West to the local population, McMahon has managed to show the entirety of the West as untrustworthy to a populace with a very long memory.
The United States has now inherited this problem and has a chance to use the history of the region and the agreements made here to help come to a more peaceful and lasting conclusion. Unfortunately, we are not using history and its lessons, instead reverting to mirror imaging the enemy and trying to win a war based on what we consider to be rationality without considering that the enemy gets a vote on the progression of hostilities. The training that we do to learn the culture of the area is a decent start, but it is only an overview and does not help in that it is out of context with the beliefs of the people. We are the same in the eyes of the locals as those who have oppressed and invaded their territories for hundreds of years with the only difference being a slightly different accent. If we are to be effective, we need to incorporate more history into the cultural training of the region so that our troops and Government leaders can begin to understand the root causes of the problems seen and then start to find solutions while avoiding further antagonization of the local people. Perhaps it would be a good choice to ensure a space for a historian on the major command staff so that these lessons won’t have to be relearned.
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