ISTANBUL, Turkey — In May 1916, two men, representing Great Britain and France, secretly drew up a map to partition what is now referred to as the Middle East. It was two years before the conclusion of World War I. Colonel Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot authored the Sykes-Picot agreement to distribute former Ottoman Empire territories between Great Britain, France, and imperial Russia. After the end of World War I in 1918, there would be many new states in the Middle East, including Iraq and Syria – created without the consent of, or even consultation with, the people who lived in them.
Professor Cengiz Tomar is a lecturer in Marmara University’s History Department (Faculty of Arts and Sciences) and the Institute of Middle East Studies. He argues that the agreement is no longer working. TRT World caught up with Tomar to discuss the ways in which the Sykes-Picot agreement still affects the Middle East, 101 years after it was put in place.
Can you tell us why Sykes-Picot is important even after 101 years?
CENGIZ TOMAR: Actually, Sykes-Picot is a symbol. It’s the symbol of change in the Middle East. It’s the symbol of great colonial powers’ sovereignty in the Middle East. It’s not an agreement on its own; it’s a collection of agreements. Its symbolic significance is this: With it, the Middle East, which has been dominated by [the Ottoman Empire] for centuries, enters a new phase. And now, a century later, the Middle East is entering a phase again. This new phase signals changes to the results of Sykes-Picot. That’s why Sykes-Picot is important. We could say the Sykes-Picot mentality managed to govern this region for a century.
The thing is there are many problems in the region brought on by a hundred years of Sykes-Picot, but we don’t want a “new Sykes-Picot” to bring on more trouble. That’s the main thing. Will it be [a solution of] borders and states that fit the region’s sociology, its structure? Or will it produce a collection of states that benefit Great Britain and France, just as it was with Sykes-Picot? Of course, at the time, it was Great Britain and France. Now it’s the United States and Russia [that are most involved in the region].
So the main issue here is that the Sykes-Picot arrangement – [Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud] Barzani made a statement to that effect – the Sykes-Picot arrangement is crumbling. That’s obvious. But the new order that will emerge after the Sykes-Picot agreement – will it bring a new Sykes-Picot agreement, or will it bring about an order that will allow the regional communities to live in peace and quiet? That’s the main issue.
What was the main goal of the Sykes-Picot agreement?
CT: The main goal was for Great Britain, France, Russia and other countries [allied together in World War I] to divide the region into areas of influence and rule.
Who were the main players of Sykes-Picot? The parties that wished to divide and rule, as well as those being divided?
CT: Well [Sir Mark] Sykes and [Francois Georges-]Picot, one is British and the other French. Of course, the English play the primary role here. The French, they try to take as much a part of that role. Then Russia also has a part, but when the Bolshevik Revolution happens in Russia [in 1917], the Brits refuse to keep the promises made to Russia previously and the agreement is exposed. Of course there is Sharif Hussein, he’s one of the people who played a part, there’s Lawrence [of Arabia], there’s Gertrude Bell, that we know from history.
There are states that we see in the region today, such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine. The Turkish leg of the agreement was aborted when Turkey was victorious in its War for Independence [1919-1923], because [otherwise] one leg of this agreement was such that: With agreements made in addition to Sykes-Picot, [Turkey’s] Aegean region was allocated to Greece; some southern parts [were going to be given] to the Italians; the northeast, as well as Istanbul and the straits, to Russia. These plans were aborted when Turkey won its independence war, but in Arab regions outside of Turkey this agreement worked out somehow. There were changes, there were alterations, but it more or less worked out.
You say the agreement is now breaking down. How does it look in Syria and Iraq, for example?
CT: The problem is now it turns out to be worse. Iraq is split into three, that is, the Iraqi Kurdish region, the Shia region, the Sunni region. A similar restructuring is about to take place in Syria. The situation is evolving into one where the new situation is worse than the previous one. Compared to Sykes-Picot, I think it’s getting worse, not better.
What kind of solution can be sought for a new agreement? Or is it possible to find a solution at all?
CT: It’s very difficult because there are global powers fighting here, as well as regional powers and local powers. If it were just local and regional powers it may be easier, but because global powers are meddling [in the region] for their own interests – and expect developments to align with their interests – the regional states can only do so much.
Countries like Turkey and Iran wield less of an influence; it is up for great powers to decide. The fact that Russia is in Syria today, that our president is meeting with the United States, is all related to this. Because Turkey is not in a position to set up an arrangement in Syria, in Iraq, against Russia, against the United States.
So the great powers have a big responsibility, but of course the great powers are acting in their own self-interest. Of course, the main issue is for regional communities not to fight each other over ethnic, sectarian or religious reasons. That would be just like the Middle Ages when ... there were the Hundred Years’ War, Thirty Years’ War, religious wars... We should have learned from that experience and not make [the same mistakes] but almost the same scenario is playing out in this region. It will be over in a while, but of course until that happens, the region will suffer great losses.