Next month will mark the centenary of the Arab Revolt, when the tribes of the Hijaz rose up to attack the forces of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. I mention this not for any great love of anniversaries, but as an antidote to all the talk of the Sykes-Picot agreement signed in May 1916, which has exercised minds all over the Middle East and beyond.
Under this infamous pact, the colonial powers on the allied side – Russia, Britain and France – decided how to carve up the lands of the Ottoman Empire. This was a desperate piece of diplomacy – Britain and France were bleeding to death on the Western Front and needed Russia to spearhead an attack on Germany’s ally, the Ottomans.
For this, Britain and France were willing to sign away the crown jewels: Russia would get Constantinople, the then capital of the empire, and control of the Bosphorus Strait and the Black Sea.
For a century Britain had been trying to stop this very occurrence, a disaster for British interests. If Russia had indeed seized Constantinople (now Istanbul) it would surely have led in short order to to a new war.
The Sykes-Picot agreement represented a brief commonality of interests, like a truce among mafia dons. It was never implemented and became a dead letter. This has not stopped it living in infamy as an example of colonial greed, arrogance and lies. Today it is known to every Arab schoolchild, and raised at every opportunity to visiting British people (the Russians cleverly have managed to get themselves off the charge sheet).
But this document is a flimsy foundation on which to explain the tragedy of the Middle East today, though of course the colonial powers have their share of blame.
Britain wanted Palestine, to control the Suez Canal, and Iraq, for its oil and connection to India. French colonial glory required it to pursue its so-called civilising mission in what is today Syria and Lebanon.
Of greater interest is how the peoples of the region disrupted the Sykes-Picot agreement to make their own future.
First are the Russian people, who overthrew Tsar Nicholas II in 1917 and pulled out of the war, thus depriving Russia of the promised share of the Ottoman Empire. It was the Revolutionaries who found the secret agreement in the archives and broadcast it to the world, to the intense embarrassment of Britain and France.
The second, and most powerful, disrupter was a Turkish army officer by the name of Mustafa Kemal, known to history as Ataturk. Under the agreement most of what is modern Turkey was allocated to Russia, France and Italy. He roused the defeated Turks to fight off the designs of the colonials and created the Turkish Republic.
And what of the Arabs? The Arabs did not succeed in disrupting colonial plans. The Arab Revolt, carried out by camel-borne Bedouin, never became a broad-based insurrection. It had several weaknesses: it was funded by British gold and the limelight has been stolen – at least in western history books – by the conflicted figure of T E Lawrence, a British intelligence officer with a gift for guerrilla warfare.
Lawrence knew that the promise he had given to Emir Faisal, the Hashemite leader of the revolt, of a unified Arab kingdom in the former Ottoman lands was a lie. He salved his conscience by pressing forward to Damascus before the French go there so that Faisal could establish his claim to the throne. The French expelled him and the British installed him as king of Iraq.
Arabs of the Levant
Faisal has taken a lot of the blame for failing to turn a revolt into an Arab nationalist insurrection.
Among recent books on the topic, Neil Faulkner in Lawrence of Arabia’s War: The Arabs, the British and the Remaking of the Middle East in WWI, calls the Hashemites “ambitious reactionaries” and blames the triumph of the colonial powers on Faisal’s “capitulations and pusillanimity.”
More appropriate for judging the effect of 1916 on the Middle East today is the research of the Tufts University scholar Leila Fawaz whose book, A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War, shows the desperate state of Arabs of the Levant – food was short and hunger was rife.
Intellectuals were oppressed by an efficient Ottoman police, and signs of rebellion were ruthlessly crushed, except in the desert where Faisal’s Bedouin could attack and melt away with ease.
This is not to say there was no resistance. British rule in Iraq was greeted by revolt in 1920 which was put down by bombing from the air. Churchill even suggested the use of poison gas. The French needed 50,000 soldiers and had to shell Damascus, leaving large parts in ruins, to put down a revolt in 1925-27.
But these revolts, especially in Syria, were led by tribal chiefs. Nationalist politicians were repressed both by the Ottomans and their successors. There was no Arab Ataturk to mobilise the country.
In sum, liberation came to the Arabs just at the time when they were least ready for it. Arab political culture had been in the deep freeze for centuries of Ottoman rule. National consciousness was discouraged by the system of sectarian-based personal law under the Ottoman caliphate.
A century after Sykes-Picot the sectarian consciousness that was encouraged by the Ottomans is tragically ascendant in Syria and Iraq.
The states that the colonial powers constructed have survived, but in barely workable form. Yet despite the seemingly endless conflicts, no person in authority with the exception of the Kurds of northern Iraq is proposing to redraw the borders.
The truth is that 1916-17 was a tragically lost opportunity for the Arabs. But the Sykes-Picot agreement offers no answers to the current problems of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen or Libya. It is history, and should stay that way.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs
On Twitter @aphilps
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