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Paul Mason on Sykes-Picot: how an arbitrary set of borders created the modern Middle East

100 years ago today, Britain and France carved up what would become Syria, Iraq and Israel. Their imperial mindset still scars the region.

One hundred years ago today, Britain and France drew a line through the Middle East that became the border between Syria and Iraq, with a kink at the end of it that became Israel. You get a sense of the breezy confidence behind the so-called Sykes-Picot agreement from the minutes of the cabinet where the idea was hatched:

“What sort of agreement would you like to have with the French?” Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, asks Sir Mark Sykes – a brilliant but erratic colonel just back from a tour of the region. “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk,” says Sykes. 

Thus the destiny of millions of people was shaped by the way a printer had arranged some place names on a map.

It was not the first unfortunate encounter Sykes had with a map. In January 1915, he penned a fateful letter to Winston Churchill urging him to seize Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Sykes pointed out that if Britain and France could seize the main city of the Ottoman Empire, not only would that empire crash, and German influence in the east be ended, but the way might be open to invade Germany via the Balkans.

“Could you by June be fighting towards Vienna,” Sykes advised, “you would have got your knife near the monster’s vitals and perhaps might achieve the line Mulhausen, Munich, Vienna, Cracow before winter”. 

It is worth contemplating this line – Sykes was very keen on lines – with your finger. To get there, Britain would have had to subjugate the entire Balkan region. To kick things off, you had to land troops in Turkey, at a place called Gallipoli.

“It is not so chimerical as it may sound,” Sykes wrote to Churchill. 40,000 troops died trying to prove him right, but failed.

When Islamic State blew up border posts between Iraq and Syria in 2014, it declared an “end to the Sykes-Picot era”. But you do not have to be a terrorist to object to the imperial mindset that drove the agreement. 

The arbitrary drawing of borders, in defiance of geography, ethnicity and common sense, became the hallmark of imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

If, today, the Kurds are driving IS out of northern Syria, with bare-headed communist women in the vanguard, that is – in part – a result of Sykes legacy. In 1915, Sykes assured the British cabinet that “east of the Tigris the Kurds are pro-Arab”. Kurdistan was subsumed within a French zone of control and, by the time the post-war order was frozen at Versailles in 1919, the Kurds had become a non-people.

Sykes’ famous pencil-stroke through the Arab world, combined with his enthusiastic support of Balfour’s 1917 declaration in favour of a Jewish state in Palestine, makes him one of the few British figures who exerted strategic influence on the twentieth century.

It was influence born of first-hand knowledge and experience. Sykes had grown up in the Arab world. His assurance to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith that the “spiritual fire” of pan-Arabism lay in Saudi Arabia, while its “intellectual organising power” lay in Syria, Palestine and Beirut was well-observed.

But his expertise prompts the question: how could somebody so knowledgeable get it so wrong?

To read Sykes’ papers today is to observe the tragedy of an intellect shackled by delusions of superiority. Sykes worked on the assumption, central to all imperialisms: that subject peoples behave only according to their ethnic or national “characteristics”, whereas powerful white nations have agency.

Paradoxically, for someone whose name was hated by generations of Arabs, Sykes idolised Arab culture. First because he believed it to be non-revolutionary, in contrast with nationalism in Turkey and India where the problem was “a lot of poor men who have got a little education and greater ambitions”.

Second, because he believed it could encompass both wings of Islam, plus Christianity, and tolerate the Jews.

The one national characteristic Sykes and his generation never seemed to notice was their own. Imperialism turned them into purblind fools who thought that, by drawing lines, they could control history.

What they failed to imagine was that, first, Turkey would develop a modern, secular, national consciousness. This meant their one-way bet against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War proved futile. Turkish secular nationalism would shape the region just as much as pan-Arabism in the next 100 years.

Second, though he understood Islam well, Sykes and his generation saw it as entirely secondary to ethnicity, language and political tradition. 

Third, they failed to anticipate the emergence of anti-imperialism: once “very poor men” got educated, and were drawn into cities and factories, it was they who began shaping history and the white officer class who had to stand and watch.

Fourth, they failed to imagine that, one year after Sykes-Picot, a workers’ revolution in Russia, spreading to the Caucasus, would free large parts of the exotic and remote world they had become obsessed with – not just from imperialism but from capitalism itself.

Today, the easy lesson to learn from Sykes-Picot: don’t draw arbitrary lines across the map. Peoples and nations must have the right to self-determination. This was the principle US President Woodrow Wilson outlined as America entered the war, and which caused the British and French governments to hide the existence of Sykes’ map from Washington.

The harder lesson to learn is: never rely on national stereotypes; never reduce the conflicts of the world to ethnicity alone. There are also class, gender, religion, politics and history – attributes Sykes discounted as he tried to predict how the sub-groups of the Middle East would react to British policy.

The final lessons is: accept responsibility. The Sykes-Picot agreement was conceived in the same room David Cameron’s cabinet sits in now. The passage of time should not absolve us from engaging with the situations we messed up.

Photo: Getty
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Sheepwrecked: how the Lake District shows up World Heritage's flaws

Here's hoping future statements about farming and the environment aren't quite so sheepish.

“Extremists like George Monbiot would destroy the Lake District,” tweeted Eric Robson, presenter of Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questions. But he’s “just standing up for nature”, others shot back in Monbiot’s defence. The cause of the clash? The park’s new World Heritage status and the continuing debate over the UK’s “sheep-wrecked” countryside.

Tension is such you can almost hear Cumbria’s Vikings chuckling in their hogback graves – for sheep farming still defines the Lakes as much as any poem. Hilltop farmers, like Lizzie Weir and Derek Scrimegeour, have sweated the landscape into shape over generations. And while Wordsworth may have wandered lonely as a cloud, a few hundred pairs of pricked ears were likely ruminating nearby.

UNESCO’s World Heritage committee now officially supports this pro-farm vision: “The most defining feature of the region, which has deeply shaped the cultural landscape, is a long-standing and continuing agro-pastoral tradition,” says the document which recommends the site for approval. 

And there’s much to like about the award: the region’s small, outdoor farms are often embedded in their local community and focused on improving the health and quality of their stock – a welcome reminder of what British farms can do at their best. Plus, with Brexit on the horizon and UK megafarms on the rise, farmers like these need all the spotlight they can get.

But buried in the details of the bid document is a table showing that three-quarters of the area's protected sites are in an “unfavourable condition”. So it is depressing that farming’s impact on biodiversity appears to have been almost entirely overlooked. Whether you agree with the extent of George Monbiot’s vision for Rewilding or not, there are clearly questions about nibbled forests and eroded gullies that need to be addressed – which are not mentioned in the report from UNESCO’s  lead advisory body, ICOMOS, nor the supplementary notes on nature conservation from IUCN.

How could so little scrutiny have been applied? The answer may point to wider problems with the way the World Heritage program presently works – not just in Cumbria but around the world.

In the Lake District’s case, the bid process is set-up to fail nature. When the convention was started back in the 1970s, sites could be nominated under two categories, either “cultural” or “natural”, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) advising on the first, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the second.

Then in 1992 a new category of “cultural landscape” was introduced to recognise places where the “combined works of nature and man” are exceptional. This means such sites are always evaluated principally by ICOMOS, giving them more resources to research and shape the verdict – and limiting the input IUCN is able to make.

Another weakness is that the evaluation bodies can only follow a state’s choice of category. So if a state nominates a site as a Cultural Landscape, then considerations about issues like biodiversity can easily end up taking a back seat.

According to Tim Badman, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, this situation is in need of redress. “The way in which this separation of nature and culture works is increasingly out of tune and counter-productive,” he says. “Every natural site has some kind of relationship with people, and every cultural site has some major conservation interest, even if it might not be globally significant. We should collaborate much more to make that a virtue of the system.”

The more you think about it, the madder the notion of a “Cultural Landscape” sounds. Landscapes are, after all, inherently scoped out by man, and there is little in the natural world that humanity has left untouched. Especially those in Western Europe and especially those, like Cumbria, that have been felled and farmed by a succession of historic invaders.

Relationships between advisory bodies are also not the only failing in UNESCO’s approach; relationships between nations and the convention can be problematic too. At this month’s meeting of the committee in Poland, it was decided that the Great Barrier Reef would, once again – and despite shocking evidence of its decline – not be on UNESCO’s “In Danger” list. It prompts the question, what on earth is the list for?

The reluctance of many nations to have their sites listed as In Danger is a mixed blessing, says Badman. In some cases, the prospect of being listed can motivate reform. But it is also a flawed tool – failing to include costed action plans – and causing some governments to fear attacks from their domestic opposition parties, or a decline in their tourism.

On top of this, there is the more generalised politicking and lobbying that goes on. Professor Lynn Meskell, an Anthropologist at Stanford University, is concerned that, over the years, the institution “has become more and more political”. At the most recent session of the World Heritage Committee earlier this month, she found nominations being used to inflame old conflicts, a continuing regional dominance by Europe, and a failure to open up many “at risk” sites for further discussion. “All Yemen’s sites are in danger, for instance” she says, “yet they couldn’t afford to even send one person."

Perhaps most challenging of all is the body’s response to climate change. At the recent committee gathering, Australia raised the subject by way of suggesting it cannot be held solely be responsible for the decline of the Great Barrier Reef. And Turkey attempted to water down a reference to the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming the language used was overly “technical” and that the delegates present were too inexpert to comment.

According to Tim Badman, climate change is certainly an area that needs further work, not least because World Heritage’s present policy on the subject is now a decade old. Even the most ambitious interpretation of the Paris Climate Agreement would still see very significant damage done to Heritage sites around the world, Badman says.

There is hope of change, however. For the most polite yet sturdy response to Turkey’s objections – or, as the chair ironically puts it “this very small ecological crisis” – I recommend watching these encouraging reactions from Portugal, Phillippines and Finland (2h30) -  a push-back on technical objections that Meskell says is rare to see. IUCN will also be producing the second edition of their World Heritage Outlook this November.

Positions on the Lake District’s farms will also hopefully be given further thought. Flaws within World Heritage’s approach may have helped pull wool over the committee’s eyes, but future debate should avoid being quite so sheepish.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.