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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.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution