The Man Who Invented Sykes-Picot

Monday, May 16 2016, is the presumed 100th anniversary of the “Sykes-Picot” accord. Many speak confidently of it, fewer have actually read it, fewer still understand its roots and how an obscure letter has become a prominent feature of discourse about the Middle East.

To understand the roots of the letter and its deeper meaning, we need to place ourselves in the minds of European diplomats circa 1914. The “Great War” as far as these men were concerned was the Crimean conflict of the 1850s. It was as present in their minds as World War II is now in ours. It was a war waged by Catholic and Protestant Europe against Orthodox Russia to stave off the state collapse of the largest Muslim political entity, the Ottoman Empire. In return, the Western powers extracted “reforms” from the Ottomans that created the modern Middle East. These included citizenship rights to religious minorities, mostly Christians and Jews, the elimination of Jizya, the last vestige of Muslim dominance, and the attempt to build modern state apparatus. These Ottoman Tanzimat were an imitation of Muhammad Ali’s Egypt and still resonate in the region. Russia attempted to outflank the European and Ottoman powers by direct appeal to Eastern Christians. The Coptic Church of Egypt rebuffed the Russian overtures with its customary prickliness and habitual servility to the rulers of Egypt. The Levantine Christians were more receptive, but the Russian defeat in the Crimean war opened the way to reprisals from the Ottomans, exemplified by the 1860s pogroms in the Mountains of Lebanon and later against the Armenians. That conflict still echoes today, with a new Russian despot, Putin, imagining himself a second coming of Nicholas I.

In 1916 the British and French had lost their taste for propping up the Ottomans. For one thing, the “Young Turks” had sided against them and allied themselves with Germany. This was no accident but a telling foretaste of the Middle East new nationalism and its fascination with European Statism and Fascism. The French wanted nothing more than to save face with the Catholics of Lebanon who saw them as protectors. The British were truly confused. A prominent member of the aristocracy (Balfour) was toying with supporting Jewish Nationalism. A screwy romantic (Lawrence) was toying with inventing Arab Nationalism. Balfour and Lawrence were bound to collide (as they figuratively did after the war). In between, sat the sober diplomat Sykes. Catholic, restrained and sensible, he simply wanted order not excitement. Hence the “Sykes-Picot” letter. The letter sought to protect British and French interests in the presumed chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Ottomans. It even included a bone to Russia, in the form of control over Constantinople and partial control of Jerusalem. The Tsar, one year away from revolution, still imagined himself the Eastern Christian Emperor. The letter would have been consigned to the memory hole had it not been for subsequent events. When we speak of “Sykes-Picot” today we speak not of the letter but of the invented drama about the letter and its meaning. But who invented “Sykes-Picot”? It is a question worth pursuing, but with likely frustration as no single father (or mother for that matter) is apparent.

This observer’s favorite is Mohammed Hassenein Heikal, the Egypt journalist who recently passed away. Heikal was Nasser’s voice and the prominent peddler of the mythical Arab nation. Like many of his generation he felt Egypt would be made better with additional discipline, and a larger mission. A man educated by American missionaries could have no truck with the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamism. Instead he hit upon a fashionable idea from the salons of Damascus and Beirut. Yes, Egypt would be the Prussia of the Arabs. Egyptians would be cured of their habitual Fawda and goose-stepped to greatness. But such a vision needed a “stab-in-the-back”. “Sykes-Picot” was there to serve the purpose. Couple that with the “Balfour Declaration” and you have a unifying theme, and one with easy public appeal. Anti-Western and Antisemitic, it was the perfect tool for the propagandist from Dokki and Zamalek. Somewhere in heaven, Ustaz Heikal is smiling, Cigar in hand. He had put one over the Western scholars, or most of them anyway. A man for all political seasons had found an excuse for all political ills. Or so lives the lie.

 

— Maged Atiya



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