Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 1)

This is Part One of a two part series on Sykes-Picot and the controversial borders of the Middle East.

Dr Rod Thornton

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, reached during the First World War by Britain and France, has recently been given renewed prominence. This has come about with the claim by Islamic State (IS) that this accord created the current borders of the Middle East – borders which are preventing IS from forming a region-wide Islamic Caliphate. IS, though, is wrong. Sykes-Picot is not to ‘blame’. It had actually been, quote, ‘rescinded’ by the British in October 1917, a year before the war ended. Sykes-Picot thus played no part in the setting up of any post-war borders in the Middle East.

These borders were, in fact, set primarily by the demands of the British military. It was ‘facts on the ground’ created by the advances, sometimes without orders, of British and Imperial troops during the war that ultimately shaped the map of the Middle East, not international agreements such as Sykes-Picot. These British advances (with intermittent retreats) were made northwards during the war from both Egypt and Basra (seized in November 1914) until the war in the Middle East ended in October 1918. They were made against an Ottoman opponent occupying, beyond Turkey itself, what is today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, Iraq and most of the Arabian peninsular.

The fundamental rationales behind the forward momentum of British troops, and thus behind the setting of today’s borders, were, in essence, and to borrow from Lord Ismay, to keep the French out; the Turks down, and the Christians in. My work concentrates specifically on the controversial establishing by British troops of one particular border as a ‘fact on the ground’. This border is that between today’s Turkey and Iraq. There are, currently, many in Turkey who claim that this border should not be there; that it was illegally set by British troops at the end of the war and that today’s Iraqi Kurdish region and the area around the city of Mosul are rightfully Turkish. Thus, according to this logic, and at the very least, Turkish troops today have the perfect right to cross over into Iraqi territory in pursuit of state interests or even to occupy northern Iraq.

Let’s deal with Sykes-Picot first. It was originally a Russian idea. It began to take shape when, in February 1915, Tsarist Foreign Minister Sergei Sazanov came to the British and French with a suggestion for how the three allies – confident of eventual victory over the forces of a decaying Ottoman empire – could carve up that defeated empire. The British MP, Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, negotiated on behalf of their governments. It was initially agreed that the Russians would occupy Constantinople, the Dardanelles and eastern Anatolia. Sykes and Georges-Picot then came to establish how their own countries would create their respective post-war ‘spheres of influence’ in the Levant, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. It was accepted by Britain that the French, given their historical ties in terms of trade and as the self-proclaimed ‘protector’ of the Christian communities across the region, would be granted control of, or influence in, what is now Lebanon and Syria and a good deal of today’s Turkey. This was despite France having hardly any troops in the Middle East to help deliver any outcomes. The British, meanwhile, who would do all the fighting to gain the territories in question, would hold post-war sway in what is now Jordan, much of Palestine (bar an ‘international zone’ around Jerusalem) and the area around Baghdad and Basra. The remainder of most of the Arabian peninsular was to be left basically to its own devices. This was because of the need, in British Foreign Office-speak at the time, to avoid in that region ‘any entanglement with the Wahhabees’.

What was crucial in this whole Sykes-Picot project was that any putative British ‘sphere of influence’ did not abut against the area of Anatolia assigned to Russia – Britain’s traditional enemy in this part of the world. This would have occurred had the British taken control of the area around Mosul. Thus the French – long-term allies of the Russians – were, as part of Sykes-Picot, also to be allotted what was referred to as a ‘wedge’ or ‘lozenge’ of territory that ran from the Euphrates to the Persian border across what is today’s northern Iraq. This French area would act as a buffer between the Russians and British. It basically comprised the Ottoman vilayet (administrative region) of Mosul. The British were thus ‘claiming’ – of the three vilayets that together were even then known as Al Iraq – only those of Basra and Baghdad and not Mosul.

Sykes-Picot, ultimately signed in secret in May 1916, did not set any actual borders. The only forms of demarcation it had were some vague ‘partition lines’ drawn in thick lines on a very large-scale map. Boundary commissions, however, could sort out all the details later. These Sykes-Picot ‘lines’ were not totally arbitrary. In large part, they can be seen to be following the vilayet boundaries set by the Ottomans themselves. These boundaries thus must have been authorised by the Sultan himself – a man who was also the leader of the world’s Muslims; that is, he also acted as Caliph. Sykes-Picot can therefore be looked upon, and as a point of irony, as being at least in part based on boundary lines set by the Caliphate itself!

Sykes-Picot, however, was to run into trouble. In March 1917, a revolution in Russia brought to power Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government. Liberal in make-up, it felt no need to occupy anyone else’s territory. Petrograd thus told the British and French governments that Russia no longer had any post-war claims on any part of Turkish territory. (It was thus Kerensky’s government that pulled out of Sykes-Picot and not, as generally advertised, the later Bolshevik administration.) This meant, in particular, that if the Russians were reneging then there would no longer be any need for the British to have their buffer of the Mosul ‘wedge’. Thus if the British, later in the war, eventually come to occupy Mosul vilayet then they would not need to hand it over to the French. The Sykes-Picot plan needed to change. As a consequence, and according to a Foreign Office report of 22 October 1917, Sykes-Picot was now ‘no longer applicable’ and would have to be ‘rescinded’.

It actually took some time before the French were officially informed by the British that they would no longer be working towards implementing the agreement. It was only on 14 October 1918 that the British War Cabinet eventually approved the sending of a letter to the French Foreign Minister saying that Sykes-Picot was ‘out of date’. There was now, said the British, a need for ‘fresh conversations’ about the issue of the future of the Middle East.

Sykes-Picot as an agreement was thus to play no further part in the post-war shaping of the political make-up of the Middle East. Yes, French regional interests still had to be accommodated by the British – but not under the banner of Sykes-Picot.

While Sykes-Picot did very little to generate the current borders of the Middle East, another actor did considerably more. This was the British military. It was the demands of this military that ultimately created the facts on the ground which formed the basis for the majority of today’s borders. And while those created by British forces across other parts of the Middle East have their critics, the most controversial is undoubtedly the current border between Turkey and Iraq.

At the time of the Russian withdrawal from their part of the agreement, Anglo-Indian troops in Mesopotamia were still making their slow grind up from Basra and were just about to capture Baghdad (in April 1917). They were thus still some 400kms south of Mosul. But the eventual occupation of this city and its vilayet could, from this time, be treated as a distinctly British war aim and one no longer to be achieved merely in order to hand it over to the French.

But what were British war aims in Mesopotamia? The Anglo-Indian army there was given little in the way of firm direction as to what its goals should actually be. The primary role seemed to be to do nothing more than provide occasional victories against the Ottomans which would boost morale back in Britain. The public in Britain, however, picked up on this aimlessness and questions were being asked about why troops were being wasted in what seemed a pointless enterprise. Rudyard Kipling, indeed, was to write a suitably scathing poem in 1917 about this campaign called Mesopotamia.

By 1918, these troops in Mesopotamia were being diverted to provide support to the rather quixotic detachment of British forces – Dunsterforce – which was operating around Baku. Once this adventure had been concluded in September 1918, all that seemed to be demanded of British forces in Mesopotamia was that their advance northwards kept pace with that being conducted in the far more important campaign in Greater Syria. This was in case Ottoman forces took advantage of any possible flanking opportunities.

It has been suggested in a raft of literature both in the 1920s and also far more recently, that this movement north of British forces towards Mosul vilayet during the war was actually driven by the need to seize the region’s then supposed oil assets. There is, though, no evidence to support this contention. The movement towards Mosul was actually driven by a local need to gain another commodity far more important than oil – food.

 

Image: Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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