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From Sykes Picot To Anarchy In The Arab World

Politics / Middle East Oct 29, 2013 - 05:42 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


When it was signed in May 1916 the Sykes-Picot-Sazonov agreement was a secret carve-up accord set by the British and French diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot, and Imperial Russia's foreign minister Sergei Sazonov. In 1916 the deal still included Imperial Russia for setting “spheres” of colonial power and influence in the soon-to-fall Turkish Ottoman empire. After the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917, Vladimir Lenin found a copy of the agreement in Russian archives. By way of the agreement, Russia would control Turkish Armenia and northern Kurdistan. Lenin and the Communists were happy to widely publish agreement – because to them it was nothing but another Imperial carve-up of dominated peoples – and also fell far short of what Russia had expected from the deal, especially concerning Persia or Iran. The Communists totally rejected the deal.

Despite the diplomatic-style preambules and copious footnotes, the Sykes-Picot accord was vague about who would get what, and which Arab nations, forces or entities would share control or hold power in the “influenced territories” shown above. There was no analysis of what would happen in the huge Ottoman region after its imperial power disappeared. For the French and British governments, however, this 1916 accord seemed workable. It handed over control of what became Syria, Lebanon and Turkish southern and eastern Cilicia to the French, and handed what became Palestine, Jordan, Baghdad and ill-defined areas around the Persian Gulf and parts of future Iran to the British.

For the Arab nationalists and especially the royal families of the future Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia the accord was an outrage – only swapping Turkish imperialism for Western imperialism. For the Turks it was also a colonial outrage and sparked the often-sidelined Turkish revolt of 1919-23. For the Persians it was a plank in the emergence of modern Iranian nationalism. For the Kurds it was treachery and the start of their struggle for an expanded national homeland. For the USA, but for very different reasons the Sykes-Picot accord was also a non-starter.

The Versailles Treaty series of negotiations focused German war reparations, and the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire, which surrendered to the Allies of World War I in October 1918 but was not formally dissolved until July 1923 and replaced by the modern Republic of Turkey. The Treaty of Sèvres, signed in August 1920 after fifteen months of haggling, did not include the USA but was signed by Great Britain, Italy and France for the Allies. Communist Russia refused to participate and by 1920 America had withdrawn into a policy of isolation. To be sure, the three-letter word o-i-l  played a major role, but another factor was the Allied's belief that the region would somehow organize itself into a mix of traditional monarchies and new colonies of the Western powers.

The US was already an oil-power, it was opposed to European colonialism and unhappy with both the terms of Sykes-Picot and the way the Versailles treaty series, to date in 1920, had allocated controlling power over then-known oil producing zones. As one example, after the Treaty of Sevres, Britain took over Iraq and large oil concessions in Iraq and Kurdistan through Britain gaining control of the Turkish Petroleum Company, later renamed the Iraq Petroleum Company, which was finally rolled together with the Anglo Iranian Oil Company to give the later and present BP.

The last treaty in the series, the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, led to the international recognition of the new Republic of Turkey as the successor state to the defunct Ottoman Empire, but its many other provisions were often rejected or modified by the USA which for example made a separate agreement with Turkey, called the Chester concession for oil-and-railways development. The concession also set an agreement for possible American oil sector development in Turkish Libya. The US Senate refused to ratify the Lausanne Treaty and also, after years of haggling, the Chester concession. Consequently, Turkey annulled the oil and other concessions it had made to the US and American companies.

By 1923, the Turkish uprising or Turkish revolt was 4 years old featuring the rise of what Turks can call their own “Lawrence of Arabia”. Mustafa Kemal, called “Ataturk” by special law of the Turkish parliament, who produced his own poetic version of Islamic history. His own military experience in Turkish Libya, in 1911-12 fighting Italian forces was integrated in his agenda to expel the occupying forces of Greeks, British, French and Italians who had encroached on Turkish land after the Ottomans' collapse in 1918. By late 1922, Ataturk (meaning “Father of the Turks”) managed to almost completely push out foreign military occupation forces, and founded the modern Republic of Turkey in Ankara.

For the British the alternating heroic, tragic and comic tones of "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" by T.E. Lawrence created and supplied a comforting but very distorted Anglocentric view of the Arab Revolt. The 1962 film by David Lean starring Peter O'Toole helped maintain the fiction, but gave a true account of what Lawrence did, militarily. For the Allied high command, he launched a new war front in the Middle East by actively encouraging Arab militias in Syria and the Arabian peninsula to rise up against their traditional overlords, the Ottoman Turks.

Lawrence's book contains a gallery of portraits, sometimes Dickens-like, for example its portrayal of Audai abu Tayi, one of the leading Arab tribal chiefs who Lawrence welded into a “fitfully cohesive” movement. He wrote movingly about “the eternal romance of war”. Lawrence loosely coordinated his Men in Black, in those days camel-mounted, not riding Toyota Hilux four-wheel-drives but already waving their 7.62 mm rifles aloft. He could only call them what they were - an “irregular army”.

They would swoop down on mainly-Turkish armed forces, and slaughter as many as possible or get slaughtered themselves. To be sure there were massive and repeated atrocities – meaning civilians getting in the way – for example Lawrence's account of the Turkish massacre at the town of Tafas, followed by a counter-massacre of surviving Turks, in the final months of the Arab revolt. Being a stiff-lipped Britisher, or simply devoid of human feelings, Lawrence gave “crisp and detached” descriptions of these atrocities and their bodycount, which spiced up and helped sell his book.

Neither the British, nor the French, nor the Americans believed or expected that the Arab revolt would become hard-wired into local mentalities and ways of doing things – or had revealed and restored the traditional ways of creating and then destroying states in an endless cycle. For Lawrence there was no problem – he resigned from the Army and sloped back to cold and muddy England and his “very naughty” but already very fashionable lifestyle of practicing homosexual. There are repeated claims that he was assassinated in 1935, by or for the British MI5. 

Ataturk's Turkish revolt, for starters, did not fit the Allied gameplan. The Allies had believed the Ottomans, after their military defeat and surrender, would accept Western imperial rule like the European colonies of Asia or Africa. These were however themselves already seething with revolt and the demand for self-determination. A huge swath of today's Turkey was supposed to fall under French influence for as long as France wanted, with little or no Turkish resistance. In the east, the Persia of 1918 was extensively encroached by the Sykes-Picot agreement – especially its then-known oil producing regions – but the Iranians were supposed to at most weakly resist this land grab.

The list of other surprises, or disappointments for the Allied's is much longer than the few cases where they got things right. Staying with the “Turkish problem” it took thirteen years, from 1923 to 1936 and the Montreux Treaty and convention for the Western powers to finally accept that the Turkish Republic had full control of the Dardanelles and shipping routes through the “Turkish Straits”. One key dispute was who would get customs duties and transit fees on shipping passing through the Straits.

From the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres onward there was a permanent failure to deal with the issue of a Kurdistan Republic. For the Allied western powers, but nobody else, there was agreement on the boundaries of an independent Kurdistan but nationalist Kurds rejected this because it heavily cut back the territory of their existing sphere, especially in eastern Turkey's region of Lake Van. This large region containing most of Turkey's oil resources was claimed by Sheikh Said of Palu, a Kurdish Sufi leader totally opposed to Ataturk's Islamic reform agenda. The Allied's then took the worst way out – they “de-recognized” Kurdistan, with Kurds living in Turkey defined as Turks, Kurds living in British Iraq defined as Iraqis, and Kurds in French Syria defined as Syrians.

Britain and France had decided from 1916, before Sykes-Picot, what would happen to the area generally called the 'Holy Lands'.  Britain took possession and control of Palestine while France took over Syria and the future Lebanon. As we know, a Palestinian state should have existed but never did. Syria is now a state in meltdown. Lebanon may or may not escape the turmoil, but is a totally divided state. Israel, which in the 1920s and 1930s was only a project and a hope for Jewish nationalists, and for Zionists, was not created until 1948 but has dangerously grown since then. 

The Kingdom of Hejaz, later expanded to become Saudi Arabia in 1932 was given formal recognition as an independent Arab kingdom from 1920. With Mecca and Medina as its most important cities, the Kingdom of Hejaz was 100,000 square miles in size with a total 1920 population of 750,000. The future Kingdom of Jordan totally rejected even this first definition of Hejaz, from the start.

The T.E. Lawrence “guided and romantic” history of the Arab revolt was at least as poetic as Ataturk's notions were of Allah and the Coran, the Hejira flight from Mecca by Mahomet and more especially Ataturk's conception of the Mongol ancestry of firstly the Ottomans then the Turks – almost but not quite an Imperial concept. One common theme for Lawrence and Ataturk was their writings (but not the political action of Ataturk) concerned non-state armies and entities in a historical process of West Asian population movements and expansion. But they didn't put it that way.

In fact the process was anarchic in the real sense of the term – existing powers were overthrown but replacement powers were always contested, never accepted, and rulers had to resort to tyranny. The Mongol empire, for example, is better called a sphere of influence because it was never politically centralized, its economic organization was always localized, it had no unifying single religion or language, it had no single or special culture, and so on.

Previous to “republics” in the modern sense of the word (republics date back to at least 500 BC), monarchies also existed. In the MENA however, Islam can be called an anti-state religion because it ordains that a caliph will be the head of a pan-Islamic government, chosen by pious community notables. For strict Muslims, only a Caliph can be the legitimate head of an Islamic state, and will administer the state's affairs with a group of consultants each having an “immaculate character”. On that basis and for example, the present Saudi government is only a family dynasty of monarchs that professes a typical Wahabite or Salafist brand of Islam, and has no special legitimacy.

Due to the Coran containing no specific rules on how states should be run, interpretation is all. In the Coran, Mahomet says that "This process began as prophecy and mercy, then mercy and a califate, then a voracious kingdom, and then arrogance and tyranny”. Defenders of monarchy in the Muslim countries call this a proof that  in Islam and Shari`a, kingship is not as good as a caliphate but is a lot better than tyranny, and above all anarchy. This has a special place in Islam. The fight against anarchy is given a special role by the “Fitna” or first civil war of Islam – the first major civil war within the Islamic Caliphate from 656-661 AD – fitna being the same word as “anarchy” in Arabic.

Therefore Islam implicitly if not formally ranks from the lowest to highest, anarchy followed by tyranny, then monarchy and finally the caliphate as the desirable and best ways to govern. We can note there is no reference to democracy. For the ancient Greeks whose “neo-platonism” heavily influenced early Islamic philosophy, both Sunni and Shia, this was an intermediate or transitional form of government between tyranny and anarchy, either going up, or going down.

Also missing in the Islamic statehood order, the ancient Greek concept of primitive or traditional aristocracy could be taken as an idealized version of the califate.

Never mentioned by Mahomet but certainly a part of his daily life for decades, “turf war” fighting and conflicts between traders and herders, brigands and warlords along the caravan route from Mecca to Damascus was a process we can call anarchic – like the fighting bands loosely organized or incited by Britain's T.E Lawrence about 1,350 years later.

For the Ottomans, to be sure, Lawrence's anarchic bands were fighting the Caliphate! Today, the ragtag but well-armed bands of “djihadist insurgents” in Syria and Libya have to be recognized for what they are – anarchist fighters awaiting some form of state or government they can approve and accept. What that is, we cannot know at the present moment but the claim by djihadists that they are creating a “new califate” can only be false because their attempt is already opposed and can only be opposed.

Tyranny is the most likely end result.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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