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Sykes-Picot, Middle East Underwriter, Dead at 100

BERLIN – On May 16, 1916, in the middle of World War I, Great Britain and France signed a secret pact in London. Officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement, the deal, negotiated by the diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, has determined the fate and political order of the Middle East ever since. But not for much longer.

A century ago, Europe’s soon-to-be-victorious powers, concerned with dividing the region (then part of the Ottoman Empire), drew a “line in the sand” (as the author James Barr called it) stretching from the Mediterranean port of Acre in northern Palestine to Kirkuk in northern Iraq, on the border with Iran. All territories north of that line, in particular Lebanon and Syria, would go to France. Territories to its south – Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq – would go to Great Britain, which mainly sought to protect British interests along the Suez Canal, the main naval route to British India.

Simultaneously, however, the United Kingdom was negotiating with Arabs who had sided with the British and French in an uprising against Ottoman rule – first and foremost with Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca. Hussein had been promised Syria in the event of a military victory over the Turks. But under the Sykes-Picot agreement, Syria had been awarded to France. So one of the two sides was certain to be cheated out of the spoils of its victory, and it was clear from the beginning which side was weaker, namely the Arabs striving for independence.

The secret agreement negotiated by Sykes and Picot subsequently led to the formation of states that served the great European colonial powers’ geopolitical interests, not the social, religious, and ethnic realities of the region. A political order was forced upon the Muslim Middle East by Christian European powers that had flouted their commitments to Arab independence – an order that has been at the root of a century of war and conflict.