Certain images will indelibly mark memories of this year and one will be the gut-wrenching video of a five-year-old pulled from rubble in Aleppo with the frozen stare of trauma, his face streaked with soot and blood. “Cease fires” come and go. Hell, it seems, has a special purchase on Syria. When, for heaven’s sake, can it end? No one can answer.
When did it begin? That, at least, we can explain.
Rarely can one moment and one place be fixed as a trigger for events that unravel a whole part of the world for more than a century. But the blood-saturated disintegration of today’s Syria and much of the surrounding carnage and anomie have their origins 100 years ago, in the summer of 1916, and in British-ruled Cairo.
It was there that critical parts of a secret deal were put in place that carved up control of the Middle East – a land grab that could be completed only by having no regard for promises made and by betraying people who had shed much blood in expectation of those promises being met.
The deal was the Sykes-Picot Agreement, made between Britain, France and Czarist Russia, and named for its principal authors, Sir Mark Sykes for Britain and M. Francois Georges Picot of France.
In this arrangement Britain was to have control of Egypt, Palestine, parts of Arabia and a new nation that became Iraq. France was to get Syria. And Russia would have control of Turkey, including of Constantinople and the Dardanelles—the channel from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean that Russia had sought since the days of Peter the Great to give it “warm water” naval power.
The Bolshevik Revolution rendered void the Russian slice of the cake—Ottoman Turkey was replaced by a secular Turkish state. But—fatefully—the rest of the deal was carried out.
The Sykes-Picot negotiations went on for many months and were handled in a way that defined two contrasting national approaches to foreign policy, embodied in the men themselves.
Picot was a professional diplomat who never stepped outside the protocols of his office. Sir Mark Sykes was a gifted amateur to whom life in the diplomatic corps would have been intolerable.
The British gathered a strange assembly of talents in Cairo in 1916, mixing career military officers, stolid colonial administrators, ambitious diplomats with little local sympathy or understanding, academics renowned for their archaeological discoveries in the region, intelligence agents from India and the Sudan and several civil servants locked into turf fights between rival departments directed from London.
Even in this confusion, Sykes seemed an improbable choice to handle such a potentially explosive issue, the covert cartography that would draw arbitrary new national borders from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, from the Levant to the Sudan, from the Nile to the Tigris and Euphrates.
Sykes had a vast family fortune that, as a young man, he had tapped for extensive travel in the Middle East. He was of a group and class called the Orientalists because they so admired and soaked up the cultures of antiquity – the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Arabs, and of later influences like the Turks and the Armenians. In England Sykes had a grand country house and estate, Sledmere, in Yorkshire. Like other travelers with deep pockets he shipped home artifacts from the Orient and had an architect create a Turkish Room at Sledmere, featuring Armenian ceramics.
Sykes’s self-gathered erudition, though, sat oddly with another trait of the class he grew up with—a casual prejudice toward “Orientals” themselves. He drew impromptu racial caricatures on scraps of paper, Jews and Arabs with large noses, fat Turks and shifty merchants in the bazaars.
“The same vein of artistry would transform him into a first-class music hall comedian; holding a chance gathering spellbound by swift and complete changes of character…he could have become a good high comedy or tragic actor and he was an excellent and entertaining writer,” one of the British proconsuls in Cairo noted.
A newcomer to Cairo with a background in archaeology thought Sykes was miscast in such a critical role.
“He would take an aspect of the truth, detach it from its circumstances, inflate it, twist and model it, until its old likeness and its new unlikeness together drew a laugh; and laughs were his triumphs,” he wrote. “His instincts lay in parody…he saw the odd in everything and missed the even.”
This was T.E. Lawrence. In that summer of 1916 Lawrence bounced between the army’s intelligence arm and a small, secret outfit called the Arab Bureau. One of his tasks was to explore and judge the military potential of the Hashemites, the Arab monarchy who were the traditional custodians of the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina. They had already risen against their oppressors, the Ottoman Turks.
Lawrence knew about the negotiations between Sykes and Picot. He understood that if implemented an agreement would completely undercut promises of Arab independence already made to the Hashemites in order to get them to fight the Turks. Indeed, his chief at the Arab Bureau, had complained to London in a somewhat convoluted text: “…the conclusion of this Agreement is of no immediate service to our Arab policy as pursued here, and will only not be a grave disadvantage if, for some time to come, it is kept strictly secret.”
Sustaining the impression that British policy was not only of two minds but of at least two irreconcilable camps, the British High Commissioner in Egypt—in theory the ultimate colonial satrap of Egypt—instructed an aide to make clear to London that “We do not want to create a powerful and united Arab Kingdom either under the Sherif or anyone else, even if such a thing were practicable. It would be a danger and a cause of future embarrassment in view of our arrangements with France and Russia.”
Lawrence, on his own, decided that he could not be a partner to this duplicity.
Moreover, he had a radical approach to harnessing Arab armies to a British campaign to drive the Turks from Arabia, Palestine and Syria.
Army orthodoxy was to wait until overwhelming military power was ready for a classic ground battle, particularly depending on an opening barrage from massed artillery. Lawrence knew that this was not the kind of war Arabs were equipped either by temperament or equipment to fight.
“The hill men,” he reported to his masters in Cairo, “struck me as good material for guerilla warfare. They are hard and fit, very active; independent, cheerful snipers.”
His plan was to find a Hashemite leader who could fully exploit this ability, to move fast in relatively small numbers, to harass and disrupt the Turks, drawing off forces that they would otherwise use to face a British invasion of Palestine.
In October Lawrence found his man, Prince Faisal, one of four sons of the Hashemite King, Hussein. Lawrence made a 100-mile journey from the Red Sea coast into the desert to meet him. Not yet the obdurate desert traveler of legend, Lawrence was blistered by “the pestilent beating of the Arab sun and the long monotony of camel pacing.”
Faisal had made a small mud house the base of his camp and immediately he impressed Lawrence.
“Tall, graceful, vigorous, almost regal in appearance…far more imposing personally than any of his brothers, knows it and trades on it…obviously very clever, perhaps not over scrupulous,” Lawrence wrote
This was the Prince whom Lawrence would cast as his military protégé and brother in arms, the essential co-star in the literary epic that immortalized their campaign, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In that first meeting Lawrence set the bait for how they would pre-empt the Sykes-Picot map. Faisal asked Lawrence how he liked “our place here in Wadi Safra.” Lawrence replied: “Well, but it is far from Damascus.”
Faisal got the message. Lawrence warned him of the French ambition to grab Syria after the war and pressed the need for the Arab armies to sweep up not only Damascus but Homs, Ham and Aleppo. Faisal, it turned out, shared a strong Francophobia with Lawrence.
By December 1917 the British had taken Jerusalem and the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. By this time, in London, the British had agreed to another part of the region’s future that, although never part of Sykes-Picot, would have lasting consequences : Palestine should become “a national home for the Jewish people.”
However, the semantics of this agreement were slippery. The original wording had been “Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people.”
This commitment was bitterly opposed by some of the British officials in Cairo, one of whom wrote: “The country is wholly unsuited to the ends the Jews have in mind, it is a poor land, incapable of great development.” (And within a few years a new British government insisted that “there is no question of making Palestine a Jewish State.”)
The grander Sykes-Picot plan for Turkey became moot because of the Russian Revolution. In fact, the whole pre-war world order was in tatters. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 Lawrence wrote “I hope the Sykes-Picot Agreement is given up.”
The French had different ideas. Faisal had led his Arab army into Damascus but his days there were numbered. The Hashemites were given a new kingdom, Trans-Jordan, and in 1921 Faisal got a consolation prize in the form of a throne in Baghdad and a new nation, Iraq.
Sykes never lived to see the outcome of his scheme. He died, aged 39, during the Paris conference in the influenza pandemic that killed many more than did the war.
Of course, it’s all too easy to see the catastrophe of the present, look at those whose design replaced the vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and ask, what were they thinking?
But these were one set of colonial administrators replacing another (the Turks, at least, had not thought it useful to invent client nations). The British, more than the French, were concerned to preserve imperial power. Primarily that meant that stability in the Middle East was essential to having unchallenged routes to the prize of their empire, India. And both the British and the French wanted assured control of the Suez Canal, which meant the subjugation of Egypt.
There were plenty of British administrators with as much knowledge of the Arab territorial claims as Lawrence but in the big picture of colonial security they were, in the phrase that Lawrence used to describe his Arab campaign, treated as being just part of a sideshow of a sideshow.
As result, new states were imposed on the Arabian map with no regard for the occupants. The Iraqi borders, for example, were arbitrarily drawn and disregarded 2,000 years of tribal, sectarian and nomadic occupation.
Nothing had cooled the innate hostilities between the Shia, in the south of Iraq, and the Sunnis in the north. Disastrously, the Shia were left virtually unrepresented in the British-appointed government of Iraq.
These arrangements were combined with a naïve belief in religious harmony. The treaty putting Faisal on the Iraqi throne stipulated: “The law shall ensure to all complete freedom of conscience and the free exercise of all forms of worship…no discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants of Iraq on the ground of race, religion or language…”
The vast desert lands to the south of Iraq were left undefined. The reason was Ibn Saud, the most effective warrior king in the region. Eventually that line on the map was settled by the Saudis themselves, on the strength of their Wahhabi-indoctrinated armies.
There is a terrible symmetry to this story. When Tony Blair decided to become George W. Bush’s poodle and accept fake intelligence to justify invading Iraq he became the destroyer of the original British carve-up. The whole region was destabilized and—hardly an intended consequence—Iran was suddenly given the space to become a regional power, and to reassert Shia influence.
Blair argues that he had a moral imperative, to rid Iraq of a despot, but he displayed the same cultural and historical illiteracy and hubris that allowed the Sykes-Picot scheme to be devised and enforced. He didn’t understand that that scheme created states that were so inherently unstable that they needed autocrats to hold them together (not necessarily brutal autocrats) and that they would fall apart if the autocracy ended.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of people have died, carnage on a scale that even Saddam Hussein could never have contemplated. And despite all his post hoc revisionism, Blair destroyed his reputation. He joins a confederacy of ghosts and leaves a charnel house.
Clive Irving wrote the story of A Dangerous Man, Lawrence After Arabia, an Emmy-winning TV drama starring Ralph Fiennes as T.E. Lawrence.