'Lawrence In Arabia' Author Examines Lasting Impact Of Sykes-Picot Agreement
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This week 100 years ago, two diplomats - one English one, one French - were putting the finishing touches on a notorious secret agreement that would come to bear their names. It was during World War I. Britain and France were allies preparing for victory over the Ottoman Empire, which was allied to Germany and Austria-Hungary. The two diplomats were carving up the spoils in what they called Asia Minor. They were drawing up the post-war Middle East. The pact they signed on May 16, 1916, gave us the borders of Iraq and Syria. It also led to the conflicting claims of Arabs and Jews that they both had been promised Palestine. This dubious landmark of imperial diplomacy was the work of Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, hence its common name, the Sykes-Picot agreement. Scott Anderson has written about it. Welcome to the program.
SCOTT ANDERSON: Thank you, Robert. Nice to be here.
SIEGEL: And first, who were these two men, and what were they trying to do?
ANDERSON: George-Picot and Mark Sykes were two mid-level diplomats. And they were given the task of dividing up the Middle East in the event of an Allied victory in World War I against the Ottoman Empire. So they met, and in very short order, had carved virtually the entire Middle East into spheres of influence and outright control between Britain and France.
SIEGEL: What did Britain get out of the Sykes-Picot agreement? What did France get out of it?
ANDERSON: What France got was part of what, at the time, was known as Greater Syria. And that was what today we know as Syria and Lebanon. What the British got was Palestine and Iraq and an area called Transjordan, which today is modern Jordan, and then Palestine, of course, being modern-day Israel/Palestine.
SIEGEL: Obviously these were diplomats whose interests were primarily those of their own countries, not the people who lived in the countries that they were creating. Do you think we can contribute the often incoherent politics of countries in the region to these arbitrary decisions of Sykes and Georges-Picot?
ANDERSON: Oh, I think absolutely. I think there's such a clear line to be drawn. If you look at the Middle East today, there's essentially five artificial nations that were created by Sykes-Picot, the most prominent ones being Iraq and Syria - and Jordan being another one. But anyone looking at Iraq and Syria today see absolutely that the artificial borders that were created have now completely disintegrated.
SIEGEL: ISIS has said that it's fighting to undo the Sykes-Picot Agreement, accusing it of creating imaginary borders. Imaginary - fair word?
ANDERSON: I think so. The lines crossed tribal lines. They divided up clans and sub-clans. For example, the British wanted Transjordan as they had discovered oil in northern Iraq - what is, today, Northern Iraq. And they wanted a land bridge to take that oil on a pipeline to the Mediterranean. So that reason alone is why they grabbed Jordan.
SIEGEL: The Sykes-Picot Agreement was something that the British and the French told their allies about, and they dealt with them, but this wasn't released to the public in any way.
ANDERSON: That's right. It was kept - and a very small group of people actually knew about it. At almost the exact same time, the British foreign minister, John Balfour, came up with the Balfour Declaration to encourage Jewish immigration into Palestine. So it was very much a one-two punch to the Arab world and the Arab allies of Great Britain, who thought that they had been promised independence for virtually the entire region.
SIEGEL: One can remark on the cynicism of drawing up these boundaries in secret. On the other hand, you know, the boundaries held for almost an entire century, and that's better than some other boundaries, even in Europe. One could say, you know, it wasn't that bad a job.
ANDERSON: I think where you see the ultimate fallout now, but, in fact, you saw a sign of it coming immediately after. The Paris Peace Conference was pretty much finalized in early 1919. And as the French and British colonial administrations were starting to be applied through the region, you actually had riots and, in some cases, Civil War extending all the way from Morocco to Iraq. So the reaction in the Arab world to Sykes-Picot was very quick and very dramatic. What the British and the French then very quickly did was devolving of power down to local rulers. And so they lined up a bunch of, essentially, kind of princeling lapdogs to control the place for them. And that pretty lasted until after World War II, and then the vassal states of the British and the French became the client states of the United States and the Soviet Union. So there was a series of events over the course of the last century that kind of kept a lid on things. And it was really with the American invasion of Iraq in '03, and then especially with the Arab Spring, where everything kind of came apart.
SIEGEL: Scott Anderson, thanks for talking with us today.
ANDERSON: Thank you, Robert. My pleasure.
SIEGEL: Scott Anderson is the author of "Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly And The Making Of The Modern Middle East." We were talking about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was signed 100 years ago this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.