By Tarek Osman (@TarekmOsman) Presenter: The Making of the Modern Arab World
Image caption The original secret Sykes-Picot map of 1916: "A" would go to France, "B" to Britain.
A map marked with crude chinagraph-pencil in the second decade of the 20th Century shows the ambition - and folly - of the 100-year old British-French plan that helped create the modern-day Middle East.
Straight lines make uncomplicated borders. Most probably that was the reason why most of the lines that Mark Sykes, representing the British government, and Francois Georges-Picot, from the French government, agreed upon in 1916 were straight ones.Image caption At a meeting in Downing Street, Mark Sykes pointed to a map and told the prime minister: "I should like to draw a line from the "e" in Acre to the last "k" in Kirkuk."
Sykes and Picot were quintessential "empire men". Both were aristocrats, seasoned in colonial administration, and crucially believers in the notion that the people of the region would be better off under the European empires.
Both men also had intimate knowledge of the Middle East.
The key tenets of the agreement they had negotiated in relative haste amidst the turmoil of the World War One continue to influence the region to this day. But while Sykes-Picot's straight lines had proved significantly helpful to Britain and France in the first half of the twentieth century, their impact on the region's peoples was quite different.
The map that the two men drew divided the land that had been under Ottoman rule since the early 16th Century into new countries - and relegated these political entities to two spheres of influence:
- Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine under British influence
- Syria and Lebanon under French influence
The two men were not mandated to redraw the borders of the Arab countries in North Africa, but the division of influence existed there as well, with Egypt under British rule, and France controlling the Maghreb.
A secret deal
But there were three problems with the geo-political order that emerged from the Sykes-Picot agreement.
First, it was secret without any Arabic knowledge, and it negated the main promise that Britain had made to the Arabs in the 1910s - that if they rebelled against the Ottomans, the fall of that empire would bring them independence.
When that independence did not materialise after World War One, and as these colonial powers, in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, continued to exert immense influence over the Arab world, the thrust of Arab politics - in North Africa and in the eastern Mediterranean - gradually but decisively shifted from building liberal constitutional governance systems (as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq had witnessed in the early decades of the 20th Century) to assertive nationalism whose main objective was getting rid of the colonialists and the ruling systems that worked with them.
This was a key factor behind the rise of the militarist regimes that had come to dominate many Arab countries from the 1950s until the 2011 Arab uprisings.
The second problem lay in the tendency to draw straight lines.The newly created borders did not correspond to the actual sectarian, tribal, or ethnic distinctions on the ground
Sykes-Picot intended to divide the Levant on a sectarian basis:
- Lebanon was envisioned as a haven for Christians (especially Maronites) and Druze
- Palestine with a sizable Jewish community
- the Bekaa valley, on the border between the two countries, effectively left to Shia Muslims
- Syria with the region's largest sectarian demographic, Sunni Muslims