This is the brutal history of European treachery against the Arab world.
“Go out on the street and ask anyone what is the Sykes-Picot agreement. They have no idea. However, in the Arab world, everyone knows, even the illiterates.”
Now I’m not illiterate, but in the company of Joan Roura and surrounded by mountains of old newspapers and books the journalist has been collecting in his home over the last 30 years, it’s as if I were.
Now for anyone with a smartphone, Sykes-Picot is an international agreement that marked the future of the Middle East way back during the First World War. Roura, who has covered the conflict between Palestinians and Israel, the war in Irak, then Lebanon, the Egyptian revolt and now the war in Syria, believes it to be “one of the most dishonourable agreements in the history of European diplomacy.”
This month marks the centenary of the secret agreement that explains far too many things: a despicable colonial division and a betrayal the Arabs would never forget. Today, Europeans can celebrate the fact that we invented a political formula capable of destroying peace wherever it suits us.
It’s not really of much importance that we’re blowing out the candles a century late. The blast from the blaze we started on May 16th, 1916 has begun to catch up with us.
- Thug Life in World War 1
Only one year after the Great War had begun Western powers already looked like they would come out on top. In November 1915, three years before the victory, the British and the French started to negotiate how they would carve up a vast stretch of land that was going to be liberated after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
“Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were the ones who did the dirty work for the agreement. These high ranking diplomats of the British Empire and the Third French Republic decided to secretly divide the territory without giving a damn about the opinion and the will of the locals who really didn’t have a clue what was going on.”
Roughly speaking, the map of the Middle East today is the result of this colonial layout. The British sought the territorial continuity of its empire from Egypt to India, and the French had a long history of crusades in modern day Syria. The Russian Tsars, a Western ally, acted as silent observers.
The British created the state of Irak with the three provinces of Mosul, Bagdad and Basora. The French were left with Syria and segregated Greater Lebanon from their territory, a country created so that most of the population were Christians, and so, ensured an ideological and cultural base in the area, just like Israel would later become.”
Jerusalem was the delicate part of the plan, although an international mandate was initially set up, it soon became more of a British one.
And that was not all, as well as this Thug Life distribution, Sykes and Picot made two promises to the Russian Tsars as silent observers:
The Arabs, in exchange for joining in the war to overthrow the Ottomans, were offered a liberated territory and the right to self-determination.
The Jews were promised a national homeland, a fatherland in Palestine.
- The Sykes-PicotPapers
While the allies were winning the war, the Bolsheviks executed the Tsars and the Russian were left out in the cold. In the end, it was going to be even better Sykes and Picot, now there were just two.
Then the Communists came to the Kremlin and found boxes of documents, including the agreement that was taking place behind everyone’s back, and decided to leak the story to the Izvestia newspaper and later The Guardian also printed the exclusive.
But the scandal was nothing compared to Wikileaks or Snowden: “They didn’t see things like some of us see them today,” explains Roura, “even though the powers that be still see things the same but they never say it.”
In a manner of speaking, the Sykes-Picot agreements were shaped with the imperialistic mentality of the 19th century and signed in the 20th century. “The problem is that 100 years after they continued acting in the same way.”
- Eternal betrayal
The betrayal of the Arabs basically involved convincing them to go to war against the Ottoman Empire in exchange for the promise of freedom and independence which France and Great Britain later glossed over.
“What the British wanted was the Arabs to revolt and so they sent in the famous Lawerence of Arabia to act as a liaison to the Arab forces. But, once they got their hands on the Ottoman territory they reneged on their promise. That’s how things worked.”
And according to the journalist, this wasn’t the worse. “The huge problem with these agreements is not the betrayal, that’s all history now, it’s that the British were more astute and instead of maintaining the colonies, they created countries with fictitious independence. They established weak governments represented by elite minorities that could only be maintained with their support.”
Abracadabra! Here’s the magic formula for modern colonialism: hamper peace in order to preserve the metropolis power. In other words, Great Britain and France created governments from minority groups that could only be maintained by dictators who were dependent on Western logistics and military force.
“Irak was predominantly a Shiite country and they put King Faisal, a Sunni, as the ruler. With Syria they did the same but the other way round: a country that was mainly Sunni, governed by the Shiites. Sadam Husein and Al Assad are heirs to this system. And here begins the civil unrest. The past always comes back to haunt you.”
- The Loser of Arabia
“Thomas Edward Lawrence was a British spy and a soldier who spoke Arabic. He was sent to sound out the Arab tribes and see if they wanted to join the British in overthrowing the Ottomans. My impression is that he believed what his superiors had told him and really thought the British would keep their word. This was shown by the fact that after the Battle of Aqaba he left for Syria to await its independence and there was a revolt until the French put a stop to it.”
At that point, Lawerence of Arabia sank into deep despair. He retreated from public life and wrote his memoirs, which passionately defended the Arab people and their rights. “He believes he was also betrayed. He returned to England a defeated man and died in a freak motorcycle accident. Nobody knows if it was suicide, murder or an accident.”
- The bloody legacy
Islam and Christianity have always had a conflictive relationship ever since the Crusades in the Middle Ages. However, the Sykes-Picot agreement represented something much more perverse in the long term: the layout of the modern-day Middle East was made purely based on Western interests, and today a real understanding is impossible.
“We’ve extracted a lot of very cheap oil. So in that sense it was useful. But from the 1990s it became obvious that it wasn’t going to work: it was impossible for the Palestinians and Israelis to reach an agreement in Oslo, the attacks on the Twin Towers, the bombings in Europe, the migrant and refugee crisis… we have a huge problem and this agreement kicked it all off.”
The Middle East is the oldest conflict zone for two simple reasons. It’s the strategic point on the world map where three continents meet, and secondly, 60% of the world’s reserve of fossil fuel energy is found there. “There’s a huge struggle of interests that extremely badly managed, rather than looking for a way for all sides to benefit what we’ve achieved is something where all parties lose.”
However, we don’t all actually lose to the same extent. Joan Roura believes the victims of jihadist attacks in the West and the soldiers killed in combat account for a very small amount of the suffering: “In Syria alone there 500,000 people dead. In Irak, one million slaughtered since 2003. The killing has been terrible, and the indigenous people ignored by Skype-Picot have been the real losers.”
The “divide and rule” instigated by foreign power has aggravated coexistence in the Middle East: “When I started travelling around there in the 1980s nobody spoke about the divide between the Shiites and the Sunnis, nor was there as mush hostility as there is today between the Jews and the Muslims. Make no mistake; there are still people interested in dividing these countries, so they’re still needed to bring peace. And when I say bring peace, I mean put bombs.”
- Euro Blame
How is it possible not to have a sense of guilt? Westerners are witnessing televised conflicts without the slightest sense of conscious to our degree of responsibility and we continue to benefit from the instability in these countries that are only 2000 kilometres away.
I ask Joan Roura if the people of the Middle East have abandoned all hope of living in peace and with freedom and he replied that if they the had lost hope, the Arab revolt wouldn’t have erupted in 2011. “They haven’t gone down well, in fact, they’ve been a disaster. Only Tunisia has been successful, but it’s proof that things can and will change.”
With his small, round Lennon style glasses, this journalist looks at current events with a historic pace and a slow perspective. “The Arab world had to be shaken up. And there are more shocks to come because it can’t continue like this. It’s enough to try the patience of a saint.”
In the face of guilty Europeans like myself who wanted immediate peace and justice, Roura provides a point of view that might be perceived as uncool but is based on facts.
Rapprochement with the Arab revolts has been different. It hasn’t tried to impose, rather the opposite. For the first time since the coup in Algeria in 1992 and what happened when Hamas won the elections in Palestine, there was restraint. Obama didn’t support Mubarak in Egypt, he facilitated his fall, but he didn’t prevent the military coup even though he didn’t want it. In fact, his firm stance in favour of the Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, was considerable.”
What I think is seen in Roura’s words is that no president of the United States will be a revolutionary and that all Western powers will continue to act in their own interests, but the style is changing towards one of less interference, even though the result will be thousands of deaths.
“With the Arab revolts, the Western powers tried to give the people a voice but it hasn’t turned out so well, and in Syria, it’s been a disaster. Even though it was just paying lip-service, the Western governments sided with the people. After, they did things badly, didn’t do anything at all, or just got scared. But the rhetoric of the 1990s is not the same and that at least is something. The deadlock that I attribute to this delicate, important and rich area that bets on one side or the other is extremely dangerous.”
- ISIS plays off Sykes-Picot
A few years ago, an audiovisual propaganda crew attached to the Islamic State released a video where one of its fighters proclaimed the end of the Sykes-Picot borders.
If that video shows anything, it’s that the agreement that turns one hundred today is part of popular Arab culture and that ISIS are capitalising on it.
Until very recently culture was transmitted verbally in the Arab world. Parents repeated everything to their children, and this created a historic memory, this is something we don’t have here. The apocalyptic sect, ISIS, uses it as a weapon and says these borders have brought nothing but misery and humiliation.”
For the people, these agreements mean the West has taken control of their destiny from the time of the crusades until the present day.
“It’s a profound feeling of humiliation that many interpret as a conspiracy, although it wasn’t exactly like this. It was a way of exercising imperialism that has screwed them over, but it wasn’t to screw them. It was a simple exercise of power. Another thing is that this century old feeling facilitates more radical influxes. The Arabs have tried everything from Pan-Arabism to aligning with the West, but nothing has worked for them. I refuse to call it terrorism; it’s an armed struggle. Mind you, the Islamic State is finished, it will be defeated. They have lost a lot of ground, and most people don’t want anything to do with them.”
- Arab-style democracy
Joan Roura says nobody will remember the Middle East the day renewable energies replace oil and the only thing that can help the Arabs to triumph, the only possible way, is through an authentic process of building democracy in their countries.
And with democratisation, he doesn’t mean Westernisation.
“Iran has now found its way; you may or may not like it. It’s not perfect just like ours. The country operates independently with a certain guarantee of civil liberties. Of course, I wouldn’t like to be a woman living there, but it’s much better than Saudi Arabi with its royal family of 20,000 members who have every imaginable privilege while the rest of the population live in misery.”
It’s all very complicated, but at the same time, it’s simple. Most Arab people don’t want anything to do with the Islamic State and want to maintain the borders that have been created (there have been many unsuccessful attempts). “What the overwhelming majority of the people want is to live a better life, with guaranteed human rights, legal certainties, that they can bring their children to school and more than anything that they can make a better living. A fairer distribution of wealth is needed, and this can only be achieved through the political game in a democracy.”
And now it’s time to wrap things up with the last question for Joan Roura:
Is the West interested in living side-by-side with a free and democratic Middle East?
“Right now, no, but it will be soon.” In this hypothetical scenario that’s not going to arrive any day soon as “we’got years of wars ahead of us”, they can charge us more for oil, and they won’t submit to peace processes imposed by foreign powers, and naturally, Israel will end up damaged by all of this.
“Israel will no longer receive the 4,500 million dollars that it is paid annually by the USA. The Americans couldn’t care less that they are Jews. This was demonstrated during the First World War. What really interests them is having a pro-Western ally in the area because there are major interests at stake. However, this is starting to change as we’ve seen with the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabi, which has become tenser than ever since the nuclear deal with Iran.”
Although, as Roura says, history moves at a historic rate: “Saudi Arabia has no sanctions from the West, unlike Iran, and the reasons? Six million barrels of oil a day and they buy a hell of a lot of arms from us.”
“People tend to think too much, but for me, it’s all very simple. The war of civilisations, the terrorism alert, and the latent state of war suits leaders on both sides of the Mediterranean. It might suit them, but it doesn’t suit the rest of us who only want to be left to live our life in peace.”