Reporters talk about Sykes-Picot of 1916 (and ignore the Balfour Declaration of 1917)

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Brooke Gladstone, by David Waitz
Brooke Gladstone, by David Waitz

With the blurring of the border between Syria and Iraq by the Sunni militant group ISIS, American journalists have been talking a lot about the Sykes Picot treaty, the secret agreement during World War I between the French and the British to carve up the Middle East when the Ottoman Empire ended.

These journalists all describe Sykes Picot as an instance of imperial arrogance: European powers dabbling in Middle East geography and ignoring traditional ethnic and religious lines.

Fair enough. But if they’re going to bring up Sykes-Picot as a sign of how wrong the west is about religion in the Middle East, why don’t they bring up that other secret agreement of World War I, just a year later: the Balfour Declaration, when the British promised Lord Rothschild as representative of the Jewish community that the Jews could have a “national home” in Palestine? The Balfour Declaration was soon published in November 1917, but it was arrived at after months and years of lobbying by Zionists. And it also carved up the Middle East in ways that haunt us to this day.

Here is some of the Sykes Picot chatter.

Last night Richard Engel on NBC Nightly News said that the instability in Iraq has its “roots in another war,” the first world war, when Britain and France “carved up” the Middle East “with little regard for ethnic and religious differences.” Today, he said, “the map Europeans drew is fading.”

Three days before, Dexter Filkins discussed the agreement on Fresh Air:

Terry GROSS: Well, they seem to want a caliphate, like a fundamentalist, Sunni state that stretches across borders. And that would include territory from Iraq and Syria and I don’t know where else. But they want to like undo the boundaries that were created in World War I, like at the end of World War I, when the victorious powers carved up the Middle East. So what do you know about what they’re envisioning for this caliphate?

FILKINS: Well, it’s pretty amazing. You know, the modern Middle East was formed really all but on the back of an envelope. You know, after World War I, you had the Ottoman Empire, you know, ruled out of Istanbul, which, you know, governed most of the Middle East, collapsed after World War I. And then the British and the French basically just, you know, took out the pen and then started drawing the borders. And these are the borders that we have today. And they really, you know, they don’t represent really much of anything other than the whims of the colonial powers at the time. They don’t, you know, they don’t – they’re not aligned with tribal identities or religious or sectarian or ethnic groups or mountains or rivers or anything. I mean, look at Iraq. It’s a bunch of straight lines drawn with a ruler. And so – but, you know, and this is sort of famously referred to as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It’s named after these two colonial administrators that first drew up this map back in the first World War. And this across the Muslim world, I think it’s fair to say is – it’s notorious. It’s, you know, this is when – first of all, the caliphate was destroyed. The Ottoman Empire, which was the seat of, you know, Islam. The caliphate was destroyed. And then these colonial boundaries were imposed on us. So among, among radical Islamists, the dream is to revive that caliphate. And that means erasing the borders, these artificial borders that were drawn, you know, 90 years ago, 100 years ago after World War I. And that’s what they want to do. Now, what do they really have in mind? I think for the immediate future is – if you look at ISIS, it stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and also al-Sham, which is the reference to Syria and Lebanon. And so I think for starters, what ISIS imagines it can do, and has already done quite a bit of, is control the vast area of essentially Eastern Syria and Western Iraq. And that’s basically a big desert with the Euphrates River and the Tigris River kind of forming its borders. So from sort of Aleppo in Syria, running east, all the way to Mosul. And that’s a pretty big area. And they – ISIS already controls a whole string of towns in Eastern Syria, along the Euphrates River and other places. They actually control a provincial capital in Syria, where they’ve ruled very brutally. They’ve begun to impose – it looks like Islamic law in Mosul, in Iraq. And so this is what they have in mind. I mean, this is the beginning, I think, of, you know – they call it the Islamic state, but what they really want is a return of the caliphate.

Next, here’s Brooke Gladstone of On the Media, talking with Ibrahim al-Marashi. It’s an excellent interview because Gladstone gave al-Marashi a platform to describe European colonial responsibility for sectarian hatred, and Arab dictatorships’ agency in this process as well. But what I found curious was Gladstone’s insistence on a certain lens, Sykes Picot, with nary a reference to the role of Zionism. She said:

Many historians, notably David Fromkin in his 1989 magisterial bestseller The Peace to End All Peace, said that the groundwork for today was laid in 1916 by France and Britain with Russia’s assent in the secret agreement that divided the Mid East in spheres of influence and then later in 1920 the borders were withdrawn, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan Saudia Arabia, Turkey– they didn’t exist prior to World War I. Many of these states seem to be intended to divide one group from another or impose the rule of minorities over majorities?

Gladstone persisted in this view later in the interview:

What do you think of David Fromkin’s view then, the author on the Peace to End all Peace? He likened the situation in the Middle East to Europe in the fifth century after the collapse of the Roman Empire. He wrote, ‘It took Europe a millennium and a half to resolve its post Roman crisis of social and political identity and nearly 1000 years to settle on the nation state form of political organization and 500 more years to determine which nations were entitled to be states… The issue is the same. How diverse peoples are to regroup to create new political identities for themselves after the collapse of an age-old political order to which they’ve grown accustomed.

I’m as confused by these questions as any other American: I see a drawn out and violent process in which dictatorships give way to democracies in the Middle East; I see a broad conservative constituency in Egypt that prefers dictatorship to extremism and fears Egypt turning into Syria.

But I also see our role in this mess: the colonialist/Zionist hand in fueling religious extremism. Imperial Britain came up with the Balfour Declaration in utter defiance of local political and religious sentiment in 1917, and the creation of a Jewish state in 1948 engendered religious conflict in the region. When you travel around Palestine and its neighbors, there is a lot of rage toward the Jewish state/US client, and not a lot of talk of “a caliphate.” The State Department warned back in 1948 that recognizing a Jewish state would lead to endless unrest in the region; the reporters should be addressing that factor.

Yes, these reporters are all justifiably focused on Syria and Iraq. But I can’t wait for them to get to Israel, the west’s role in establishing it during World War I, and how its “borders” affect the rule of one religious group over another.

Postscript: Comments had closed on this post when John Lewis-Dickerson sought to add this comment. I’m supplying it.

RE: “Well, they seem to want a caliphate, like a fundamentalist, Sunni state that stretches across borders. And that would include territory from Iraq and Syria and I don’t know where else. But they want to like undo the boundaries that were created in World War I, like at the end of World War I, when the victorious powers carved up the Middle East.” ~ Terry Gross MY COMMENT: And Likudnik Israel has also been pretty open about wanting to undo the boundaries that were created at the end of World War I, when the victorious powers carved up the Middle East. The difference is that Likudnik Israel certainly does not want any pan-Arabism (whether secular or sectarian) that stretches across the Sykes-Picot borders, just like they and the U.S. did not want the secular pan-Arabism of the Nasser era. In fact, the CIA quietly supported fundamentalist Muslims like those in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize Egypt during Nasser’s presidency (and probably to destabilize the other country that had for a time joined the UAR, namely Syria). Instead of pan-Arabism (whether of the sectarian “Caliphate” type, or of the more secular UAR type) Likudnik Israel wants to see the balkanization of the nation-states in the Middle East [i.e. fragmentation or division of the Middle East’s multicultural (but primarily Arab/Muslim) nation-states into smaller, more sectarian states (like Israel) that are often hostile or non-cooperative with one another]; hence Likudnik Israel’s support for virtually every separatist movement [e.g., Kurds, Armenians, Jundullah (i.e., Iran’s Sunni Muslims), etc.] in the Middle East, except – of course – anything even approaching a separatist movement in Israel, or on lands Likudnik Israel has long-term designs upon [i.e., lands Likudnik Israel has on its “to-do list” (i.e., lands Likudnik Israel discretely has in its cross-hairs)]. Balkanization in this context is essentially a variation of nearly every colonial power’s favorite tactic of “divide and conquer”.   P.S. SEE: “The Prophecy of Oded Yinon: Is the US Waging Israel’s Wars?” ~ By Linda S. Heard, Counterpunch, 04/25/06

[EXCERPT] . . . A premise, which many in the Arab world believe, should also be dissected. Is the US manipulating and remoulding the area so that Israel can remain the only regional superpower in perpetuity? This is not as fanciful as one might imagine on first glance. Read the following strangely prophetic segment from an article* published in 1982 by the World Zionist Organisation’s publication “Kivunim” and penned by Oded Yinon, an Israeli journalist with links to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Yinon’s strategy was based on this premise. In order to survive Israel must become an imperial regional power and must also ensure the break-up of all Arab countries so that the region may be carved up into small ineffectual states unequipped to stand up to Israeli military might. Here’s what he had to say on Iraq . . .

SOURCE –   * Oded Yinon’s “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties”   P.P.S. ALSO SEE: “Small Homogeneous States Only Solution for Middle East”, By Mordechai Kedar, Bar-Ilan University, 4/01/11

[EXCERPT] . . . If the world wishes to bring stability and calm to the Middle East, there is no choice but to let the modern Arab countries – those whose boundaries were set by colonialism – collapse and break up into small states, each based on one homogeneous group. Allowing the residents of these states to decide for themselves the group upon which to build the future state is the important element in this process. It is time to re-think colonialism and the problematic legacy it bequeathed the Arab world. Legitimate states based on traditional social groupings would be able to create partnerships, federations or other types of unions. Witness the Gulf: each of the seven members of the United Arab Emirates is completely independent, and the emirates, together with Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia established the Gulf Cooperation Council, an effective security body that recently deployed forces to Bahrain, forces that succeeded in restoring order there and in quashing the Shi’ite majority’s demonstrations. Relief to the chronic ailments of the Arab world, immersed as it is in corruption, poverty and violence, will come only through the establishment of homogeneous states which accommodate the traditional Arab social framework; these ailments are all the result of the modern Arab state’s failure to become the focal point of individual and collective identity. . .

ENTIRE ARTICLE –   P.P.P.S. ALSO SEE: “Arabs, Beware the ‘Small States’ Option”, By Sharmine Narwani,, 7/29/13 LINK –

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The role of Israel and its US supporters is more direct than inciting Arab and Muslim anger. The states that were created after WW1 eventually were accepted and earned the allegiance of their inhabitants. The current breakup of the region was an Israeli/neocon gambit, as Israel Shahak presciently noted in 1982. His notes and translation of Oden Yinon’s 1982 article “A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties” made it notorious. Today one finds maps… Read more »

Since the Balfour declaration didn’t even call for a “homeland”, no borders were defined, a situation which persists to this day. It talks about creating a “home” for Jews in Palestine, which is a different kind of intervention than drawing lines on a map. Much more sinister as it turns out. Maps can be redrawn, but de-implantation is hard to conceive.

Sykes Picot was but the political expression of an economic cooperative agreement which existed for some time prior to it; WW1 and Balfour being merely means to bring it to its full potential eliminating German-Turkish cooperation and opposition. Zionism, then and now, can then be seen as but the use of cultural religious ideologies to support occult financial interests which found expression in the IPC international petroleum cartel: BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and Total are… Read more »

Richard, just because religious zealots are not happy with political outcome does not make it wrong. Surely it does not help to excuse people from the need to be tolerant.

Count your blessings. Don’t imagine that if they did discuss the Balfour Declaration they’d be inviting too many scholars sympathetic to the Palestinian side to participate. The Fromkin book “A Peace to End All Peace” has many pages on Zionism, but it’s all laudatory. The Zionists are portrayed as idealists who wanted to live in peace with the Arabs. Churchill is portrayed as someone who was used to dealing with diplomats who understood the necessity… Read more »