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Sykes-Picot: A century of Colonial Oppression

By Staff Writer Sina Hanzaei ‘18

Although not a particularly well-known 20th century treaty, Sykes-Picot metamorphosed our world, and not for the better. The Asia Minor Agreement (as it is officially known) was a secret covenant between the British and French governments, to which Russia assented. This agreement defined the three colonial powers’ “spheres of influence” in South-western Asia, in case the Ottoman Empire fell (which was deemed very likely at the time). The negotiations took place in 1916, but it was disclosed to the public a year later in the Guardian. The agreement allocated to Britain control of areas comprising the coastal strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, Jordan, and Southern Iraq. The French in turn received portions of South-eastern Turkey, Northern Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Russia was to get Istanbul, the Turkish Straits, and Armenia.

One of the most striking parts of the agreement granted these powers absolute autonomy to define borders within their individual regions of influence, with the exception of Palestine, which was to be under international control. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Britain and France practically enacted the agreement, and thus started the systematic division of Arabian lands. The modern borders of Syria and Iraq were almost entirely drawn up based on this.

Unsurprisingly, today ISIS rules over Iraqi and Syrian lands. This is not an independent event, and even ISIS declares the Asia Minor Agreement to be their raison d’etre. As they declared in their weekly online publication Al-Naba: “Thus, the Crusaders inherited the land and influence in Iraq, Sham, and the Arabian Peninsula. This agreement became a symbol of the fragmentation imposed upon Muslims. The Tawaghit inherited it from their Crusader masters and were dedicated to upholding it, each of them managing the interests of his master in his piece of land; and if the efficiency of one of them wavered [sic], he would be replaced by another Taghut who would offer greater benefits to the Crusaders and would possesses [again] more capacity to wage war on Islam and Muslims.” Once again, traces of colonialism can be detected in a modern conflict. A region divided up and served on a golden tray to colonialists became a hotbed for radicalism to grow.

It is undeniable that colonialism was the reason for the frustration, that when unable to find a peaceful medium, it was conveyed to the world through the barrel of a rifle. The reason that no peaceful medium exists for voicing Middle Easterners’ anger with their continuous oppression can also be associated with Imperialism in the region. It was the US army that invaded Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction, but instead left a power vacuum to be filled with Iranian-supported militias and Qatari money. Let’s not forget about the millions of refugees who are both products and victims of this political adventurism. The same outplayed scenario keeps on repeating in the Middle East. The region has become heir to cycles of violence that will persist unless a new political structure arises, one devoid of Western influence, oil money, and Iranian second hand Ak-47s.

The rage that has been building up in the region has just shown its most disgusting face: ISIS. But before any of our conservative friends jump to the convenient conclusion that Arabs are simply less intellectually and politically capable of establishing a non-violent path, let us not forget Mahmoud Darwish, Edward Said, Samah Sabawi, and many more who through their poetry, art, and independent thought, have been tirelessly trying to bring a voice to a silenced land. Let us not forget the millions of refugees who refused to be part of this violence, and only left their homelands when the waters of the Mediterranean seemed safer than the very land they were born on. A century has passed since the agreement that started it all   Many events have come in between, from the Ajax Operation to the Invasion of Iraq, but we need to move on. Non- interventionist policies by the Western world, a cut in the weapons trade with the countries of the region, and more open political discourse are essential to peace. It is idealistic and childish to ever hope that any of these will happen, but the new generation of the colonized youth must simply be louder than the past. There needs to be more discussion around this issue: we need to talk about the past to ensure our future.

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