A chart known as the Sykes-Picot map, drawn in 1916 by officials representing the British and French governments of the time made straight-line proposed borders on a map of Eastern Turkey, Syria and then current-day Western Persia. These agreed upon straight lines “simplified” a division of spoils that led to a complicated geo-political nightmare for the 20th Century and beyond.
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.
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.
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.”
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.