This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
“So far as Syria is concerned, it is France and not Turkey that is the enemy.” – T.E. Lawrence, February 1915
It was a curious comment by the oddball but unarguably brilliant British agent and scholar, Thomas Edward Lawrence. The time was World War I, and England and France were locked in a death match with the Triple Alliance, of which Ottoman Turkey was a prominent member. But it was nonetheless true, and no less now than then. In the Middle East, to paraphrase William Faulkner, history is not the past; it is the present.
In his 1915 letter, Lawrence was describing French machinations over Syria, but he could just as well have been commenting on England’s designs in the region, which Allied leaders in World War I came to call the “Great Loot”—the imperial vivisection of the Middle East.
As Iraq tumbles into yet another civil war, it is important to remember how all this came about, and why adding yet more warfare to the current crisis will perpetuate exactly what the “Great Loot” set out to do: tear an entire region of the world asunder.
Divide and Conquer
They are names most people have never heard of, like Sixth Baronet of Sledmere Mark Sykes and French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot. In 1915, these two mid-level diplomats created a secret plan to divvy up the Middle East. Almost a century later that imperial map not only defines the region and most of the players, but continues to spin out tragedy after tragedy, like some grotesque, historical Groundhog Day.
In 1915, the imperial powers’ major goal in the Middle East was to smother any expression of Arab nationalism and prevent any unified resistance to the designs of Paris and London. France wanted Greater Syria, Britain control of the land bridges to India. The competition was so intense that even while hundreds of thousands of French and British troops were dying on the Western Front, their secret services were blackguarding one another from Samarra to Medina, maneuvering for position for when the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement was the compromise aimed at ending the internecine warfare. France would get Greater Syria (which it would divide to create Lebanon), plus zones of influence in northern Iraq. Britain would get the rest of Iraq and Jordan and establish the Palestine Mandate. All of this, however, had to be kept secret from the locals, whom the British and French incited to rebel against imperial Ottoman rule even as they plotted to impose their own.