IN his résumé of the life of Sir Mark Sykes, Chris Bond gave credence to the revisionist assertion that, in 1916, Britain and France concocted a “secret deal” to “carve up the Arab States... in the event of the Ottoman empire collapsing” (The Yorkshire Post, September 23).
The charge is unfair, the critique simplistic, and the whole premise fails to follow the fundamental principles of historicism: that history must be judged in the context of history, rather than seeking superficially to superimpose modish values on the events of the past.
Sir Mark was a Yorkshireman and a diplomat. He and his French, diplomatic counterpart (François Georges-Picot) were drawing up plans for the post-war settlement. All the great powers of Europe were doing the same. It would have been remiss of them if they had not. Secrecy was a condition of war.
The Great War would culminate not only in the breaking of great nations, but the break-up of great empires. The 600-year-old Ottoman empire had been crumbling for over a century. But when Turkey belatedly allied herself to Germany (November 1914) she sealed the fate of her empire. No one should regret the demise of that ruthless regime – least of all Arab nationalists, who had been so brutally repressed.
Britain and France had the onerous and invidious task of restoring some semblance of order and stability out of the carnage, chaos and confusion of war. Arabia was (and remains) a savage land, riven by age old blood feuds, tribal conflicts and religious antagonisms.
The terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement were never fully implemented, but it was an important aide-mémoire in the tortuous negotiations that followed in the Peace Conference at Versailles – and subsequent conferences like that at Cairo (1921) which was convened by the Colonial Office Minister, Winston Churchill, who was accompanied by the Arabist and visionary, TE Lawrence (Al Auruns). Lawrence had argued that “we can only teach them (the Arabs) by forcing them to try, while we stand by to give advice” (The Round Table, 1920).
The administration of Arab countries like Iraq, under a League of Nations mandate, was a prerequisite to independence (in 1932). Independence imposed not only rights but responsibilities upon the newly emerging Arab nations to conduct their own affairs, and determine their own fate. Britain had taken the first, tentative steps on the retreat from empire – a difficult transition.