How the Middle East Got That Way: A Century Ago, Two Diplomats Carved out Lines on the Middle East Map, Creating New Nations and Sowing the Seeds for Much of the Strife in the Region Today

By Berger, Joseph | New York Times Upfront, April 25, 2016 | Go to article overview

How the Middle East Got That Way: A Century Ago, Two Diplomats Carved out Lines on the Middle East Map, Creating New Nations and Sowing the Seeds for Much of the Strife in the Region Today


Berger, Joseph, New York Times Upfront


Violence, ethnic clashes, political instability--have you ever wondered why the Middle East is such a mess? It may be hard to believe, but a lot of it traces back to 100 years ago, in 1916, when two men sitting over long tables in palatial rooms sketched out lines on a map that effectively carved out much of today's turbulent Middle East.

With World War I (1914-18) still raging and the Ottoman Empire on the verge of collapse, diplomats Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Francois Georges-Picot of France set the boundaries for modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and much of the land that Israel and the Palestinians are still fighting over. They worked in secret, and, by an agreement that bore their names, largely ignored the complicated histories and interests of the many ethnic and religious groups who had been living there for centuries, including Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

"Sykes-Picot is at the root of many of today's conflicts in the Middle East," says David L. Phillips, a Middle East expert at Columbia University in New York who has advised the last three presidential administrations.

The effects of the borders the two men contrived can be felt everywhere from Syria, which is mired in a civil war that began more than five years ago and has cost tens of thousands of lives, to Iraq, which has been struggling to root out the brutal terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State or ISIL) that since 2014 has been taking over large swaths of territory in Iraq as well as in Syria.

The Ottoman Empire

Beginning in the 16th century, the region now known as the Middle East fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire, the vast Turkish realm that at its height also controlled much of southeastern Europe and northern Africa. European military victories in the 19th century had already begun eating away at much of the Ottoman territory. But the links suffered a final blow during World War I, when they made the strategic miscalculation of joining Germany and Austria-Hungary in what would be a losing battle against Britain, France, Russia, and ultimately the U.S.

After the war, Britain and France--the two major European powers at the time--divvied up the Ottoman Empire's spoils, based on the work of diplomats Sykes and Picot. The men had convened in Paris and London from November 1915 to March 1916, marking off areas for the British and French to control at war's end (see map, p. 19). As had been true of European imperialism during the 19th century (the so-called scramble for Africa), Britain and France were primarily focused on advancing their own commercial interests, like tapping the Middle East's newly discovered vast oil reserves. They largely ignored the complex ethnic and religious allegiances of the lands in question.

"The great powers carved up the Middle East into zones of influence, without consultations and without regard to local needs," says Phillips.

When the Sykes-Picot agreement was disclosed, Arab leaders were furious. They felt betrayed, because France and Britain had promised them autonomous lands in exchange for taking up arms against their Turkish Ottoman rulers. When world powers met after World War I to discuss the fate of the Ottoman territories, President Woodrow Wilson advocated for self-determination of these lands in his Fourteen Points. But the Treaty of Versailles (1919), which officially ended the war, as well as other postwar treaties, ultimately upheld the Sykes-Picot agreement. The League of Nations (a precursor to the United Nations) authorized "mandates" for Britain and France, which gave them broad powers to influence policy and trade in the former Ottoman territories.

"After being promised complete and independent nationhood from Ottoman rule, Arab leaders were told, 'No, we're not going to do that for you,' " says Christopher Rose of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

How the Middle East Got That Way: A Century Ago, Two Diplomats Carved out Lines on the Middle East Map, Creating New Nations and Sowing the Seeds for Much of the Strife in the Region Today
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.