What is happening in Syria is part of an inevitable unravelling of a region’s chequered history. It is history’s revenge for the past sins of colonial powers that it is taking place as the world approaches the centenary of the First World War when it all began.
Syria, as we know now, is an artificial nation state whose boundaries were drawn out of a larger land mass with a long history. Its creation was the culmination of a process that was set in motion when two diplomats, one British, the other French, drafted a secret agreement which aimed for the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire and the sharing of its spoils between the two leading colonial powers.
The secret pact, signed on May 16, 1916 by Pierre Paul Cambon, the French envoy in London, and Edward Grey, Britain’s longest-serving foreign secretary to date, is named after its two diplomat authors, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot.
The Sykes-Picot agreement provided for an arbitrary carving up of the Arab lands of the Ottoman empire between France and Britain: central and southern Mesopotamia, Baghdad and Basra provinces went into British hands while the coastal areas of what is now Syria and most of today’s Lebanon came under French control.
The rest of Syria as well as the Kurdish areas of what became Iraq and the lands which were eventually christened Jordan were allowed to have nominal Arab tribal chiefs functioning under French tutelage in their northern parts and under British control in the south.
Crucially, there was free trade between the French and British spheres of influence and free passage as well. Jerusalem was promised an international administration, primarily because Imperial Russia had interests there.
For that reason, the Russian government was given a copy of the pact although Moscow was not a party to the agreement. The secret arrangements worked out by Sykes and Picot may never have seen the light of day had not the Russian communists discovered a copy of the agreement after they came to power in the October Revolution of 1917. Within days of assuming power, the communists published the secret pact.
The worst perfidy of all in the sordid history of colonial meddling in Arab affairs at this time was that only three weeks before the Bolsheviks exposed the French and the British, the latter had made the Balfour Declaration, hypocritically promising a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine.
Simultaneously, and equally hypocritically, the British were making false promises to Arabs, and at the same time, secretly undermining nascent Arab nationalist aspirations.
It was only in 2002, perhaps for the first time, that the British even acknowledged their colonial mistakes. In an interview when British public opinion was being torn down the middle under the pressure to go to war in Iraq, then foreign secretary Jack Straw, said: “The odd lines for Iraq’s borders were drawn by Brits. A lot of the problems we are having to deal with now, I have to deal with now, are a consequence of our colonial past. … The Balfour Declaration and the contradictory assurances which were being given to Palestinians in private at the same time as they were being given to the Israelis — again, an interesting history for us but not an entirely honourable one.”
But then Straw admitted in the interview that “I am a liberal with a small L. ... India, Pakistan — we made some quite serious mistakes. We were complacent with what happened in Kashmir, the boundaries weren’t published until two days after independence. Bad story for us, the consequences are still there. Afghanistan — where we played less than a glorious role over a century and a half”.
Sadly for the people of the West Asian region and for the rest of the world, all of this will not end here. Nor is it likely to be a happy ending. The British parliamentary vote against any involvement by the government in air strikes against Bashar al Assad’s Syria on the chemical weapons issue is a historic consequence of the mistakes that Straw had the honesty to acknowledge.
Future generations may well judge the vote as an abdication of responsibility, and attempt to run away and escape the consequences of a guilty past. In political and diplomatic terms, the unequivocal vote against attacking Syria is the nearest British equivalent to an Australian government apology in 2008 for its treatment of that country’s indigenous aboriginal population or the apology of the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, in the same year for State-funded “residential” schools which native children were forced into, some until the 1990s, and were widely abused.
Nearly a century after the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin exposed colonial machinations which led, all the same, to the creation of artificial nation states such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, a different Russia, led by another Vladimir — this time with the last name of Putin — is the biggest beneficiary in diplomatic terms of the latest mess that the Western powers have made of Syria. It may be a coincidence, but it is certainly a coincidence of historic proportions.
For all the Soviet-era jokes about the complete absence of any Pravda, the Russian word for truth, in Izvestia or the total elimination of Izvestia, meaning news in Russian, in Pravda, the two newspapers of record in the former Soviet Union were the ones to expose the conspiracy of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
Some may find it an irony of history that the Russians, who were once derided for their crude methods of media management, made the most of their recently acquired mastery over spinning news in the run up to and during the just-concluded Group of Twenty summit near St. Petersburg.
Putin’s spin-masters certainly aided the Russian president’s successful efforts to fill a Western leadership void on Syria and move to the centre-stage of the crisis created in the aftermath of the use of chemical weapons by whoever may be responsible for it in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta last month.
The exchanges between Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman — although Peskov denied having said what was anonymously attributed to him — and the British prime minister, David Cameron, were pure delight for any reporter anywhere.
‘Proof’ provided by Britain just before the G-20 summit opened was contemptuously dismissed by a Russian spokesman in background briefings. Britain is “a small island no one listens to” other than the notorious oligarchs who have fled Russia with ill-gotten national wealth and have bought the Chelsea football club, the spokesman told Russian journalists in St. Petersburg.
Those remarks stung the British so badly that Cameron personally chose to respond although it is highly unusual for a head of government to respond to quotes that are not even directly attributed to a government official.
Cameron said: “Yes, we are a small island, in fact, a small group of islands. But I would challenge anyone to come up with a country with a prouder history, with a bigger heart, a greater resilience. This is a country that cleared the European continent of fascism, that took slavery off the high seas. We are a country that invented many of the things that are most worthwhile, everything from the industrial revolution and television, to the world wide web.” Some of those claims may not stand the scrutiny of a fact-check.
All of this would have been funny if it were not for the tragedy that is unfolding in Syria, which may only lead to the country’s partition with Assad retaining power in one part and the rebels in another. But if that happens, it is likely to have a domino effect in the artificial nation states that were created in a process that began with Sykes and Picot.
Who can stop the trifurcation of Lebanon once Syria is partitioned? Or for that matter an eventual break up of Iraq. And if the Kurds are finally able to carve out their own country from parts of Turkey, Syria and Iraq, it will have ramifications not only for Turkey but also for Israel with wider consequences that are frightening, to say the least.