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A line in the sand: The great carve-up of the Middle East

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Many of the modern borders in the Middle East were created by a secret agreement between imperial powers Britain and France during the First World War, explains Annette Mackin
Issue 2409
Graphic showing the Sykes-Picot map, with those who helped draw it (left) and some of those resisting it today (right)
Graphic showing the Sykes-Picot map, with those who helped draw it (left) and some of those resisting it today (right)

Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) filmed its fighters as they bulldozed their way through a wall of sand that marks Iraq’s northern border with Syria earlier this month.

They declared that the old colonial borders were no more and  announced that “Sykes-Picot” was over.

The breach is hugely symbolic, suggesting that lines drawn on maps by colonialists are not unchangeable. 

The Sykes-Picot agreement has its origins in a clandestine meeting at 10 Downing Street in late 1915 as the First World War raged.

Those in attendance included the prime minster Herbert Asquith, chief warmongers Lord Kitchener and Lloyd George and a relative unknown named Sir Mark Sykes.

It looked doubtful that the Ottoman Empire—based around modern Turkey—would survive the war intact. Sykes claimed to be an expert and the ministers had asked for the meeting to advise on the carving up of the collapsing empire.

The Ottoman Empire had dominated the region for 400 years. Now newer powers like Britain, France and Russia circled, eyeing its territory. 

It was an ally of Germany and controlled the areas that now make up Iraq, most of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Palestine.

Sliding his finger along a map on the table Sykes said, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk”.

With one casual gesture he dictated the fate of millions. It would become the basis of the agreement drawn up by Sykes and French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot a few months later.

The secret accord carved up Arab territories between the two imperial nations. Its existence only came to light when the Bolshevik government published the previous Russian regime’s secret treaties in 1917.

Under the agreement Britain grabbed what is now Palestine, Jordan and Iraq as well as Egypt. France gained control of Syria and Lebanon.

They divided up the territory using a map, wax pencils and a ruler, which explains why many of the borders are remarkably straight.

The West schemed and cheated its way to dominance in the region. And just as they do today, representatives disguised their theft as “liberation” and “self-government”.

Control of the Middle East has long been at the heart of Western powers’ plans. The region was key to major trade routes, and became economically vital after the opening of the Suez canal in 1869. 

The canal halved the distance for shipping between Britain and India.

And then oil was discovered in the region, just as it was coming to be the fuel for industrial capitalism.

Since then the imperial powers have used every means to maintain a steely grip on the region. 

Both France and Britain used military force, installing compliant regimes in the area.

As the war finished, Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary, said, “The allies floated to victory on a wave of oil.”

He wanted the Persian Gulf to become a “British lake”. When Sykes drew his line up to Kirkuk it was telling—this was an oil-rich region.

The West could only maintain its grip on the region with the cooperation of the local ruling class.


During the First World War, Britain’s rulers convinced Arab leaders to revolt against the Ottomans with the promise it would support the creation of an independent Arab state in the area.

The Sykes-Picot agreement shows that they were lying. Neither France nor Britain had any intention of allowing the creation of genuinely independent Arab states.

They were only concerned about gaining control over areas with the most resources.

Western companies paid minimum sums to local rulers to gain control of areas thought to contain oil.

Britain also strengthened the role of tribal sheikhs, who in turn became their local tax collectors and law enforcers.  

However the remaking of the Middle East faced fierce resistance from the region’s people. The British imposed kings on Iraq and Egypt, only to see independence movements rise up to push them aside a few years later.

And even in 1920 Britain’s connections with local rulers could not contain the anger when the League of Nations awarded Britain a mandate over Iraq.

British troops eventually put down an insurrection in Iraq, and brutally crushed strikes and protests in Egypt.


The bloody and brutal determination to hold on to the oil-rich land was summed up by Britain’s foreign secretary Selwyn Lloyd in the 1950s. He said, “At all costs these oilfields must be kept in Western hands. We need, when things go wrong, to ruthlessly intervene.”

Ruthless intervention remained key, but the US became the dominant power after the Second World War.

It sought to break what it saw as an “Arab Front” that emerged in opposition to it. Nationalist governments such as that of Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser challenged the West in the 1950s and 1960s.

The US feared that popular resentment could push the rulers to challenge its interests, or that revolutions could bring about fundamental change.

This is why all the big imperial powers—Britain, France and the US—backed the creation of Israel in 1948. They saw it as a “watchdog” for the West in the region, as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz put it in 1951.

So in 1967 Israel launched its Six Day War crushing the Arab armies. 

The “Arab Front” was broken. Heavy repression followed and the total domination of the region by pro-US dictatorships.

Arab society became even more polarised as leaders fervently concentrated oil wealth into the hands of a few families.

The West continues to look to client states or intervention to preserve its interests in the Middle East.

One of the aims of the wars in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and also Afghanistan in 2001, was to reassert US dominance.

But instead the wars exposed the weakness of the West. The region has now become a nightmare of chaos where Western rulers wanted secure puppet states.

The architect of the destruction in the Middle East is the West. But every line in the sand the imperialists drew generated resistance. 

This is why, although the West needs to maintain influence over the region, it is less keen to get involved in the crisis today.

Sectarianism brought to Iraq by West

The day after Isis troops shot captured Iraqi soldiers the Sun newspaper ran the headline “Barbarians”.

The idea that Middle Eastern people are uniquely violent has long been pushed by the West to justify its presence. It imagines a region of warring tribal factions who need a touch of Western civilisation to set them right.

But it was the West that encouraged the bitter sectarian war in the Middle East.

To stabilise its rule in Iraq, the US opted for the oldest trick of imperialism—divide and rule.

Sectarian divisions existed, but were not ingrained into Iraqi society. The main division after the war in 2003 was between those who were for or against the occupation.

That division was not based on religion or ethnicity. Polls showed that most Arabs, irrespective of religion, want the troops to leave.

The Shia majority was itself divided. The largely Shia Sadr City suburb of Baghdad, with its two million urban poor, had long been the focus of radical and nationalist movements.

The poor who settled there in the 1950s and 1960s were fleeing Shia landlords, clerics and grain merchants that dominated the cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Many of Iraq’s tribes had Shia and Sunni branches. In cities like Baghdad intermarriage was common, with families from mixed marriages known as “sushis”.

Kurds in the north have long demanded independence, but Baghdad was also home to many Kurds who lived in mixed neighbourhoods.

Iraq’s spiral into a new sectarian war is a result of the tactics used by Western forces to defeat the 2004 national uprising.

The US and its coalition allies sought to engineer sectarian tensions to divide the growing national liberation movement.

The occupation handed over institutions to sectarian Shia parties in a bid to split the unity that could lead to rebellion.

The US pumped more troops into the area while pushing the “Sons of Iraq” movement. 

This was when sections of the tribal insurgency were promised a stake in the future in return for pacifying Sunni areas.

The state that emerged under the Western occupation stoked divisions.

Then in 2012 Sunnis took part in what was known as the “Iraqi Spring” protests. Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security forces brutally put them down. 

Thousands were tortured and killed. Shia leaders are now mobilising for a sectarian war.

The West will try to push the lie that the crisis in the region is a result of ancient grudges, but this is a lie. This sectarian war was made by the West.

A bloody imperialist history

  • 1869 Suez Canal opens, making region strategically vital to imperial powers.
  • 1876 Britain and France take control of Egypt’s finances to enforce debt payment.
  • 1882 Britain invades Egypt, making the country effectively a British colony.
  • 1916 Britain and France agree Sykes-Picot Treaty carving up Middle East.
  • 1917 Foreign office chief Arthur James Balfour (left) declares that British government “views with favour” the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
  • 1920 League of Nations, forerunner of United Nations, “legalises” British and French carve-up of the Middle East.
  • 1941 Britain and Russia occupy Iran and install Reza Shah Pahlavi (left) as ruler.
  • 1948 Israel created, backed by Britain and US. Some 700,000 Palestinians driven from their land.
  • 1953 US helps organise a coup to overthrow elected Iranian government and reinstall Reza Shah Pahlavi as absolute ruler.
  • 1950s French forces wage a brutal war to try and keep control of Algeria (right). They lose, but more than a million Algerians die in the war.
  • 1956 Britain and France, along with Israel, invade Egypt after president Nasser nationalises the Suez Canal. They are forced to withdraw.
  • 1962 CIA organises a coup in Iraq.
  • 1967 Israel attacks Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon in Six Day War, and seizes control of West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, which it has occupied ever since.
  • 1970 British troops sent in to defend slave-owning ruler of Oman.
  • 1979 Iranian revolution overthrows Shah. Workers’ control pushed aside by rise of Islamists backing Ayatollah Khomeini. US embassy occupied.
  • 1982 Israel launches full scale invasion of Lebanon.
  • 1980s US backs Saddam Hussain’s (left) Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war.
  • 1991 Gulf War—US-led forces slaughter over 100,000 Iraqi civilians and conscripts.
  • 2003 US-led forces invade Iraq, leading to years of occupation and more than a million deaths.

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