“Well, that simply does not make sense,” Picot flusters back at me, a little louder than a seasoned diplomat ought to speak.
He may be seasoned, but he’s not cultured.
“It makes sense to His Majesty’s Government,” I retort.
This explanation should suffice for any man.
“You have negotiated with the Arabs for land that is rightly owed to the French Republic.” Picot continues in the same tone.
We are in an alliance, why are we arguing over land?
“If you wish to drag out these talks, it is your business. I wish to complete them in time for the end of the war. We can delimit our spheres of influence wherever it is most convenient for our French allies before superimposing them upon our agreements with the Arabs.”
That should quiet his restless nerves.
Smiling, he replies, “Yes, I agree with your pragmatism.”
That’s nice to know.
“Great, so what about this?” I offer as I lift the red grease pencil.
If a bigger piece of the Turk pie is all you want, then how about I give him a line from the “e” of Acre to the “k” of Kirkuk?
My hands press down on the well detailed map on the wooden table before us. I stretch to reach the tip of the pencil to Acre, from which I use a ruler to draw a straight line through to Kirkuk.
How’s this for pie?
“The French Republic will be most influential north of this line. His Majesty’s government will be most influential south of it.” I offer.
Picot, who was watching me draw the line on the map raises his head, looking me in the eyes. His smile sits flatly on his face, as if placed there rather than formed of his own muscles.
He lifts the blue grease pencil, tracing a matching line right above the red line I just drew from Kirkuk back to Acre. Rather than stopping here, he picks up the red pencil to trace a hash mark around Palestine.
“What is that around Palestine?” I ask.
He pauses for a moment, then announces “An international protectorate.”
Raising his head, he makes direct eye contact with me. “This will be fine.”
Greedy Frog! I have failed by losing Palestine.
Still eying me, he announces “The French Republic will be happy with this settlement.”
“Wonderful, shall we sign?” I ask, simply wanting to get this done.
How will I explain Palestine to my superiors?
“Certainly” Picot replies as he puts down the blue pencil to lift an ink-pen.
He confidently places his signature in the bottom right corner of the map as if he expects it to be an article of long-term historical value.
I’m just happy to have these negotiations done, even if the agreement is flawed. At least I’ve settled the French problem.
Putting down the red pencil, I lift a wooden pencil in its place before affixing my signature just under Picot’s.
This agreement won’t last long enough for it to even matter.
On May 19, 1916, representatives of Great Britain and France secretly reached an accord, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, by which most of the Arab lands under the rule of the Ottoman Empire were to be divided into British and French spheres of influence with the conclusion of World War I. Mark Sykes, an aristocrat, soldier, and member of Parliament with no experience in the region negotiated for the United Kingdom. Francois Georges-Picot, an experienced diplomat who had been stationed in Beirut and Cairo negotiated for France. The Sykes-Picot Agreement launched a nine-year process—and other deals, declarations, and treaties—that created the modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman carcass. The new borders ultimately bore little resemblance to the original Sykes-Picot map because British duplicity promised the same land to Arabs and Jews in multiple other agreements made around the same time, while double-crossing both parties by promising the same territory to the French in order to win all of these groups over to their side in the war. Almost everything from the original Sykes-Pico agreement has been altered through time, duplicity, political action, and military conflict. Yet, the lasting legacy of great power rivalry in the region, which started far before World War I, cannot be disputed. To this day, great powers are still actively involved in the political future of the region, with the United States, Russia, and many European powers taking sides in various ongoing conflicts. This intervention cannot lead to self-realized political development and security, and thus prevents regional peace at the same time that all of the powers claim to be supporting stability.
The premise of American policy (and of every other outside power) today—in stabilizing fractious Iraq, ending Syria’s gruesome civil war, and confronting the Islamic State—is to preserve the borders associated with the aftermath of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, which I opposed.
Since August, 2014, the United States has invested more than eleven million dollars a day in military operations, including almost nine thousand airstrikes on Iraq and more than five thousand on Syria. For the world’s worst humanitarian refugee crisis, which is now spilling out of Syria across countries and continents, Washington has pledged seven hundred million dollars in 2016, with more promised. The rest of the world—from Europe to the Gulf sheikhdoms, Russia to Iran—has poured billions into perpetuating the borders, even as they vie for different political outcomes.
At some point in the future perhaps, countries can learn blowback from great power rivalry and military mis-adventure is far more expensive than the initial investment in terms of lives and national resources.