Why Does The Middle East Have Straight Line Borders?!

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Map of the Sykes-Picot Agreement,
Map of the Sykes-Picot Agreement,

Drawing the Middle East’s modern borders on a map with a ruler certainly seemed simple. Perhaps that’s why the lines, set in 1916 by Englishman Sir Mark Sykes and Frenchman Francois Georges-Picot were straight ones. The infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement was a pact between Great Britain and France, in the middle of World War I (with the Russia Empire’s blessing). With it, they planned to completely dismember the centuries-old Ottoman Empire. It led to the division of the Turkish-held Middle East into 5 French and British-administered countries – today’s Syria, Lebanon, Israel (then called Palestine), Jordan and Iraq.  During World War I, the Turks had allied themselves with Germany and Austria-Hungary and basically faced a war on three fronts.

Sykes & Picot were both colonial aristocrats who believed in the quaint notion that Second & Third World counties were incapable of self-rule, and far better living under their European masters.  They had carved up African colonies in a similar fashion.  Plus the warring sides of World War I were still oblivious to the fact that the Middle East sat upon the largest hidden oil reserves in the world. At the time, all the two allied nations desired was open shipping routes to Russia (via Istanbul), and a secure Suez Canal connection through the deserts of Egypt to India. 

So the two men literally drew straight lines on a map, dividing up territory ruled by the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years into brand new countries. Syria and Lebanon, which would be under French control in the north. Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine which would be under British control in the south.  Beneath them all sat all of Arab controlled Saudi Arabia.  Following the end of World War I in 1918, the deed was done and signed into the 1919 Versailles Treaty between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire.

Their hastily negotiated agreement continues to have profound ripple effects to this day.

For you see, the Sykes-Picot Agreement had MANY problems. The first lay in those damn straight lines, which failed to take into account any sectarian, tribal, or ethnic divisions. Sykes & Picot envisioned Lebanon as a Christian haven, Palestine with a Jewish community, and Syria, Jordan & Iraq with the region’s Muslims. That of course never happened. Old racism and hatreds, suppressed for decades under strict Ottoman rule, came boiling to the surface without Turkish control.

Second, the agreement was made with NO Arab input of any kind … NONE.  AND it ignored a promise Britain made to the Arabs that if they sided with them, and rebelled against the Turks in World War I, they would finally gain their independence. When independence did not materialize after the war, Arab politics gradually shifted from constitutional parliaments to militant kingdoms. This led to the rise of dictatorial regimes that dominated many Arab countries for decades, to this very day.

During World War I, Britain was willing to recognize and support Arab independence. The Arabs fulfilled their part of the agreement and revolted against the Turks, fueled in part by the famous British archaeologist T. E. Lawrence, aka “Lawrence of Arabia.”  Britain, however, did not live up to its side of the deal. Lawrence later wrote that the Arab Revolt was useful, as it marched in line with Britain’s aims, i.e. the break-up of the vast Ottoman Empire.  But, he also warned the Arab tribes were even less stable than the Turks, a ‘tissue of small, jealous principalities, incapable of long term cohesion.’

Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot
Englishman Sir Mark Sykes and Frenchman Francois Georges-Picot

During the 1800’s, the Ottoman Sultan had taken a hands-off approach to governing the Middle East, and did little to promote progress. At the first sign of any tribal identity, the Turks beheaded the movement’s insolent leaders.   The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a blatantly imperialistic solution. It took no account of the wishes of the people, ignored Arab and Kurdish boundaries, and provoked conflicts which continue to plague the region to this day. No other region on earth has seen so many border wars, civil wars and deadly coups in recent decades.

In 1918, World War I finally came to an end with a victory for the Allies.

The Ottoman Empire was finally defeated by the Allies, carved up like a tired bull, and split among the victors in the1920 Treaty of Sevres. Instead of the nation-states Britain & France had promised the Arabs, the victors divided the Middle East into countries which, because of those damn straight lines, are still among the most difficult to govern on earth. The strains unleashed on the Arab World after World War I remain as acute as ever, 100 years later.

The Middle East still finds itself living with a 1916 map that ignored the region’s Islamic and ethnic realities – there were Arabs and Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, Muslims and Jews. The nations and borders are still seen today as illegitimate by many of their own governments and citizens. World War I spilled over in World War II with little change to the Middle East.  This was followed by: the founding of Israel in 1948, the race for Arab oil in Iraq, 3 Egypt-Israeli wars, countless Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish conflicts, 2 Iraq-Iran wars, 2 Persian Gulf Wars, the Syrian Civil War, and the rise of Al-qaeda and ISIS

With the exception of the 1978 Camp David Egypt-Israeli Peace Accords, negotiated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, no lasting peace in the Middle East has stuck.  The result has been seemingly unending conflicts amongst Arab nations, Arab factions, and with Arab neighbors, that have yet to come to an end, a century later.  Plus they show no signs of ceasing any time soon. All due to a few straight lines drawn on a paper map by two European men, over a hundred years ago.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

2 thoughts on “Why Does The Middle East Have Straight Line Borders?!

  1. It should be remembered that the US-led coalition in the Middle East collectively uses the problems of the Skyes-Picot Agreement in order to justify their support of radical and somewhat moderate militants in the hot wars and proxy conflicts they covertly engineer to further the fulfillment of ideological and imperialistic ambitions. The strategy of “Divide & Conquer” is used in the attempt to balkanize the Middle East into smaller, more controllable zones of influence. This was the strategy used by NATO during the Yugoslav Wars (that they also covertly engineered) to balkanize Yugoslavia into several weaker nation states that could be easily absorbed into the NATO and EU bureaucratic structures through political bribery and the rigging of elections/referendums.

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