The Bitter Legacy of Sykes-Picot

We Scots are currently under heavy bombardment from the London payroll and anyone they can strap a kilt on how the UK is better as the entity with which our patriotism is to identify. We can be Scots—but only as much as we can be parochial Glaswegians or Aberdonians: on the world stage, UK rools, ya bass.

Arguments to take this view appear to be based on nostalgia for ‘good’ wars won together and arguments for the future that seem to along the lines of schoolyard politics: status; ‘punching above our weight’ and whether my dad can beat up yours. Now sensible Scots accept that no-one should forget our joint history, nor malign the pride felt for helping rid the world of global fascism, still less the honour due to those who risked and lost their lives for such liberty.

But the UK of which we are currently a part is having major difficulty moving on from the 19th century and recent events have highlighted this yet again. Not only are our English cousins again foaming with recurrent xenophobia as millions vote for UKIP, rail against Euro-domination and railing at immigrants as if we were reliving War of the Worlds, but here in Scotland we have the temerity to suggest that the UK as the littlest bully on the UN Security (= World’s Policeman) gang is a repugnant role Scots no longer want to share.

If Britain had a decent record of engagement with the rest of the planet, there might be much more of which Scots could be proud and thereby reason to stay in partnership to extend it. But from tobacco and sugar, through slaves and cotton to opium and oil, the engine that drove the British Empire was ever-more lucrative commerce—in whose exploitation the Scots joined in with an enthusiasm that belied our dour reputation.

Once the First War had hollowed out the UK’s commercial wealth and the Second punctured our imperial myths, there followed an unseemly haste in dismantling of the pink parts of the globe. It was unseemly because it was done fast under financial duress. Contemporary horrors like Mau Mau, Eoka and the brutal partition of India showed the UK up as weak, inflexible and poor at diplomacy with former ghat wallahs when it came to peaceful parting. The parade of tin-pot horrors —Nkruma, Nasser, Amin, Kenyatta and (later) Hussein—can be directly traced to the abysmal British record of ill preparing natives to rule themselves—mostly from a bigoted belief that they couldn’t.

Expediency may have moved the UK on from pure gunboat diplomacy but from the Falklands to Bosnia to Iraq showed the UK had retained a very American disposition to shoot first and ask questions later. Unsurprisingly, this has not won many friends. Indeed it appears a very reasonable explanation why thousands of young British muslims are both active and hostile, with many serving in forces Britain condemns as ‘terrorists’.

“My country, right or wrong” is no bad credo for serving soldiers who aren’t allowed the luxury of debate on their own deployment. But there is an unspoken obligation of the government exploiting such single-mindedness to choose their wars very carefully so as not to abuse such unswerving loyalty. While human frailty implies we won’t always get it right and WW2 is generally held up as a ‘good’ war because of Nazi atrocities it struck down, there are few places on the planet that Britain has not sent troops and even fewer where they got it as wrong and as often as the Middle East.

Dominated by Turks before the UK existed, let alone had colonies, the Fertile Crescent from Beersheba to Basra was long terra incognita to Britain. But the discovery of oil and its fueling of the RN battlefleet brought the region into sharp focus so that the UK’s first real foray into the region was invasion #1 of Iraq in 1916. Rather a debacle, it nonetheless put the whole region into a joint UK/France sphere of influence. And in true empire style, both powers assigned it to senior diplomats who’d never been near the place: Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes and François Marie Denis Georges-Picot.

Their negotiations carved what we now know as Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon and Syria out of the disintegrating provinces of the Ottoman Empire. (First three became British protectorates, the last two French). The priority given to imperial interests (oil, trade, bases, ports, railways) was paramount. The regard for native interest was minimal and their understanding of the area’s enthnicity (seen as irrelevant) even less.

The result was a powder keg that has exploded more than once and, given that the bulk of the world’s proven oil reserves lie under the shifting sands (double-entendre intentional) of the region, it is an area of perpetual world focus. Unrest in the thirties exploded into revolt in Iraq under Rashid-Ali in 1940, which was put down by Britain’s invasion #2.

After WW2, the French departed to deal with hairier problems of their own in Vietnam. But the Brits hung in there. Such was the quantity and lucrativeness of the Gulf’s oil that the UK meddled endlessly not only in Iraq and the Gulf States but in Iran’s internal affairs until BP’s forerunner’s assets were seized and the 1963 revolution threw the British out. Such was Britain’s post-Suez weakness that nothing effective could be done to counter this, any more than when an embryonic Hussein regime repeated the eviction in Iraq. Britain was able to live with both because Saudi/Gulf State rulers were accommodating and North Sea oil offered a safer, if more expensive, source within a decade.

So, having removed the Ottoman Empire as a stabilising influence of 500 years and creating a myriad of new states tailored to global empires but not locals, both ‘powers’ disappeared from the scene, leaving an unholy melange of Jewish, Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Baathist, Persian, Christian (from bloody Crusades even predating the Turks), Ismalis, Turkomans, etc., all in no way contiguous with the Sykes-Picot borders. Despite some involvement by the USA as a global power, the last half-century has seen ever-more wars of various sorts break out in the region with neither resolution nor end is in sight.

From three Arab-Israeli wars, through incursion into Lebanon, to the decade-long Iran/Iraq war, to the fierce anti-US position in Teheran post-1979, to the forced merger of Yemen and the present Syrian Civil War, mayhem has been the order of the day before we even start in on the Gulf War parts I and II (Invasion #3 and #4). In other words, the greatest imperial power of its day and its main ally had a chance to rewrite the future for the entire cradle of civilisation and got it so wrong that fifty years of on-off warfare in and around the world’s fuel tanks show no sign of ending.

So, now that Isis has exploded out of a disintegrating Syria and starts rolling up the parts of Iraq dominated by their ethnic kin, is anyone surprised? And when William Hague touts re-opening of diplomatic links with Iran to help defuse/deflect such developments when the UK and US are a decade into fiercely eyeballing Iran for a nuclear programme they don’t like, we half-expect the dramatis personae to start quoting Lewis Caroll. Touting Iran as best new buddy when it was a global nuclear pariah last week shows breathtaking cynicism. That the UK is refuting ‘boots on the ground’ is fig-leaf comfort since we’ve invaded the same place four times already in the last century.

If there is a lesson anywhere why the UK should stop pretending to be a global power, slink off to the European margin and zip its lip for once, it is surely here. (Whether the UK can afford to exert any global power is a good but separate question). The bottom line is: Britain’s record as a force for good in the world is stained with selfish bad judgement—and nowhere more so than in the serial flash point that is the Middle East. This is where we once had the clout and chance to fix things on a comprehensive scale, yet played to our self-interests of oil, trade and the securing a safe passage to India, the ‘Jewel in the Crown’..

Whatever the glories of our past together, the most irrefutable reason for Scotland leaving the United Kingdom is that English diplomacy, although much-vaunted, is delusion. It has always focused on exploiting local resources to manufacture goods to then sell back to the natives. With self-interest and money as the real motivators, the UK gets it spectacularly wrong on a regular basis. And, in doing so, copious seeds of dissent are sown and armies of enemies recruited. If 7/11 can be attributed to US strong-arm behaviour around the Gulf, then 7/7 was the child of an even longer bull-in-a-china-shop British record there.

And, in case anyone thinks such insensitivity can be explained by vast cultural divides that are difficult to bridge, go the post office on O’Connell Street in Dublin and read the history emblazoned on the walls. Whether a British Imperium capable of such brutal repression of its own kith and kin should ever have had its day seems debatable but that Empire—and any status it brought—is all done now. If the English want to pretend it still exists, they are welcome to their warped delusions, as formulated by Sykes-Picot.

But let the Scots go; it’s time for us to make more friends, not more enemies.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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1 Response to The Bitter Legacy of Sykes-Picot

  1. Pingback: Century-Old Lesson Still Unlearned | davidsberry

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