Larry Hannant is a historian at Camosun College and the University of Victoria.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed a century ago, on May 9, 1916, and is still reviled in the Middle East. That was graphically demonstrated in one of the first Islamic State videos, which showed a bulldozer punching a passage through a sandy berm marking the border between Iraq and Syria. In an accompanying video, an IS fighter proclaimed it to be the first of "many barriers we shall break," with the terrorist group vowing to target "all the countries [bounded by the] imaginary borders of Sykes-Picot."
In Western countries, Sykes-Picot is mostly relegated to the indexes of history textbooks. But in the Mideast, the fateful agreement between Great Britain and France has a powerful contemporary presence: It symbolizes the Western destruction of the dream of Middle East unity – first political, now religious.
The deal was the outcome of five months of talks between Sir Mark Sykes, adviser to the British cabinet on the Middle East, and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot. In it, the two countries drew lines in the sand to demarcate what would be their spheres of influence after they defeated the Ottoman Empire in the First World War.
The arbitrariness of their surveying was illustrated in 1915 when Sir Mark declared, "I should like to draw a line from the 'e' in Acre to the last 'k' in Kirkuk." Extending from present-day northern Israel to the oil fields of northern Iraq, it was intended to divide the French zone to the north from the British zone to the south. After the war, that would become the border between Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
Millions of Arabs since then have wished to take an eraser, if not a bulldozer, to the Sykes-Picot lines.
When Arabs learned of the plan, their immediate reaction was defiance. The deal violated a British promise to Arab leader Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, to support the creation of an Arab state over the entire territory west and south of Iraq. Britain offered this in return for Hussein leading Arabs against the Ottoman Empire, which was allied to Germany.
Hussein and his son Faisal were as good as their word. In 1917, as casualties mounted on the stagnant Western Front, an Arab force overwhelmed the Turkish garrison at the crucial port city of Aqaba, and later that year a combined British-Arab force captured Jerusalem.
At war's end, however, Britain dispensed with its promise of an Arab state and proceeded to carve up the Middle East as stipulated by the Sykes-Picot map.
But Faisal could play a deft diplomatic hand himself and in July, 1919, he convened the General Syrian Congress in Damascus. The assembled Arabs – Christians and Muslims – and Jews unanimously rejected the Sykes-Picot partition agenda. They envisioned a "General Syria" that would be a single democratic state from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates River.
Popular Arab uprisings to win independence were militarily suppressed by British and French armies and air power. A century of outside control and internal division was launched.
In the past two decades the pace of disintegration has stepped up. What were until recently unified countries – Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen – have been ravaged. The prospect even of a peaceful Middle East, let alone a unified, democratic one, is remote at best.
While the brutal IS bid to reunify the Mideast is certainly bound for an early grave, the soul of the Sykes-Picot deal goes marching on.