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How a line drawn in the sand nearly 100 years ago helped create Syria mess

Wael Hamzeh / EPA, file

A wounded man awaits medical attention after two rockets allegedly launched by Syrian rebels hit houses and cars in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon on May 26, 2013.

News Analysis

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Syria’s civil war is beginning to spill over to its neighbors – beyond the flood of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the crisis.

In a rise in sectarian violence, Sunni rebels from Syria have begun to clash with Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah fighters inside Lebanon. And the rebels have threatened more cross-border attacks unless Hezbollah ceases to defend the Alawite regime of President Bashar Assad, itself an offshoot of Shiite Islam. 

But that very border is just one of many drawn 97 years ago by a finger passing over a map ... and a line in the sand.

Now, there’s an almost amusing irony in the fact that Britain and France are the countries leading the charge to take on Assad and clean up Syria’s mess – since one could strongly argue that they are the very same colonial powers who made the mess in the first place.

“They created the contemporary Arab world,” explained Dr. Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “They played God and produced mutilated entities that almost a century later are coming apart.”

A line in the sand
Like so many other Middle Eastern conflicts, Syria’s war has its roots in the colonial era and dates back to World War I. By 1916 it looked doubtful that Turkey, the head of the Ottoman Empire, which was fighting with Germany and Austria, would end up on the winning side of World War I.

U.K. National Archives

A map of the Middle East with annotations showing proposed administration, including British (B) and French (A) spheres of influence, independent Arab States, and the 'Sykes-Picot Line'. Signed: Sir Mark Sykes and Fr[ançois] Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916.

So a young, keen British politician named Sir Mark Sykes was tasked by the war council to devise a secret plan that would effectively divvy up the Ottoman lands in the Middle East between Britain and France. Sykes, along with his equally driven French counterpart, the former consul in Beirut, Francois George-Picot, came up with perhaps the most fateful diagonal line ever drawn on a map. 

According to the Sykes-Picot plan, Britain got Jordan, parts of Palestine and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). 

Sykes clearly wanted to keep this simple. As James Barr recounts in his recent book, “Line in the Sand,” when Skyes was asked by then-British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour, “What do you mean to give [the French] exactly?” Sykes “sliced his finger across the map that lay before them on the table. ‘I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk,’ he said.”

In other words, France would get part of Turkey, Syria and what became modern-day Lebanon.

Keystone-france / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

French soldiers entering Beirut, Lebanon, in 1919. Just after the First World War the Ottoman Empire, allies of the Germans, was dissolved. Following the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, Lebanon was placed under French mandate by the League of Nations in 1920.

Several years later, the League of Nations – precursor to the United Nations – cemented the new boundaries drawn up by Sykes and Picot. Boundaries which, as journalist and author Sam Roberts has written in the New York Times, “paid little attention to the ancient tribal, ethnic, and religious differences that are at the root of much of the bloodshed in the region.”

Investigators at the United Nations now believe that Syria has used chemical weapons and thermobaric bombs against rebels in recent weeks.

A deliberate hodge-podge 
Both colonial Britain and France, according to Roberts, were more interested in access to Middle East oil, and keeping emerging nations like Iraq and Syria divided and as weak as possible, so as not to pose a threat.

Lebanon, for instance, was carved out of Syria’s coastal region. Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Druze were separated by geography and from their own sects in neighboring countries. Kurds found themselves spread across four countries -- Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. The map of Iraq looked more like a layer cake, stacking up three former Ottoman provinces: mostly Sunni Baghdad, Shiite Basra and Kurdish Mosul.

To rule over such a hodge-podge, secular and Western-friendly kings were put onto invented thrones. Faisal bin Hussein, who fought alongside the legendary T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) against the Turks in WWI was named king of the new Iraq; his brother, Abdullah bin Hussein, the king of the new Jordan. They both came from Saudi Arabia. Rump Syria became a French protectorate.

It was a formula, though, which seemed to work ... until post-colonial times, in the 1930s and ‘40s, when both Britain and France – having locked up their riches – granted independence to their Middle Eastern colonies. Republics replaced kings, and soon a string of military coups followed. So did dictators – some supported by the U.S. – along with ethnic cleansing and sectarian repression.

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A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.

And that leads to the mess we have today, where a conflict inside one Middle Eastern country (Syria) seems to suck in another (Lebanon, Iraq). Still, Gerges, the academic, is optimistic.

“What we’ve witnessed in the past two years are birth pangs. It’ll take time and pain for a new world to replace the colonial constructed map. But it will be born.”

Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London currently on assignment in Beirut. He has covered the Middle East since the 1980’s.

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