All posts filed under: History

The Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Making of the Modern Middle East

The Sykes-Picot Agreement created the modern Middle East. It represents one of the first instalments in a long line of modern European – and subsequent American – meddling in the region. And, in providing a set of unrealistic and impossible promises to the Arabs, it led directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Asia Minor Agreement, the official name of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, dates to 1916. It was the result of secret deliberations between the British civil servant Mark Sykes and French diplomat François Georges-Picot. It was made official by the Allied Powers of the first world war with the San Remo Conference in 1920. The agreement provided a general understanding of British and French spheres of influence in the Middle East. The goal was to divide between them the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces (not including the Arabian Peninsula). The line across a map of the Middle East it drew created colonial spheres of influence that cut directly and artificially across a region that had previously been divided along ethnic, linguistic and religious lines. Area “A” …

Labour in Meltdown – But What Is Anti-Semitism?

Simmering tension within the British Labour Party over claims of antisemitism has boiled over. First MP Naz Shah was suspended; now the party’s former London mayor, Ken Livingstone has joined her. It’s an ideal moment to consider what antisemitism actually is. Many probably – perhaps secretly – gave up puzzling over antisemitism long ago. They’ve moved on to some other issue, like battery hens, where the oppressors are shamefaced and the victims can’t speak. The first step towards conquering antisemitism fatigue is to admit that you have the problem. I need to do it every day. Perhaps Shah and Livingstone, and a few others, might do so too. Allow me, if I may, to return to a few basics for deciphering our perennial “Jewish problem”. Semitic cultures and languages, largely traceable to the Middle East, include both Arabs and Jews. Unsurprisingly, people often bristle at the very phrase “antisemitic”: how dare the Jews act as if they’re the only Semites, let alone accuse Arabs of antisemitism? Indeed, how dare the Jews even pose as victims …

Confusion About -Isms is Compounding Schisms

America has a deeply confused understanding of liberalism, neo-liberalism, conservatism and progressivism. Thanks to the outsize influence of US politics on global discourse, this confusion is slowly infecting other countries. It’s a dangerous disease because it prevents the articulation of a consistent framework for analysing policy, which leaves the voter in thrall to sloganeering, issue-baiting and crude policies formulated along only vague ideological grounds. As many of these confusions pertain to some variety of liberalism — classical, neo, libertarian — let’s start clarifying things there. Classical liberalism begins roughly with Hobbes. He experienced the horror of a civil war and argued that a ‘leviathan’ was needed that could enforce ‘the rule of law’ to control the human tendency towards violence. He argued that all individuals should cede some of their innate sovereignty to this sovereign. Note this fundamental appreciation of the individual’s sovereignty over herself. This is something you don’t find in fascism, which prioritises the state, or progressivism, which prioritises the class or marginalised group. Locke comes next and suggests the separation of powers …

A Memoir from Mesopotamia

A review of The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq by Emma Sky. New York, NY: PublicAffairs (2015), 402 pages. Emma Sky’s memoir of her time in Iraq captivates. Her account, as a British, female, one-time opponent of the Iraq war, deals with how she administered an Iraqi province in the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The book documents the years she spent in the country, working closely with the American military — the same organisation she and many like-minded individuals opposed so vigorously in the run up to the war. In the latter role, Sky became associated with what she calls the ‘American tribe’ (despite being a British citizen with little formal guidance from her own government), serving as a political advisor to American officials including Raymond Odierno (‘General O’) and David Petraeus. A great deal of the memoir consists of the realities of administering a newly-liberated nation, with dramatic descriptions of the work the military undertook, the realities of working in a warzone, and interesting dissections – complete with …

The Masochists Who Defend Sadists: The Regressive Left in Theory and Practice

I. The most contemptible of John Pilger’s declarations of left-wing solidarity was made in an interview with Green Left Weekly in January, 2004. The Australian journalist was asked whether the Left should support the anti-occupation movement in Iraq. Pilger replied: Yes . . We cannot afford to be choosy. While we abhor and condemn the continuing loss of innocent life in Iraq, we have no choice now but to support the resistance. One must remember that in the ranks of the resistance were the Ba’ath party loyalists and the newly arrived jihadists of al Qaeda, who set out to foment sectarian war and leave Iraqi civil society in ruins. And they succeeded. For Pilger, the fascists and Islamists were the true friends of the Western Left. Pilger had a lot of other friends, too. Radicals and populists such as Michael Moore, Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy, and the Stop the War Coalition came out to support the resistance, oppose the United States, and demonstrate their commitment to barbarism. There were many decent and moral ways to …

History and Memory in Syria

The Syrian uprising is on the verge of its fifth anniversary. To a great extent it has become the essential conflict of our times. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – the prospect of peace, despite some apparently encouraging signs from the United Nations, remains a chimera. Much – and understandably so – has been written about what Syria has become, and what led it there: the murders, the torture, the senseless slaughter, the almost inconceivable devastation. There is no shame in this; it is necessary and I have done more than my fair share. But sometimes this analysis is insufficient. Sometimes it is better to write from an unconventional perspective; sometimes what is missing from the equation is a greater sense of historical understanding. Some works do this very well. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, the excellent book by Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss, devotes considerable space to chronicling the origins of the Islamic State. But missing from all this is an idea of the personal experience of many Syrians; and …