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Editorial: In the Shadow of Sykes-Picot

British Foreign Secretary William Hague arrives at a Foreign Affairs Council meeting at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on February 18, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS/Getty Images)
British Foreign Secretary William Hague arrives at a Foreign Affairs Council meeting at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on February 18, 2013. (AFP PHOTO/JOHN THYS/Getty Images)
Of all the members of the EU, it is Britain and France that have been by far the most active in getting involved in finding a solution in the crisis in Syria. This has gone even further than multilateral efforts as permanent members of the UN’s Security Council—both states recently applied enough pressure to overturn the EU’s arms embargo on Syria’s rebels, despite opposition from the other 25 member-states, leaving the field open for individual states to ship weapons to opponents of Bashar Al-Assad.

But there are troubling precedents for British and French involvement in the Middle East, precedents that the people of the Middle East have not forgotten, even if many in the UK and France have.

As the First World War raged, representatives of France and the UK met to make plans for a post-war Middle East. It goes without saying that no Arabs, Turks, Iranians or other denizens of the Middle East were consulted in any meaningful way during the talks between diplomats François Georges-Picot and Sir Mark Sykes, which remains a source of anger in the region.

Bearing this in mind, the governments of France and the UK should be cautious in their attempts to find a solution to the Syrian crisis. Although it has been almost a century since the Sykes–Picot agreement was struck, there are other, more recent scars on the history of European intervention in the Middle East—especially the legacy of the Suez invasion of 1956. This is to say nothing of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which practically destroyed what was left of the reputation of the US and the UK among the Arab public, though admittedly France chose not to participate. However, this does not let Paris off the hook; in fact, France should be especially careful, given that it was the former colonial power in Syria and Lebanon.

The governments of the UK and France should be doing a lot more to explain why they in particular are seeking to play such a major role in the conflict in Syria. Leaving aside the issue of the wisdom or moral case for doing so, the special role these two states have played in the history of Syria and its neighbors means that they should take particular care to build as much support as possible among the publics of regional states for their actions there, and in as transparent a way as possible.

The same goes for the publics of France and Britain. The foreign policy of these governments is pursued in their name; their leaders should be doing more to explain why they think it is necessary for them to be involved in Syria, especially in such a direct way. It would not hurt for them to expand on what kind of a future they envision for Syria. It is not enough to say that it is for Syrians to decide—not when the UK and France propose taking a direct role in what is happening there.

Some ask why intervention was justified in Libya, but not Syria. The case of Libya is still disputed, but on the whole the Western intervention there is regarded as a qualified success. However, taken alone it is not enough to erase the legacy of decades of colonialism. If things go wrong for the UK and France in Syria, as things often do when it comes to intervening in bloody, unpredictable civil wars, then Libya will quickly be forgotten and Syria will go down as another example of egregious Western meddling.

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Majalla: The Leading Arab Magazine
Since it was first published in 1980 from its head office in London, Majalla has been considered one of the leading political affairs magazines in the Arab world. We offer a wide array of articles addressing the most significant political, economic and social issues facing the Middle East today, as well as the evolving cultural scene in the region. Majalla prides itself in being an ideas-driven publication that goes beyond reporting and headlines to provide original analysis.

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