Wednesday, May 18, 2016

How The Turks And the British Created Iraq Not Sykes-Picot

The Sykes-Picot Treaty has become the default explanation for both Westerners and locals to explain all the problems in the Middle East. In Iraq’s case the argument is that it is an artificial state created by France and England via the 1916 treaty made during World War I. A quick look at a map of the treaty would show that is false, but it hasn’t stopped people from referring to it over and over. In truth, it was fighting between the Turks and British during and after World War I that fixed the first outline of the Iraqi state.  

The end of World War I would lead to the creation of Iraq. During the war the British conquered the Ottoman’s provinces in Mesopotamia. A British expeditionary force landed in Basra in October 1914. The war went slowly, taking three years to conquer Baghdad in March 1917, Tikrit in November, and the middle of 1918 to seize Kirkuk. The defeat of the Central Powers in Europe led the Ottomans to sign the Treaty of Mudros on October 30, 1918. That didn’t stop the British military, which was given orders by the War Office to continue their march north to take the city of Mosul on November 3. Since this happened after the armistice the Ottomans and later the Turks argued that this occupation was illegal and continued to claim the Mosul province as their own. In August 1920 the Treaty of Sevres ceded Mesopotamia to the British creating its Iraq Mandate, but the Ottomans still wanted Mosul. It wasn’t until 1926 that the Iraq-Turkey border was set after the Turkish War of Independence resulted in the Turks pushing the British south to the present demarcation line. Rather than Sykes-Picot, which was signed by London and Paris in 1916, it was the British and Turks who fought over and later gave birth to Iraq. How World War I ended led to eight years of disputes between the two countries. Eventually not only were the Ottomans’ Basra, Baghdad and Mosul provinces ceded to England, but the northern border was set too. Very few know this history, and often ignore the agency of the Turks versus the British. It seems a lot easier and handier to blame European imperialism and the great powers for Iraq’s creation since it requires little explanation or knowledge of the region to be explained and believed.


The Long, Long Trail, “Mesopotamia”

Musings On Iraq, “Is Iraq An Artificial State? Interview With Princeton’s Sara Pursley,” 7/6/15

Sluglett, Peter, Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007

Tripp, Charles, A History of Iraq, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007

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