We’re repeating world history | Rich Elfers

The decision reached in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement at the end of World War I has been unraveling piece by piece in recent weeks.

In 1916 a secret meeting took place between British diplomat Mark Sykes and French representative Francois Georges-Picot concerning the future of the Ottoman Empire in what today comprises Turkey and the Middle East. Imperial Russia, their ally in World War I against the Central Powers, agreed to this plan.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the Ottoman Empire between the French and British and created the Middle East as we have known it for the past nearly 100 years.

Iraq was created out of three distinct groups: Shias, the majority group, Sunnis, and ethnic Kurds to the northeast who were primarily Sunni Muslim. The British would have control of this nation, ruling through an Arab king. The British would also take over Jordan and Palestine and rule them as protectorates. France would take Syria and Lebanon as their protectorates.

The decision reached in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement at the end of World War I has been unraveling piece by piece in recent weeks.

If you have been watching the news about these countries, you know that Syria is involved in a civil war between Bashar al-Assad and various groups of Sunni Muslims. Assad is an Alawite, a sect of Shia Muslims, and is aided by Iran’s Shia client army, Hezbollah, from Lebanon. Many of the Sunni Muslim factions are supported by Sunni Saudi Arabia and now the United States.

History was made in recent weeks when a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria took over a large amount of northern Iraq and Syria. They also proclaimed the return of the Caliphate – the ruler/successor of Mohammed the Prophet. The last Caliphate ended in 1924 when General Ataturk abolished it and set up a secular Turkish republic out of part of the Ottoman Empire.

This new Islamic state was created in primarily Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria. Whether this nation continues to exist will be determined in the next few weeks and months by the United States, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

The rise of ISIS came as a result of dissatisfaction with the current leader of Iraq, a Shia named Nouri al-Maliki, who has favored his fellow Shias at the expense of the Sunni minority.

ISIS’ recent successes have come as a surprise to the world, but are the result of anger over al-Maliki’s favoritism.

A neighboring part of the world, Russia, an ally of Britain and France during World War I, experienced a Communist revolution in 1917 that deposed Czar Nicholas II.

Communist Russia withdrew from the war and ceded a large amount of territory to the Germans to gain peace. New nations were formed after the collapse of German fighting in November 1918. The USSR (Russia) was able to retake Ukraine and it tried, but failed, to retake Poland, a nation re-carved out of Russia that had not existed for a hundred years.

In some ways, what is happening in Ukraine today is part of the recycling of decisions that were made during and after World War I. Russia is regaining some of the strength it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as Bolshevik Russia did after the collapse of German resistance in 1918. By retaking Crimea, and giving aid to pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, Russia is repeating part of its history from 1919 and 1920. Russia has always considered Ukraine to be just less highly developed Russians, but family, nonetheless.

As we approached the anniversary of the beginning of World War I – July 28, 1914 – the world experienced déjà vu as we look back at the decisions by Sykes and Picot, and by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia. We will have to see how all these events play out in the next few months and years, but we are reminded on the 100th anniversary of that Great War that the decisions individuals and nations make have a way of coming back and haunting us later in our lives, for good or for ill.


Rich Elfers is a history instructor at Green River Community College and former Enumclaw City Council member.