Grandson of Sir Mark Sykes (Sykes-Picot) responds to Nic Kristof of the NY Times..

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mark Sykes, grandson of Sir Mark Sykes who drafted the 1916 secret British Empire document, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, responds to an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Who’s right and wrong in the Middle East?” by Nicolas Kristof (July 19th, 2014). 

To the New York Times:


Mr. Kristof is correct in saying that this is not a conflict between good and evil. However, this is of course how it seems to both sides.


Hamas is an unattractive organisation. It is aggressively Sunni, but does not (so far) appear Salafist. It is considered a terrorist organisation by the USA and the EU.  


The militant organisations that directed the armed struggle of the Jews against the British occupation prior to 1948, of which the Stern Gang and Haganah are the best known, were also then (and, by some, still) considered terrorists. We arrive at a situation where your freedom fighter is our terrorist, and vice versa. 


In desperation, and in reaction against the totally corrupt PLO and the Palestinian Authority headed by Yasser Arafat until his death, Hamas was democratically elected by the Gaza Palestinians as their government. [This was in 2006.--PF]


Hamas is Sunni, but until relatively recently, one of the interesting things about the Palestinian struggle is that it was not sectarian.  There were many Christian Arabs in the PLO.  The head of the very extreme PFLP, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Dr. George Habash, with whom I once had the pleasure of lunching in Paris, was a Coptic Christian.


Unfortunately Israel did not act as they had promised, to treat the Palestinians fairly, and in 1948, the moment they had a state of their own, they started expelling and terrorizing the Arabs in Palestine into leaving.  Conditions in Gaza and the West Bank deteriorated over the years.  Then, much later, they built the wall, and the similarity of Gaza to a vast concentration camp became absolute.  

The Palestinians, many of whom, as Mr. Kristof correctly observes want nothing more than peace, cannot work (many of them used to work in Israel, crossing and recrossing the border each day) and they cannot leave - even if there was anywhere for them to go.


The contest between Hamas and Israel is of course entirely uneven; on one side, a modern state heavily armed by the USA, with the fourth largest army per head of population in the world; on the other side, fighters ("freedom" or "terrorist", depending on your point of view) with old Russian rockets supplied by Iran.


Indeed, as Mr. Kristof rightly remarks, the rocket attacks by Hamas should end, and Israel should leave Gaza, and use diplomacy to marginalise Hamas and have elections which would elect someone else (who do not at present exist), possibly the Palestinian Authority.  This is, sadly, a pious and entirely unrealistic aspiration. (Try selling that deal to someone who has just seen his children massacred in a school by Israeli bombardment.)


No, as they say, this one will run and run.  There is no end in sight, except very temporarily, as happened in 2003 and 2005, and then it will all start again until not a stone is left standing in Gaza. Yes, the hawks are in power in both Palestine and Gaza, although in both places there are doves. This is probably unavoidable.


These problems, and the creation of the modern Israeli state, go back a very long way.  I have a family involvement in this.  My grandfather, Sir Mark Sykes (same name as me!) was the signatory for Britain of a secret treaty in 1916, half way through the First World War, which divided the Middle East, the old Turkish Ottoman Empire, into French and British areas of influence.  This is known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement.  


Looking North, the French got the part on the left (Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, French North Africa) and the British the part on the right (Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Iran) and Egypt.  

Saudi Arabia was allowed to be independent because my grandfather, who was an enthusiastic Orientalist and spoke Arabic and Persian, was a close personal friend of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who later became the first king of Saudi Arabia (I still have a watch given to my grandfather by Ibn Saud). The main British concerns were the oil and keeping a route open to British India.


Not content with dividing up the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, my grandfather, who somehow managed to support both the idea of a national Jewish homeland in Palestine and his enthusiasm for Arabism, helped to arrange the issuing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. This was an undertaking by the British Government to establish a National Home for the Jews in Palestine. 

It included an absolute requirement that the non-Jewish inhabitants of any such state should be treated completely equally.  It was effectively cooked up by my grandfather, and Chaim Weitzmann and Nahum Sokolow for the Jewish Agency, and Lord Rothschild. Surprisingly to us today, it was also supported by the Emir Feisal, the effective head up to a point of the Arab world at the time, who thought that the influx of modern ideas, capital and technology would benefit the region.

My grandfather died while attending the Versailles Peace conference in 1919, at the age of 39, so he did not see the results of his efforts. Had he lived, he would have made some further mark on his times, although he was probably too generous and enthusiastic a character to make a politician.  He was five years younger than Winston Churchill, and nine years older than Hitler.


Mr. Kristof is more or less correct in his conclusions, but he does not look far enough back for the origins of the problem.  No one can look forward to a solution.  Some Arabs and the Iranians would like to see the end of Israel, though Saudi Arabia and Egypt would not; but the Arabs have been unable to agree about anything since the twelfth century and the days of Salah-ud-Din, who we call Saladin.   

Some Jews would like to see the Palestinians at the bottom of the sea.  In theory a two-state solution is the best way out, and this may happen as the alternative to ongoing (and costly) chaos.  If that does happen, I shall be delighted to have my gloomy predictions proved wrong.