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What Really Caused the Chaos in Today's Middle East?

06/06/2014 13:46 BST | Updated 05/08/2014 10:59 BST

By Christopher Catherwood, author of From the Ashes of War: The Creation of the Middle East.

One of the greatest myths of our time is also, today in 2014, one of the most dangerous. This is the idea that today's Middle East was created by an Anglo-French secret pact in 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed by Sir Mark Sykes for Britain and M. Georges-Picot for France.

With the chaos in present-day Syria many have argued that the Sykes-Picot era is over. We see this in newspapers, on television and in books. But all of them are wrong. The era created by that agreement was dead in the water the moment that David Lloyd George became Prime Minister later that year and then despatched General Sir Edmund Allenby in early 1917 to conquer the Middle East.

How often have people looked at the map Sykes and Picot created? Much of the territory allocated was to the Russian Empire that ceased to exist in 1917. Jerusalem was placed under international control, not under British jurisdiction. And Syria was twice the present size, since the Mosul province of the Ottoman Empire, with its Kurds and plentiful supplies of oil, was given to France not to the still non-existent British-controlled region we today call Iraq. Lloyd George wanted Jerusalem. And he wanted the oil of Mosul. Sykes-Picot stood in his way. And remember too, when Sykes plotted with Picot, the Ottoman Empire was in full control of most of the Middle East.

What changed everything was Lloyd George's appointment of a brilliant British general, Sir Edmund Allenby, to command an invasion force to beat the Ottomans, and claim the key areas that the Prime Minister wanted for British rule. With Allenby, commanding his British, Australian, New Zealand and sometimes Japanese force, everything changed. In 1917 Allenby captured Jerusalem. Ever since then the fate of that city and of the British mandate later bestowed in 1920 has been synonymous. There was to be no international zone. And in 1918 British and Australian troops captured Damascus.

Today's Middle East is therefore the creation of David Lloyd George's dreams and of Allenby's imperial forces. Allenby's victories completely overturned Sykes-Picot and created a new reality in the Middle East. British forces on the ground in Damascus enabled Lloyd George to wrest oil-rich Mosul from France and created today's Iraq in 1921. From the victories of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was disbanded, and the Western powers carved up the Middle East into pretty much the form it is in now. How will the Middle East change in the future? That remains to be seen.

Christopher Catherwood is the author of From the Ashes of War: The Creation of the Middle East, published by Endeavour Press.