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A Line in the Sand

An unsettling history of British and French machinations in the Mideast.

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A Line in the Sand
The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East, 1914-1948
By James Barr
W.W. Norton
352 pp.

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Much is always made of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 in which the British and the French secretly connived to split the Middle East like a ripe melon, dividing what is now Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordon, Israel, Gaza and the West Bank between them. The fact that neither controlled or had any legitimate right to this vast expanse was of little import in London and Paris; they planned to seize control of it soon enough from the waning Ottoman Empire.

It was a facile agreement, to be sure, and dramatized the mad scramble for the region and its resources, but the game was already on when Sir Mark Sykes, a 30-something baronet who passed himself off as a Middle East expert, drew his infamous line in the sand connecting Acre on the Mediterranean coast with Kirkuk in the heart of what was then known as Mesopotamia. Decades previously Britain had taken control of Egypt and Cyprus, and World War I would be the catalyst for gathering more low hanging fruit. The security of the Suez Canal and access to oil, the fossil fuel of the future, were the prime motivations. Wherever the line was drawn, the Middle East was in for big changes.

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