Look Beyond Sykes-Picot to Understand the Middle East The Origins of a Century-Old Agreement and its Modern Implications

The agreement of Sykes-Picot recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. A hundred years later, can the secret wartime agreement still help us explain modern challenges in the Middle East? Or is Sykes-Picot but an expression of a deeper problem?

On 16 May 1916, Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot signed what came to be known as the (in)famous agreement of Sykes-Picot.1 Flash-forward a century, many still point to the secret wartime agreement as the root cause of the challenges facing the Middle East today.2 Between civil war, state failure and a surge in radical Islam, the situation looks dire. Can we lay the blame with Sykes-Picot, or is the focus on the agreement just “a product of bad history and shoddy social science”?3

Fragile Alliance(s)

Sykes-Picot was signed in 1916, a time in which Britain and France fought together in the First World War. Like a sword of Damocles the imminent fall of the Ottoman Empire loomed over their fragile alliance, since both the French and the British had imperial ambitions in the Middle East. Eager to expand their influence in what were then still Ottoman lands, the division of these territories threatened the wartime alliance between the two empires.

Politicians in Paris and London agreed that a division of Ottoman lands needed to be put into writing. Two diplomats were appointed to represent their governments in negotiations held in London. The British chose Sir Mark Sykes, an ambitious diplomat, as their representative. Sykes was a self-proclaimed expert on the Middle East, who gave the impression of speaking both Arabic and Turkish fluently but in reality spoke neither language well.4 François Georges-Picot, defending French claims to the Middle East, was a long-time supporter of French imperialism.5 Between them, the two men carved up the Ottoman lands into French and British spheres of influence.

Mark Sykes (left) and François Georges-Picot (right) © Wikimedia Commons

Mark Sykes (left) and François Georges-Picot (right) © Wikimedia Commons

For France, Georges-Picot was able to claim the modern territories of Syria and Lebanon. Sykes secured for his government large parts of contemporary Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan. Politicians in London were less than exited with the result. They felt that Sykes had gone too far in accommodating his French counterpart. Especially the territory of Palestine, which would be placed under international supervision, was a painful loss. Sykes himself saw the writing on the wall when he signed the map of the agreement in pencil as opposed to Georges-Picot, who signed it in ink.6

The British maintained an ambiguous position towards Sykes-Picot. In their dealings with the French, British politicians and diplomats stuck to the agreement as the roadmap for a future division of Ottoman lands. At the same time, however, the British promised some lands included in Sykes-Picot to their other wartime allies.

Promised Lands

Despite how important their Alliance with the French was in Europe, the British were on the lookout for other allies in the Middle East. The Ottomans had proven to be a tenacious adversary. The Turks even managed to push back British and French advances in the Gallipoli Peninsula and Mesopotamia.7 London eventually found a partner in the nascent Arab nationalist movement.8 The ambitious Sharif of Mecca, Sharif Hussein, was willing to take up arms against Ottoman rule. In what came to be known as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence the Sharif negotiated the conditions of his revolt with the British High Commissioner in Egypt.9

London promised to Hussein their support for an independent Arab State. Such an Arab State would have grouped together much of the territories of modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq. The letters predated Sykes-Picot, so in their negotiations with the French the British betrayed their Arab allies in the Middle East.

In 1917, one year after the signing of Sykes-Picot, the British once again promised lands included in both the Hussein-McMahon correspondence and Sykes-Picot to another potential ally. Disappointment over Sykes-Picot was still very present in British political circles. Sykes had failed to deliver to London the critical territory of Palestine and had been too forthcoming towards Georges-Picot.

After the war had ended, and the Ottoman Empire defeated, the time came for the British to choose which of their wartime agreements to honour.

To remedy this perceived injustice, the Brits looked for local allies to advance their claim to Palestine. London found such an ally in a relatively young Jewish nationalist movement, which hoped to establish an independent state for the Jewish people in the Palestinian territories. In their dealings with the British, the Zionists finally found the support of a Great Power for their cause. The Balfour Declaration10, dated 2 November 1917, expressed “His Majesty’s Government’s” support for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.11

The three ‘agreements’ – Sykes-Picot, the Hussein-McMahon correspondence and the Balfour Declaration – largely concerned the same Ottoman territories. After the war had ended, and the Ottoman Empire defeated, the time came for the British to choose which of their wartime agreements to honour.

Drawing Straws

Days before German capitulation from the war, the Ottoman Empire accepted defeat.12 Throughout the war, the Turks had lost considerable lands to Arab and British forces. In the end, the Arabs drew the short straw. Sykes-Picot was largely followed as the roadmap it was intended to be, with room for adjustments. The critical Iraqi town of Mosul passed from French to British hands, and a newly formed Turkish state claimed lands originally awarded to the French.13 More importantly, London succeeded in adding the Palestine mandate to its empire. The British were, however, still bound to their support of an independent Jewish state in the region as expressed in the Balfour declaration.14 The British thus ended up with contemporary Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Kuwait and large parts of Iraq. The French still held Lebanon and Syria. An independent Arab state, as promised to Hussein, was not realised.

In order to satisfy their Arab allies to some extent, the British placed two of Sharif Hussein’s sons at the head of Jordan and Iraq. To this day, the Hashemite dynasty (as it is referred to) still holds power in Jordan.15 In the end, however, Hussein’s dream of a united Arab state was not fulfilled. Three decades of European imperialism in the Middle East were about to begin.

Age of Empires

The main question surrounding the agreement of Sykes-Picot is whether or not it laid the groundwork for the conflicts and challenges facing the Middle East today. The answer to this question is likely ‘no’. James Barr, author of the acclaimed book on Sykes-Picot A Line in the Sand, argues that we cannot simply blame the modern ‘mess’ of the Middle East on Sykes-Picot.16

Sharif Hussein © Wikimedia Commons

Sharif Hussein © Wikimedia Commons

According to Barr, Sykes-Picot exemplified to the Arabs “the betrayal of the post-war settlement” as well as “the region’s vulnerability to foreign interference”. If the agreement of Sykes-Picot itself does not seem to be the problem, the underlying concept of European imperialism might be. The Arabs saw the British and French as the next in a long line of foreign rulers. In order to solidify their hold on their newly acquired territories, the British and French abandoned diplomacy and turned to military power.

The French, upon entering Syria and Lebanon, immediately had to use force to defeat the lingering Arab forces of Sharif Hussein’s son Faisal who had claimed the lands as part of his Arab Kingdom. So shortly after the Great War, violence had already returned to the Middle East. In the following decades, French forces retaliated harshly against insurgencies in Syria, alienating the local population in the process.17 As a parting gift to the Syrian people, the French bombarded the Syrian capital of Damascus before abandoning the country.18

In Lebanon, the French left behind an instable political system. Under the National Pact, Paris hoped to solidify Christian rule over the country.19 In light of changing demographics favouring a Muslim population, this was a recipe for disaster. It led to a terrible civil war and a political crisis Lebanon lasting to this day – with trash piling the streets of the Lebanese capital Beirut.20

Imperialism in the Middle East was characterized by violence and the absence of self-determination for the local Arab populations.

British conduct in the Middle East was hardly any better. In Palestine, contradictions in the Balfour Declaration led to increasing violence and extremism.21 As it turns out, it was impossible to combine support for a Jewish state with respect for the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”.22 After agreeing to a United Nations-moderated partition plan that divided Palestine into two separate countries, the British withdrew unilaterally from the mandate without leaving behind a stable or durable political system.23 Days after the Israeli Declaration of Independence (May 14, 1948) the conflict between Arabs and Israelis resulted in the first Arab-Israeli War.24

Overall, imperialism in the Middle East was characterized by violence and the absence of self-determination for the local Arab populations. As opposed to Sykes-Picot, the actions of the French and British had a real and tangible effect on the Middle East and the daily lives of its inhabitants. If Sykes-Picot is but a symptom, however, why then do we still attach so much value to it?

The End of Sykes-Picot

When Islamic State expanded their territory from Syria to Iraq, the radical Islamist organization heralded the “end of Sykes-Picot”.25 Islamic State aspired to eradicate the artificial borders that had been put in place by Sykes and Georges-Picot.26 The statement stems from a common misconception that Sykes-Picot drew the modern borders of the Middle East, which it, in fact, did not.27 In general, much of the attention that is given to Sykes-Picot comes from misconceptions and misinformation.28

Those wanting to understand the modern Middle East can use Sykes-Picot as a stepping-stone, to then look further and consider the effects of French and British rule over the region. Doing so may even present us with a mirror with which we can evaluate our current policies towards the Middle East.

To truly discuss the agreement and its influence on a century of Middle Eastern politics, one needs to understand what Sykes-Picot was and in which context it came to be. Given all the adjustments to the original agreement, pointing the finger at Sykes-Picot to explain instability in the Middle East seems short-sighted. Instead, consider how the agreement gave way to three decades of European imperialism in the region.

Those wanting to understand the modern Middle East can use Sykes-Picot as a stepping-stone, to then look further and consider the effects of French and British rule over the region. Doing so may even present us with a mirror with which we can evaluate our current policies towards the Middle East.

    For additional information on how Sykes-Picot came to be, the men who negotiated it, as well as the impact three decades of European imperialism had on the Middle East, read A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle for the Middle East by James Barr.29

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Perspective. Please be advised that all works found on International Perspective are protected under copyright, more information in the Terms of Use.


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By | 2017-01-31T22:28:38+00:00 June 14th, 2016|Categories: Insight|Tags: , , |0 Comments

About the Author:

Ken Demol
Ken is a Belgian student of Political Science and Journalism. Within international relations, he focuses on the Middle East and North Africa.

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