Far before victory in World War I was certain, representatives from Britain and France discussed the territorial divide of the Ottoman Empire. The talks concluded with the Sykes-Picot Agreement (May 1916 ), a secret document that became a foundation of French claims in the Middle East and a source of Arab complaint for decades. The greatest impact of the agreement has been felt by the Arab world, where Sykes-Picot represents a major component of Arab claims to Palestine and thus opposition to the existence of Israel.
The agreement was framed by Mark Sykes, a British parliamentarian and assistant secretary to the War Cabinet, and Charles Georges-Picot, a former French consul general for Beirut. The language of the secret agreement concerned Britain and France almost exclusively, though Russia participated in the discussions. In Sykes-Picot, direct French rule was established in northern and western Syria, along with unofficial zones of influence in other parts of Syria, including Damascus, Aleppo, and Mosul. Britain was to rule lower Iraq directly and was guaranteed free trade through Alexandretta. An Arab state or confederation was to be created in the remaining territory, the Arabian desert, under the protection of Britain and France. Palestine was to become an international zone, a compromise because both powers were interested in retaining influence in the Holy Land. Finally, the treaty did not dispose of the Dardanelles, a crucial geopolitical chokepoint between the Black and Mediterranean Seas. The straits were to remain under Russian control 1.
A number of strategic interests produced the Middle East envisioned by Sykes and Picot. First, the division of the Middle East perpetuated the traditional concept of a European balance of power system, as Britain and France continued to fear the other's potential to increase imperial control even as the two were allied against Germany. Second, the creation of an Arab state was a payment in exchange for an Arab revolt against the Turks, a move to hasten the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Third, the division of territory (See Appendix B) showed Britain's need for a French buffer between Britain's Middle East holdings and Russia. Fourth, Britain's land holdings between the Suez Canal and Persian Gulf were calculated to secure supply lines to India 2.
The agreement was written with a set of faulty ass umptions that made it implausible. Despite historic rivalry between France and Britain, Sykes and Picot apparently expected post-WWI diplomatic cordiality. Next, Sykes and Picot did not articulate what sort of Arab state was to be created, assuming the Arabs would form a confederation under foreign "protection"; a rather egregious error in judgment given Sharif Hussein's determination to become the locus of Arab power in a consolidated and fully sovereign state 3. Furthermore, the agreement was conditional based on the complicity of Arabs, their ability to revolt successfully against the Turks, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Finally, Britain assumed it could act as an intermediary between France and Arabs and that there were no inherent conflicts of interest preventing the agreement's fulfillment 4.
Not surprisingly, Sykes-Picot began to unravel even before the year was out. France sought Russian support for claims to Palestine, thus furtively opposing the planned international zone 5. The Bolsheviks publicized Sykes-Picot following their 1917 revolution, embarrassing Britain and France before an Arab world that demanded total independence and resented the agreement's imperial designs 6. British interests changed as a result of the treaty having been made public and the course of WWI; by the end of the war Britain desired a mandate to rule Palestine rather than an international zone. New British claims in the region were based on a belief that Britain was the largest contributor to the Ottoman collapse and thus were giving the French too many undeserved concessions 7. Lloyd George concurred with the assessment that Sykes-Picot had become superceded by events such as the United States' WWI intervention, relevant because Woodrow Wilson had declared a fundamental right of self-determination that challenged imperialism everywhere 8. Even Mark Sykes renounced the agreement in light of the new developments 9.
France, on the other hand, refused to void the agreement. The French were determined to retain control over Syria based on an asserted "historic mission" to civilize the region, a desire to extract wealth, and the belief that France was owed alms for its fighting in WWI 10. The defeat of Germany increased Anglo-Franco tensions, however, as each country sought spoils of war. Upon entering the Paris Peace Conference, France feared Britain sought to obtain Syria and thus eliminate French regional influence 11. In all likelihood, Britain probably sought only to protect promises made to Hussein regarding the creation of an Arab state, but to oppose the perceived British threat, Clemenceau himself demanded control of Syria as promised in Sykes-Picot 12. Britain, increasingly displeased with their need to consult with the French before making decisions affecting the Arabs, weighed their interests and decided to emphasize new claims to Palestine and Mosul rather than challenge France on Syria 13. At the San Remo Conference (1920), Britain gained control over Palestine and Mosul in exchange for cementing French claims to Syria and Lebanon.
Sykes-Picot therefore impacted European history by providing a point of departure for negotiations; though the agreement proper was not implemented, the post-Ottoman Middle East largely resembled the areas of influence created in Sykes-Picot, with some noteworthy modifications. The formal dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the Treaty of Sevres (1920) showed marked change with the Dardanelles placed under international, vice Russian, control. The Cairo Conference (1921) led to the formation of a British-dominated government in Transjordan under Abdullah I's "control." The new government was banned from attacking the French in Syria.
The greatest impact of Sykes-Picot was on the Arab world. Even today, Arabs include the agreement in their criticism of two other WWI-era "conflicting promises" regarding the nature of Palestine-the Hussein-McMahon correspondence (1915-16) and the Balfour Declaration (1917). Both Zionists and Arabs seek to legitimize claims to the Holy Land based on these different promises from Britain-Arabs claim the Hussein-McMahon correspondence guaranteed their control of Palestine in return for inciting a rebellion against the Ottomans, while Zionists point to the Balfour Declaration, claiming its provision for a Jewish "home" in Palestine meant statehood. In the middle stands Sykes-Picot-denounced by Hussein at the Paris Peace Conference for not including Palestine as part of an Arab state. Though a series of other agreements, treaties, and wars have since contributed more significantly to the Arab-Zionist disputes, the WWI-era documents remain of the utmost importance to those who oppose the existence of Israel and Western intervention in the Middle East 14.
1. For further reading on the original Sykes-Picot negotiations, see Klieman p. 11-12; in the greater context of World War I in Stokesbury p. 192; related to Russia's pre-Bolshevik regional ambitions in Bodger p. 100; France's bargaining position in Fulton pp. 163-165; British positions on the division of the Middle East between 1915 and 1920 in Kent pp. 186-9.
2. For further reading on these strategic regional interests, see Klieman pp. 13-14, Macfie pp. 164-9, Kent p. 187, Fromkin p. 191-4.
3. Discussion with primary sources from Sykes on the subject in Fromkin p. 193-4.
4. Faulty assumptions underlying Sykes-Picot are analyzed in Klieman p. 13, Ross p. 27, Fromkin p. 194.
5. Fromkin p. 197.
6. Kent p. 187 on Arab reactions to the Bolshevik revelation of Sykes-Picot.
7. Fromkin p. 344.
8. Wilson's "The Essentials of Permanent Peace," discussed in the context of Sykes Picot in Klieman p. 43.
9. See Fromkin p. 194 and p. 344 for an extended discussion of British opposition to Sykes-Picot, including primary source documentation for the changed perspective of Mark Sykes and Lloyd George's consistent arguments against the treaty.
10. Fromkin pp. 189-190 and p. 194, for a discussion of local perceptions of France vice Britain as an imperial overlord.
11. Fromkin p. 378 on French paranoia over British ambitions in Syria and possible Anglo-Syrian collusion.
12. Klieman pp. 26-28, sourced with correspondence between Clemenceau and Hussein.
13. Klieman p. 27, p. 37.
14. For a concise overview of the role of Sykes-Picot in the Arab-Israeli conflict, see Tessler pp. 147-9, p. 155, p. 158.
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East 1914-1922, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989).
Alan Palmer, The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, (London: Murray, 1992)
Bulent Gokay, A Clash of Empires: Turkey Between Russian Bolshevism and British Imperialism 1918-1923, (London: Tauris, 1997).
A.L. Macfie, The End of the Ottoman Empire, (London: Addison-Wesley, 1998)
Aaron S. Klieman, Foundations of British Policy in the Arab World: The Cairo Conference of 1921, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970).
Stokesbury, A Short History of World War I, (1981).
Marian Kent (ed.), The Great Powers and the End of the Ottoman Empire, Alan Bodger, "Russia and the End of the Ottoman Empire," L. Bruce Fulton, "France and the End of the Ottoman Empire," Marian Kent, "Great Britain and the End of the Ottoman Empire," (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1984).
Graham Ross, The Great Powers and the Decline of the European States System 1914-1945, (New York: Longman, 1983).
Mark Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).
A blast from the past
Strategic Framework and Consequences
of the Sykes-Picot Agreement