Why Sykes-Picot got it all wrong

An example of poor wartime planning for the aftermath of victory, Sykes-Picot echoes recent failures in Iraq and Libya.

    Soldiers on horseback in the Iraqi desert during the Mesopotamian campaign, circa 1916 [Getty]
    Soldiers on horseback in the Iraqi desert during the Mesopotamian campaign, circa 1916 [Getty]

    In May 1916, Britain, France and Russia reached a secret agreement which came to be known by the names of its French and British architects: Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot.

    Its main purpose was to lay down a post-war division of the northern provinces of the Turkish Empire between their two countries. There were also provisions for Russia, but these were repudiated by the Bolsheviks, who published the text of the agreement in November 1917.

    The Sykes-Picot agreement contradicted the spirit of British undertakings to Sherif Hussein of Mecca, leader of the Arab Revolt. Its publication was therefore acutely embarrassing to the British government.

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    It has remained a thorn in the flesh of Anglo-Arab relations ever since. As an example of inept wartime planning for the aftermath of victory, it surely ranks with the more recent failures in Iraq and Libya.

    How did this come about?

    British relationships

    Perhaps the biggest factor was the fragmented organisation of British relationships with the Middle East.

    The Foreign Office was principally concerned with relations with France, Britain's ally on the Western Front. Responsibility for promoting the Arab Revolt fell to the British High Commissioner in Cairo, who in practice acted in liaison mainly with the War Office and the War Cabinet in London.

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    Relationships with Mesopotamia - broadly equivalent to modern Iraq - as well as eastern and southern Arabia, were handled by the government of India, represented in London by the India Office. Each of these departments had different aims.

    At the Peace Conference in Paris, the Emir Faisal who became King Faisal I of Iraq with General Nuri Es-Said and Lawrence of Arabia [Getty]

    For the cabinet and the Cairo administration, the highest priority was protecting the Suez Canal, Britain's transport link for to India and beyond.

    Another priority was access to Mecca for Muslim pilgrims from the British Empire. The growing importance of oil as a fuel for shipping focused attention on possible oil extraction in Mesopotamia - oil reserves in the Arabian peninsula were, at that date, undiscovered and largely undreamed of.

    While the cabinet had little interest in the future of Lebanon and northern Syria, any post-war settlement would have to include acceptable arrangements for the Holy Land.

    The government of India was deeply interested in Mesopotamia, seeing its fertile land as a way to alleviate India's periodic famines. But it strongly opposed the idea of an Arab revolt against the Turks, which might encourage Muslim agitation against British rule in the regions it controlled.

    Emir Abdullah ibn Hussein of Transjordan, Lord Allenby and TE Lawrence attend a military review during the Arab Revolt, circa 1917 [Getty]

    Arab insurrection

    The Foreign Office was acutely aware of the long-standing French desire for colonial possessions in the Middle East. French rule in Syria was now presented as a just reward for its wartime sacrifice in Europe. France, like India, had deep reservations about an Arab Revolt.

    While it wished to keep the Hajj open to its Muslim citizens, it saw a successful Arab insurrection in northern Syria as a possible obstacle to French rule there. France's chief ally in the region was not the majority Muslim population, but the small Maronite Christian community.    

    In retrospect, the British cabinet should have put far more effort into reconciling these variant policies; but it was preoccupied with the life-or-death struggle on the Western Front.

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    During 1915, as an Arab revolt grew more likely, French diplomats began earnestly promoting the case for French colonial rule in Syria. This campaign, much publicised in Cairo, was plainly incompatible with the Arab demands for future self-government being discussed with Hussein, Sherif of Mecca.

    British soldiers marching through the desert to Baghdad during World War I [Getty]

    Something had to be done, so in April 1915 an inter-departmental committee was set up to consider British desires in the region.

    A problem was the dearth in London of real experts on the Middle East. Those most involved with the prospective Arab Revolt were 3,000 miles away in Cairo.

    A key figure to emerge from this process was an ambitious aristocratic MP Sir Mark Sykes, who had travelled in the Middle East before the war and worked for a while as an honorary attache at the British Embassy in Constantinople.

    He had a forceful personality, and was popular for his eloquence and wit - he was a also talented cartoonist. A Roman Catholic, he was a committed Francophile. As a politician, he was given to advocating grandiose plans which paid little attention to all-important detail.

    In October 1915, Britain invited France to send a representative to agree plans for the future of the Middle East in the event of allied victory.

    New frontiers

    The French chose Francois Georges-Picot, a lawyer and experienced diplomat in the region. He was a strong advocate of French claims. Sykes, a relative amateur in both diplomacy and regional knowledge, was completely outclassed.

    The agreement they reached would give France direct control of the Syrian littoral to the north of Palestine and indirect control of a far larger area inland. The government of India would have an equivalent role in Mesopotamia. There would be international administration in Palestine. The British in Cairo were not told about the negotiations until it was too late to protest.

    At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Hejaz delegation made every effort to overturn the Sykes-Picot arrangement, but after the Americans lost interest, an alliance between France and the government of India carried the day.

    The frontiers agreed in May 1916 became the basis for the final settlement, a set of League of Nations Mandates established in 1920. While the colonial arrangements envisaged by Sykes and Georges-Picot gradually unravelled, the frontiers remain. 

    With hindsight, the outcome would have been far better had Turkey opted to remain neutral. By siding with Germany against an alliance of imperial powers, Turkey's leaders gambled the integrity of their empire - and lost. Had they not done so, the map of the Middle East might today be very different, and possibly far less problematic.

    Jeremy Wilson is a historian and author of Lawrence of Arabia, The Authorised Biography.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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