100 years since Sykes-Picot: The deal that changed the Mideast forever

British-French WWI deal to carve up areas under Ottoman rule has been blamed by many for region’s woes; others say that’s an excuse for failed leadership

British and French diplomats Mark Sykes (L) and François Georges-Picot (Public Domain)
British and French diplomats Mark Sykes (L) and François Georges-Picot (Public Domain)

PARIS, France — On May 16, 1916, a secret pact carved up the floundering Ottoman Empire into spheres of British and French interest, foreshadowing the future map of the Middle East and, say critics, sowing the seeds of many of its problems.

The Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and French governments for partitioning the empire’s Arab provinces was struck at the height of World War I, as the two allies and Russia grappled with Turkey and its backers, Germany and Austria-Hungary.

In legal terms, the deal — named after a pair of British and French diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot — only remained on paper.

But its geopolitical impact would resound for decades.

Clandestine negotiations started in November 1915, amid parallel moves to establish a new front during the war and counter the declaration of a holy war, or jihad, by the German-backed Ottoman sultan-caliph.

As part of those moves negotiations took place with the then ruler of Mecca, Sharif Hussein, in which Britain’s High Commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon, dangled the prospect of an independent Arab state.

Britain and France were well established in the region — France through economic and cultural influence in the area known as the Levant, and Britain in Egypt, which London had occupied since 1882.

Pointing to a map before him to designate areas of interest, Sykes said: “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre (on the Mediterranean coast) to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk (in modern-day Iraq).”

Territory north of the line would come under French protection, directly or indirectly, and territory to the south would be controlled directly or indirectly by the British.

France would take control of a “Blue Zone” that included Lebanon, the Syrian coast and parts of what is now Turkey.

Within a “Red Zone,” Britain would get southern Mesopotamia, or Iraq including Baghdad, along with the Mediterranean ports of Haifa and Acre.

Between the two, an Arab state or a confederation of Arab states was to be created under French and British protection.

Palestine, including Jerusalem, was designated by the colour brown and was to be under an international administration.

Imperial Russia and Italy rallied to the accord, but later on it was the revolutionary Russian government that leaked news of the deal in 1917.

The accord actually negated British promises made to Hussein for an Arab homeland in the area of Greater Syria in exchange for their support for British forces against the Ottoman Empire.

“The two men paid lip service to the promise of Arab independence… but then divided in two the region that the British high commissioner had offered to Hussein,” author James Barr noted in his book “A Line in the Sand.”

In addition, the line traced by Sykes-Picot split the Middle East, flouting regional, ethnic and religious ties, creating nations but reviving rivalries.

In the years that followed, the Sykes-Picot agreement became the target of bitter criticism, both from Arabs who dreamt of a unified homeland and from Kurds who had their hopes for autonomy dashed.

The accord was struck a year before the so-called Balfour Declaration promised a “national home for the Jewish people.”

The Russian revolution and the entry into WWI of the United States in 1917 changed the rules of the game, according to French historian Henry Laurens.

The war had hardly ended when a brief conversation between the French and British prime ministers, George Clemenceau and David Lloyd George, changed the Sykes-Picot accord. Oil had become a strategic issue in the meantime.

Their discussion, in which France gave up on Palestine and the region of Mosul, where it claimed part of the oil reserves, was the decisive moment in the Middle East’s division, Laurens said.

Even so, when the Allies gathered at the San Remo Conference in April 1920, the accord’s broad outlines were approved, with a mandate for Palestine and Mesopotamia — now Iraq — conferred upon Britain.

France received a mandate for Lebanon and Syria but in 1921, withdrew from Cilicia in what is now Turkey amid a conflict with the forces of Turkish nationalist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

In 1922, after subduing revolts in Palestine, Syria and Iraq, the two powers had their mandates confirmed by the League of Nations.

Vilified to this day


Two historians, in interviews with AFP, addressed questions about the secret deal that are still being asked today.

Is the modern-day Middle East the direct descendant of this agreement?
Henry Laurens, a professor at the prestigious College de France university, said the Sykes-Picot borders were largely renegotiated between 1916 and 1922, so the initial map “bears no resemblance” to the current situation.

Sykes-Picot is often accused of having divided up the Arab world, but in fact the original text only foresaw the creation of “one or several Arab states” in the shared areas under French and British influence. The agreement makes no mention of “a Jewish state or of Lebanon,” the researcher said.

Palestine and Mosul were supposed to be part of the areas under French influence.

But France renounced those areas in 1918 under pressure from Britain. It also renounced Cilicia (modern-day Turkey) when nationalist Turks liberated Anatolia between 1919 and 1922.

Laurens said the choice of the name Sykes-Picot “was a British invention to diminish the importance of the agreement because they no longer wanted to respect it,” especially when it came to Palestine.

In 1922, the League of Nations confirmed the mandates of Britain over Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq while France was given mandates over Syria and Lebanon. The modern-day countries of the region were born.

Is the Middle East still paying the price for these arbitrary borders?
“In some ways, yes,” said Jean-Paul Chagnollaud, a historian and author of a recently published French-language book about the roots of conflict in the Middle East called “Atlas du Moyen-Orient” (Atlas of the Middle East).

“On a symbolic level, the Sykes-Picot Agreement evokes a strong sensation in the collective memories of the peoples of the region, and that is humiliation… Decades later they have different problems but they all have their root, in some way or another, in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.”

Laurens disagrees, saying those countries should “stop having a feeling of victimhood.” Even if Arab nationalists denounced these arbitrary borders, “they were never seriously questioned because they actually suited everyone,” he argued.

He said the current instability in the region “is mainly linked to a perverse political system which keeps the region’s political life locked in a game of interference and involvement from regional and international powers” that has ancient roots.

The Palestinians and the Kurds were the big losers in Sykes-Picot, says Jean-Paul Chagnollaud. “Two arbitrary territorial divisions were imposed on populations, but the people and their identities were forgotten,” he said. That led to “states without a nation”, such as Jordan, or “nations without states.”

“The Kurds almost got a state. They obtained one in the Treaty of Sevres in August 1920, but the balance of power on the ground changed all that,” he said.

For the Palestinians, it was not Sykes-Picot but Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour’s letter on November 2, 1917, expressing the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, that sounded the death knell at that time for their ambitions.

“Sykes-Picot imposed borders on peoples and things need to be put right — now it’s up to peoples to impose their will to create a state,” said Jean-Paul Chagnollaud.

He defends the Palestinians’ right to have their own state, and that of the Iraqi Kurds to exercise their right to self-determination “even if the conditions have not yet been met for the creation of a Kurdish state.”

When the Islamic State group unilaterally proclaimed a caliphate in 2014 spanning Syria and Iraq, it showed the jihadists were destroying a wall between the two countries and they talked about “breaking down the Sykes-Picot border.”

But as far as Henry Laurens is concerned, “IS did not abolish Sykes-Picot, on the contrary, it reinforced it” because the territory held by the extremist group now corresponds to the former zone under French influence which encircled Badiyat al-Sham, the Syrian desert.

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