History Thread: A Primer on the Sykes-Picot Agreement

On January 3, 1916 Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot devised a secret protocol to divided the Ottoman Empire in the event of an Allied victory in World War I. With Allied troops floundering in their invasion of Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, dividing Turkish territory would have seemed presumptuous to an outside observer. Nonetheless, the plan was roughly approved by the various Allied powers a few months later, and remained an operative document until the agreement was exposed by the Bolshevik government in November 1917.

There is a widespread misconception that the Sykes-Picot Agreement established the modern borders of the Middle East. This is only vaguely true, as a quick glance at the proposed map shows.

This map shows the areas meant to be under direct Allied occupation and more loosely defined “zones of influence.” The Arabian Peninsula proper was to be left alone, as it was considered of little value (the oil discovered in Saudi Arabia being largely unknown at the time). It was assumed, by Sykes at least, that the later Arab Revolt under Sherif Hussein would be restricted to the Hejaz region of western Arabia and thus not impacted by the partition. Hussein, however, would be led to believe that his own mandate from Egyptian High Commissiona Henry McMahon was much more expansive, including Palestine and Syria in a grand, independent Arab state.

The British and French envisioned establishing “zones of influence” as indicated on the map, where a friendly ruler would govern in their stead, as opposed to strategically located areas (mostly coastal regions) that would fall directly under colonial dominion. Notice also that the French zone expands to northern Iraq, with Picot envisioning the oil-rich region of Mosul under French control, and into Anatolia. Russia and Italy were also given vague guarantees of territory along the western and northern fringes of the Ottoman Empire, presumably

The idea of Palestine as an “Allied condominium” was broached because some statesmen realized that the region’s religious significance would lead to problems if it were governed by a single power. Winston Churchill broached the idea of giving it to Belgium as compensation for their sufferings under German occupations; later, it was suggested that the Americans administer the region as a mandate. The Balfour Declaration, with its promise of a Jewish homeland, obviated these proposals and brought the region directly under British suzerainty.

After Turkey’s defeat, the 1920 Treaty of Sevres envisioned an even more onerous partition of the region. Mesopotamia (Iraq), Syria and Palestine were now envisioned as colonial “mandates” to avoid the appearance of imperialism. Greece was to receive control of Turkish Thrace and regions of western Turkey, while the straits at Constantinople came under international control. France and Italy were to occupy large slices of Anatolia, reducing Turkey to a rump state. Armenia had gained nominal independence after the end of the war, and its status was unclear; after the United States declined a mandate in the region, the republic collapsed and its territory partitioned between Turkey and the Soviet Union.

The Treaty of Sevres was almost immediately abrogated when Mustafa Kemal led a nationalist rebellion in Turkey, defeating Allied forces, repulsing a full-scale Greek invasion and declaring a republic. When Sherif Hussein’s son King Feisal refused to relinquish his throne in Syria, France invaded the country to assert their mandate. But the British, faced with a nationalist rebellion in Iraq, decided to make Iraq independent and placed Feisal on its throne. And Britain carved a new state from the Palestinian mandate, placing another Hashemite, King Abdullah, on the throne of Jordan. A few years later, Hussein’s own Kingdom of Hejaz was overrun by Ibn Saud, in the process of consolidating Saudi Arabia.

Within two years of the signing of Sevres Cairo Conference of 1922 and the following year’s Treaty of Lausanne did much more to establish the Middle East’s boundaries as we know them today:

This is not to say that Sykes-Picot was unimportant; its very existence infuriated Arab and Turkish nationalists, along with those not directly involved in the region’s wartime struggles, as a sign of Allied perfidy. While encouraging nationalist revolts against the Ottomans and encouraging Jewish settlement of Palestine, Britain and France made clear their true motivations were the exploitation and annexation of the Near East. And the legacy of this misbegotten agreement ripples down to this day.