Sykes-Picot: The secret deal that changed the Middle East forever
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, critics say, sowing the seeds of many of its problems a hundred years later.
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 ruler of Mecca at the time, 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 color brown and was to be under an international administration.
Imperial Russia and Italy rallied to the accord, but later it was the revolutionary Russian government that had taken over 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 dreamed 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 of the United States into World War I in 1917 changed the rules of the game, according to French historian Henry Laurens.
The war had hardly ended when a brief conversation between French Prime Minister George Clemenceau and British leader 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.
100 year anniversary last week..fascinating to look at how the machinations back then influenced how our world is today..
“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.”
and then this happened:
“The accord was struck a year before the so-called Balfour Declaration promised a “national home for the Jewish people.”