The 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement was a secret agreement between the British and French governments regarding the division of the Ottoman Empire’s territory if the Ottoman Empire were defeated by the Allies in World War I. Mark Sykes represented the British. Francois Georges Picot advocated for the interests of France. The Russians approved of the plan. The Agreement defined the borders of Mesopotamia (Iraq), Palestine and Transjordan (Jordan), Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Armenia.
Sykes and Picot finished their negotiations in January 1916, barely a month after the two men first met. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was ratified by London and Paris early the following month. It was officially signed on April 26, 1916.M.E. McMillan (2016). From the First World War to the Arab Spring: What’s Really Going on in the Middle East?, p. 73.
- Sir Mark Sykes
- Francois Georges Picot
- Sharif Hussein
- Arab independence
- Jerusalem (Holy Land)
Britain had long accepted France as protector of the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon. France also wanted the area covered by the modern state of Syria, Mosul and a sizeable chunk of modern Turkey. For its part, Britain wanted control of a land route from the Egyptian border to the shores of the Persian Gulf, encompassing what is now Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and the southern parts of Iraq. Arrangements between Britain and France were set out in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. Britain had two other debts to pay. It had already promised that the people of the Arabic-speaking Ottoman provinces would have independence if they joined the Allies against the Turks. This had led the semi-independent ruler of the Hejaz, the Sharif Hussein of Mecca, to cast in his lot with the Allies in 1916 and raise the standard of the Arab Revolt which was taken into Greater Syria by his son, Prince Faisal, with British help. The promises made to Hussein were inconsistent with the slightly later Sykes-Picot agreement with France. In the Western world, too, Britain had made a promise. This was the carefully worded Balfour Declaration in November 1917 which gave British support for ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine.John McHugo (2013). A Concise History of the Arabs, p. 112
Tsarist Russia had ambitions to gain influence or control over Persia or Afghanistan in order to gain access to a seaport on the Indian Ocean. A land bridge between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean would offer an additional, or potentially an alternative, route by which the British could deploy reinforcements to India in the event it was threatened by Tsarist Russia.Bernard Regan (2018). The Balfour Declaration: Empire, the Mandate and Resistance in Palestine, p. 6.
The de Bunsen committee report was submitted at the end of June 1915. It considered four schemes, illustrated by coloured maps. The first was the survival of the Ottoman Empire with only Russia’s claim met in full and Britain gaining a large region to the north of Basrah. The second was the re-formation of the Empire, on ethnological and historical grounds, into five autonomous provinces: Anatolia, Armenia, and the Arab provinces of Iraq, Syria and Palestine. Under the third and fourth schemes these Arab provinces were divided between Britain and France, either as outright annexation or zones of interest – in the latter case with a restricted Ottoman sovereignty. Whether annexation or zones of interest, the dividing line was to run from Acre on the Mediterranean to Tadmur (Palmyra), Sinjar, Zakhu, Amadia, Ruwandiz and the Persian frontiers. To the north of the line was the French zone; to the south the British. All the maps have the legend ‘Independent Arabs’ south of a line from ‘Aqaba to Ma’an and the head of the Persian Gulf. The map of the Arabian Peninsula itself shows a line from the head of the Gulf to Aden, to the east of which was a British sphere of interest reflecting the reality of British presence around the Peninsula from Aden to Kuwait. The committee even considered placing the whole Peninsula under a British protectorate, but for the conflict with Grey’s policy of ‘an independent Muslim government’.A. L. Tibawi (1977). Anglo-Arab Relations, pp. 52-53.
The imminent collapse of the Ottoman Empire had been predicted since the mid-19th century. Following Turkey’s entry into the war government officials of the Entente powers began to discuss how Turkish territory should be divided after its defeat.David Murphy (2008). The Arab Revolt 1916-18, p. 31.
The Englishman was Sir Mark Sykes. The Frenchman was François Georges Picot. And if you have ever looked at a map of the Middle East and wondered why so many of the borders in the region are so unnaturally straight, look to Sir Mark and Monsieur Picot for an explanation. The two men met in London on December 21, 1915, to discuss dividing the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France and, in the process, they laid the groundwork for the Middle East we know today.M. E. McMillan (2016). From the First World War to the Arab Spring: What’s Really Going on in the Middle East?, p. 69.
“I feel we ought to settle with France as soon as possible, and get a definite understanding about Syria,” Sykes said, as he stood before the cabinet at Number 10. He sliced his finger across the map that lay before the politicians on the table. “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk,” he said, proposing that Britain take charge of the country that lay south of this straight line.James Barr (2012). A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East 1914-1948, p. 7.
The two men developed a working relationship that they preserved for the duration of the war. Perhaps their mutual Catholicism provided a basis for trust beneath the feints and gestures of misdirection that each felt obliged to perform. But in fact each man was prepared already to cede most of the territory that the other wished his country to possess. Sykes pretended to be yielding ground when he offered Mosul and land above the Lesser Zab, a tributary of the Tigris River that runs from east to west a little bit north of Kirkuk. He hoped this area would become the French buffer zone, or shield, between British territory in Arabia and Russian Anatolia. But it was the same land that France had wanted all along. Picot pretended to accept it grudgingly. In return he offered British control of land south of the Lesser Zab. This was part of the Mesopotamian territory that the British government in India had its eye on and that France had long been willing to forfeit.Jonathan Schneer (2010). The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, p. 79.
The Borders Agreed Upon
- Lawrence of Arabia
- Balfour Declaration