ENGLAND AND FRANCE went to war in 1914 in part to defend the rights of small nations like Belgium and Serbia, or so they claimed. Perhaps it was true, but such considerations did not enter into their calculations when they bribed Italy to join the war with promises of Habsburg territory, or when they induced Romania to join with similar promises, or when they helped engineer a government in Greece likewise open to such promises. Nor was it part of the thinking of Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot when they redrew the map of the Middle East. They did it to benefit their own countries, not the Arabs or the Armenians, let alone the Jews, and at the time they made no bones about it. The Tripartite Agreement, as Sykes-Picot became after Russia slightly amended it in her own interest and then approved it, is a classic example of old-style imperialism and secret diplomacy. Plenty of people in both England and France wanted their governments to live up to the beautiful early rhetoric used to justify war against Germany, but they lacked political power. In 1916 neither Sykes nor Picot felt the need to take them into account. The two diplomats and the men behind them did not foresee that World War I would turn everything topsy-turvy.
But it did. As the war ground on, the number of its critics grew. They believed that secret diplomacy was one of the causes of the war, as well as imperialist rivalries. Germany’s annexation of Alsace-Lorraine at the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 had poisoned relations between the two countries. The critics demanded “open covenants openly arrived at,” “no annexations” of territory, and much else besides. The fall of the tsar and the advent of the liberal internationalist Woodrow Wilson when America joined the war in the spring of 1917 amplified their voices. In May Kerensky’s new government proclaimed that “Free Russia does not purpose to dominate other peoples or to take from them their national patrimony, or forcibly to occupy foreign territory.” Lloyd George’s government replied, “In this sentiment the British1 Government heartily concur.” But of course the Allies had negotiated covenants in secret and had planned imperialist annexations such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement envisioned. Given the growing strength of these critics, there would be hell to pay when Sykes-Picot came to light. And then it did; and then there was.
On the evening of Thursday, April 12, 1917, C. P. Scott met a French journalist, Vicomte Robert de Caix, foreign editor and lead writer of the Parisian Le Journal des débats. De Caix, who advised the Quai d’Orsay on Middle Eastern affairs and would go on to help shape postwar French policy there, dropped a bomb; whether he did so intentionally we cannot know. He told Scott that when the war was finished, France would claim Syria down to Acre and Lake Tiberias and across to, and including, the area of the Hauran. That was territory that the Zionists hoped would become theirs under a British protectorate. The rest of Palestine, de Caix asserted, would be put under international control: “It is settled.”2
It was pretty much what Sykes and Picot had agreed more than a year earlier, unknown to most. Scott thought the French claims grandiose but aspirational and therefore “disquieting” but not calamitous. The British government could nip French pretensions in the bud, he reasoned, by publicly stating its own plans for Palestine. The next day at The Manchester Guardian offices, he repeated to Harry Sacher what he had learned and what he hoped Britain would do. He warned Sacher not to trust the Foreign Office to perform as required, however, “because Balfour is weak as water and the officials are tired, indifferent and inefficient.” Sacher immediately put3 it in a letter to Weizmann. Two days later Scott wrote to Weizmann as well, repeating what de Caix had told him.
Thus did the Zionists first glean something of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and experience their first unnerving trickle of doubt about British intentions. Scott went looking for more information in London and got some, on Friday, April 20, from Sir Alfred Milner of the War Cabinet. Scott reported to Weizmann that Milner “spoke resignedly4 about the international solution in Palestine as a whole, and said that ‘unfortunate commitments’ had been made a year ago—I gathered to the French.” Thus the War Cabinet minister sparked another glimmer of unease, evidence of some sort of Anglo-French carve-up of the Middle East.
While Scott and Milner were dancing around that very subject, James Malcolm was arriving in London from Paris. He carried a diary of Sokolow’s activities that the Zionist had entrusted to him, and a glowing report based upon them that he had written. He brought them to Weizmann next day, but by now the Zionist leader had more than Sokolow’s discussions with Jules Cambon on his mind. He questioned Malcolm closely about French intentions in the Middle East, such as the latter had been able to glean, and whether Britain accepted them as part of some larger deal. What Malcolm told him did little to quiet his growing unease.
Apparently the French5 are working very hard for a condominium and … the British have secured Haifa and Acre for themselves with the right of building a railway from Haifa which would join up the Baghdad railway. This information is practically official … What is not quite clear yet, and I was unable to clear it up, is whether the arrangement is binding or whether it is flexible, and whether there is a clear possibility of reopening the whole question.
Even without details, the outline of the Anglo-French plan for Palestine was beginning to take shape in Weizmann’s mind, along with a dawning realization that the British government had been less than frank with him. Perhaps Sokolow, who must have discerned French intentions while in Paris, had been less than frank with him too—or perhaps he was planning to tell all when he returned to London. But Sokolow now was headed for Rome. Whom could Weizmann better question at this point than Herbert Samuel, the one (former) cabinet minister who was both Jewish and Zionist? On Tuesday, April 24, Weizmann tried to pin him down, but Samuel would not be pinned: “His answer was that6 he could not disclose to me the nature of the arrangement made because he was a member of the Cabinet at that time, but he could say this much, that the arrangement was not satisfactory from the British point of view. He sees no objection at all why this question should not be reopened, especially now when the British army is occupying Palestine.”
So “an arrangement” with France did exist! Weizmann hurried from the morning meeting with Samuel to an afternoon meeting at the Foreign Office with Sir Ronald Graham, who, while in Egypt, had hoped to replace McMahon as high commissioner, but who had been posted back to London instead to serve as assistant under secretary of state. Graham confirmed the existence of an Anglo-French deal but little else. “He found this arrangement7 after he arrived from Egypt,” Weizmann reported to Scott. “He does not consider it satisfactory.” Graham thought Weizmann should speak to someone higher up the Foreign Office ladder, namely the acting foreign secretary, Lord Robert Cecil. (Balfour was in America.) He arranged for an interview.
At five-thirty the next afternoon Weizmann went “to Bob Cecil in8 a fine rage,” or so William Ormsby-Gore, assistant secretary to the cabinet and Milner’s parliamentary private secretary, reported in a letter to Mark Sykes in Egypt. That would have been something to see, but one doubts that Weizmann was actually in a rage. (Perhaps he would have been if he had known that the man who had negotiated the agreement with France was Sykes.) But if Weizmann was too astute to jeopardize his cause with temper tantrums, he was sufficiently self-assured, and sufficiently at home by now in the Foreign Office, not to mince words. Cecil wrote in his report of the meeting: Weizmann “began by saying that9 he had been told that some kind of arrangement had been made between the British and French Governments, whereby Judea should be internationalized and the northern part of Palestine, Galilea, should be given to the French Government. He objected to both provisions.” He objected equally to a purely French administration. That would be tantamount to “a third destruction of the Temple.” When at last, without naming its authors, Cecil revealed the parts of the Sykes-Picot Agreement relevant to Palestine, Weizmann objected to them too. Only a British protectorate would suffice, he repeated, and he would rouse “the feelings of Zionist Jews throughout the world in favour of the solution which he desired.”
The Zionists spent the next few days in intense debate. A letter from Sacher to Weizmann suggests their likely tenor: “We have been lied to10 and deceived all along and I shall never forgive the gentry … who have done it … the permanent officials and Cecil (Sir R[onald]. G[raham]. & M[ark]. S[ykes]. and the like) cannot be trusted.” In a second letter, Sacher warned Weizmann that “our affairs are at a11 crisis.” He prepared a document for discussion at the next meeting of the British Palestine Committee that he wanted amended if necessary but then endorsed and sent to the Foreign Office. (Cooler heads prevailed—it never was.) Sacher’s memorandum read in part:
The representatives12 of the Jewish national movement have no desire to dwell upon the fact that during the whole course of their lengthy negotiations with His Majesty’s Government the existence of such an agreement [Sykes-Picot] was not only sedulously concealed from them but was positively denied, but it would be idle not to point out to His Majesty’s Government that this mode of dealing with them has made a most painful impression.
But the Zionists were shrewd as well as angry. “Leon [Simon] thinks that the British want to get away from the agreement with the French & to use us as a lever,” Sacher observed to Weizmann; this assessment was accurate. One thing was clear to them all. The revelation of British double-dealing reaffirmed the necessity, as Sacher put it, of obtaining from the British government “a written definite promise satisfactory to ourselves with regard to Palestine.”
Think back to Weizmann’s assiduous and polished networking in the drawing rooms of London’s political high society, and to his most recent meetings with Lloyd George and Balfour at addresses even more august. Consider Sokolow’s discussions with French and Italian leaders, and with the pope. What were all these, if not instances of secret diplomacy? Certainly there had been no input from the Jewish masses. But the Zionist movement had been touched by the rising radical tide. At his meeting with Cecil, Weizmann promised to rally the Jews of the world on behalf of the British protectorate and warned that “the suggested division13 of Palestine would raise an outcry which will ring through from one end of the world to the other, as it is contrary to all the principles which have been proclaimed by the Allies since the beginning of the War, and which have lately been so strongly emphasized by America and Russia.”
No doubt Zionists and their supporters would be outraged to learn of the arrangement’s provisions. Perhaps some of Zionism’s opponents would be outraged to learn of them too. If the outcry reached all the way to the Hejaz (where the Arab rebel army encamped) and all the way to the holy city of Mecca (seat of the new Arab kingdom), what would Grand Sharif Hussein and his sons make of it? More to the point, what would they make of the arrangements that Sir Mark Sykes and Monsieur Georges-Picot had maderegarding the Arabs? In the event, however, they made the discovery on their own before Weizmann had time to raise the outcry.
“Last night14 [May 24, 1917],” wrote Colonel Cyril Wilson, Britain’s “pilgrimage officer” in Jeddah and main liaison with King Hussein, “Feisal said he wanted to talk about his Father … The following are some rough notes I took.” We may imagine the English colonel in the port town where temperatures had recently scaled a hundred degrees Fahrenheit, sweltering in khaki, sweat dripping from his forehead, pen in hand, conjuring up Feisal’s monologue of the previous evening. “The Sharif first got to respect and like Great Britain about 22 years ago when he was at Stambul,” Wilson wrote. Hussein’s uncle, who happened to be grand sharif at the time, had cheated him of revenue due him from lands in Egypt, but when Hussein complained to Abdul Hamid II, the latter had done nothing. Hussein then “took an action in Cairo” against his uncle, even though this displeased the sultan. His uncle tried to bribe the Egyptian court, “but Justice prevailed and Hussein knew then that British methods were honest.”
This initial appreciation grew into something stronger and larger; eventually it helped to shape Arab policies toward Britain and thus, perhaps, the modern world. Hussein had compared British colonial methods with the French and German, Feisal told Wilson. He had arrived at the same conclusion as the Zionists when they performed a similar exercise: British was better. On that steamy night in Jeddah, Feisal put it to Wilson this way: “He saw that India, with millions of people, was administered by comparatively very few British officials and decided that if ever Arabs could do anything, Great Britain, who never interfered with the peoples’ religion or freedom, was the best and only power to assist.”
Hussein’s wartime letters contain one paean after another to Great Britain’s history of honorable conduct and integrity. When McMahon’s replacement, Sir Reginald Wingate, thought fit to remind the king of the Hejaz that “the British Government is the respecter of treaties, the espouser of Justice, and, in every case, a faithful ally,” Hussein replied, “I have to say15 that it was this world wide and true fame of Great Britain that encouraged me to assume the heavy responsibility of my present task.” Many years later, after bitter disappointment and near the end of a long life, Hussein was still repeating the same mantra: “The English, my son, are16 an honourable kind, in word and in deed, in fortune and in adversity. I say honourable. Only his Excellency, the estimable, energetic Luweed Jurj [Lloyd George] is something of an acrobat and a fox.”
As we have seen, even before Lloyd George came to center stage, British officials had kept much from Hussein that honor should have compelled them to reveal. But then someone let something slip. Perhaps the guilty party belonged to the French mission under Colonel Brémond in Jeddah, or to the British contingent there; or perhaps someone in Cairo allowed his tongue to wag. At any rate someone said something, and Hussein learned about it and experienced that first trickle of doubt, just as Chaim Weizmann did in London after learning what Robert de Caix told C. P. Scott.
And like Weizmann, Hussein would not rest until he knew what was up. Sometime in late March 1917 (just as Nahum Sokolow was preparing to set out for Paris) he dispatched a telegram to Wilson requesting a meeting to discuss various points including “another matter of minor importance, that is, the part of the country in the North-West which we were granted in our agreement.” Wilson immediately got into touch with Cairo, where with equal swiftness alarm bells began to sound. “The Sharif evidently17 intends to discuss the question of Syria, probably with special reference to the districts of Damascus, Hama, Homs and Aleppo,” Brigadier General Gilbert Clayton warned in a memorandum circulated among high officials both in Cairo and London. Here the reader should recall that McMahon, in his correspondence with Hussein, had intentionally fudged paragraphs dealing with that part of Syria, because he thought France might wish to claim it at the end of the war. Perhaps willfully, Hussein had ignored their vagueness and had simply reasserted his own claim to the territory, including lands stretching south nearly all the way to Jaffa in Palestine. Now, apparently, he wished to revisit the subject.
On the very day that Clayton composed his memorandum of warning, Lloyd George, Lord Curzon, and the cabinet secretary, Maurice Hankey, met at 10 Downing Street with Mark Sykes to go over his instructions for the forthcoming Middle Eastern trip with Picot. Unaware that King Hussein was becoming restless, the four reaffirmed “the signed agreement18 from which we could not depart,” as Curzon described it. In addition, “the Prime Minister suggested that Sir Mark Sykes ought not enter into any political pledges to the Arabs, and particularly none in regard to Palestine,” which earlier in the meeting he had said he hoped would become British. (On that part of the signed agreement, then, the British contemplated departing after all, since the Sykes-Picot Agreement had envisioned an international condominium there.) What this all meant was that when Sykes got to the Hejaz, he would have to reassure King Hussein about British and French intentions, without making any promises and knowing all the while that, against Hussein’s wishes, Britain had accepted French claims to the territory west of the four crucial towns and aimed at scooping up Palestine for herself.
Meanwhile, and at almost precisely the same moment, the French government was giving its own instructions to François Georges-Picot: “What we want to do19 is to free a people for long past enslaved by the Turks, granting it such privileges as it is entitled to.” What seems a liberal sentiment on first reading appears ambiguous on the second: Precisely what “privileges” would the French be granting? Here is another ambiguity: “It is not a question of imposing foreign rulers upon them, but only of assisting them in the creation of national institutions capable of assuring to them a proper system of government.” What did the French deem “a proper system of government” for Arabs?
Sykes and Picot arrived in Cairo toward the end of April. They held preliminary meetings with three Syrian delegates, including a personal representative of Hussein, Fuad al-Khatib, who served as his deputy foreign minister and who had been a founding member of the Ottoman Decentralization Party. Sykes walked his diplomatic tightrope. He and Picot argued that an Anglo-French presence in the Middle East would not threaten, but rather would buttress, Arab independence. They did not mention the disputed territory on the Syrian coast, although by now they both doubtless knew of Hussein’s anxiety regarding it. One must assume that they did not specify the “privileges” to which Arabs would be entitled or the “proper system of government” for them.
The Syrians signified their acceptance of some kind of French presence in Syria, but we do not know precisely what kind. With regard to Mesopotamia Sykes bluntly told them, “though I did not know20 what form of Government H.M.G. would establish there that there could be no doubt that H.M.G. would reserve for itself the right to maintain a permanent military occupation, and that the local government would have to be of kind sufficient to maintain law and order so that British commerce should not suffer.” He added in his cable to London: “I hope it won’t be concluded that the negotiations were easy or simple. The main difficulty was to maneuver the delegates into asking for what we were prepared to give them, without letting them know what precise geographical agreement had been come to.” But the three delegates were not the men who exercised genuine power. The real question was how Feisal, and above all King Hussein, would react when Sykes and Picot told them about the Tripartite Agreement, and more specifically how they would react to French plans for Syria, including the northern coastal portions.
The king let it be known that he wished to speak with Sir Mark Sykes alone. He would come down from Mecca to Jeddah to meet him on May 2. Sykes would have talked matters over with the men of Cairo—Clayton, Storrs, Hogarth, his old friend George Lloyd, and perhaps the new high commissioner, Sir Reginald Wingate—and concluded, reluctantly, as Hogarth of the Arab Bureau, advised London: “The time has now arrived21 … when the general lines of the Anglo-French agreement regarding Syria must be explained to Hussein.” Hogarth thought a letter addressed to Hussein by King George, plus an increase in British subventions, would sweeten the pill.
Sykes prepared for his next journey. With some justification, he appears to have thought that he could persuade just about anyone of just about anything. On the way to Jeddah, he stopped at Wejh, where he met with Feisal. “I explained to him the principle of the Anglo-French agreement in regard to an Arab confederation. After much argument he accepted the principle and seemed satisfied.” This sounds as though Sykes outlined the Tripartite Agreement, including the envisioned French sphere of interest, but without going into details about French plans for governing the Red Area, including the Syrian coastline. Three days later, in Jeddah, he had a long interview with King Hussein. First he read to him the cable Hogarth had elicited from King George. It expressed “great satisfaction at the progress of the armies of Hejaz.” Not to be outdone, Hussein replied, “On the King of England’s forehead I plant the kiss of peace; on his Queen I invoke my blessing; and the royal children of England’s King I embrace as the children of my children.”
Then Sykes got down to business. “In accordance with my instructions I explained the principle of the agreement as regards an Arab confederation or State … I impressed upon the King the importance of Franco-Arab friendship and I at last got him to admit that it was essential to Arab development in Syria, but this after a very lengthy argument.” Again this is slightly vague: It does not sound as though Sykes explained that France might annex the disputed area, or indeed any area, and that Britain would not oppose if she did so. Sykes, the human whirlwind, albeit a charming one, had convinced Feisal of something, but perhaps not something of the essence. He may simply have overwhelmed the older, much more reserved Hussein. Or he may have mistaken exhaustion (the meeting lasted three and a half hours and the king was not young) for acquiescence. And again, precisely what the king was asked to acquiesce to remains unclear.
We may glean something of the king’s point of view from Sykes’s letter about the meeting to Wingate in Cairo. “Unless Arab independence22 were assured,” the king had warned, he “feared that posterity would charge him with assisting in the overthrow of the last Islamic power [Turkey] without setting another in its place.” Moreover, “if France annexed Syria”—perhaps Sykes mentioned this possibility after all—he “would be open to the charge of breaking faith with the Moslems of Syria by having led them into a rebellion against the Turks in order to hand them over to a Christian power.” These points were “important and worthy of sympathy,” as Sykes himself noted. We may guess then that he had not set the king’s mind at rest about them. Perhaps Sykes was not satisfied in his own mind about French, or even British, intentions. Still, he fixed a meeting for Picot and the king two weeks later, on May 19, and headed back to Cairo.
Here then were the main difficulties Sykes faced in mid-May 1917 during his mission to the Middle East. He had to persuade the king and Feisal to accept that France as well as Britain would play a role in Arabia’s future and that the two powers had already drawn up its boundaries. He had to let Picot tell them that France might annex a part of Arabia that they believed integral to it. And he had to persuade the French to relinquish claims to northern Palestine in favor of Britain, and to give up the thought of an international condominium in the rest of it. He had to be wondering also when to explain to Hussein that Britain intended to control all Palestine except the holy places, and that Britain probably would favor a significant increase in the Jewish presence there. Finally, he had to square all this with the early wartime statements about fighting on behalf of the rights of small nations, and the more recent ones about “open covenants openly arrived at,” and “no annexations.” Picot, for his part, would have been struggling to think of a way to convince Hussein that French annexation would strengthen Arab independence.
The meetings immediately preceding, during, and following May 19 are crucial in Middle Eastern history. Some forty-eight hours before the appointed date, Sykes and Picot as well as Colonel Wilson (who must have gone up earlier to Cairo for consultations), George Lloyd, and the French colonel Brémond boarded the Northbrook, Britain’s flagship in the Red Sea, and headed south for Jeddah. This time when the ship reached Wejh, Feisal came aboard, accompanied by Colonel Stewart Newcombe, a friend of Lawrence’s and military adviser to the Arabs. As the Northbrook steamed23 south under a broiling sun, Sykes, Picot, and Feisal held several meetings, the Europeans’ aim being to reconcile the Arab to a French presence in Syria. But the results “I understand”24were “not entirely satisfactory,” Wilson reported. Feisal worried that the Europeans would interpret anything he said as official. Only his father could speak for the projected Arab state.
The Northbrook slid down the glassy, tepid Red Sea, putting in at steamy Jeddah on Friday night, May 18. Next day Sykes and Picot came ashore in the mid-morning heat, accompanied by French, Egyptian, and Arab troops, a colorful, impressive spectacle intended to disabuse any town residents who still thought the Ottomans might win the war. They all made their way to the king’s place of residence. As a special mark of consideration, the king advanced to the door to greet the Frenchman. Sykes introduced them. The principals, Sykes, Picot, Hussein, Feisal, Fuad, and interpreters, went upstairs; Wilson and Brémond remained below.
By now the king knew pretty well from his meeting with Sykes, and from reports given him by Fuad and his son Feisal since their arrival, what the French wanted in Syria. He was having none of it.
He [Hussein] told M. Picot25 that he feels himself responsible for the Syrian people, [reported Fuad] because he has lately and before the revolution received so many letters from leaders of all classes and seen some of them personally, all of whom promised true allegiance to him as their Leader and protector: and some of them as their Khalifa … He said if you want to take the Christians from us and leave the Moslems to us you are creating divisions amongst the people and fostering bigotry. Lebanon need not be ours or yours either. Let it be as its people wish, but I do not want outside people to interfere. You must know that many people died and were hanged, and on the gallows they said “We don’t mind. Our King and Khalifa will soon appear and avenge our death.” My conscience will torture me if I do not save their families and country; for they died for the Arab Cause only.
Then he quoted an Arab proverb to the Europeans: “If you take one finger from my hand, you will torture me and let me loose, but you gain nothing by taking the finger.”
Sykes did what he could for his French ally. “Although it does not concern me,” he interjected, “I give my own opinion that if you have European advisers in Syria and give them exclusive power, it will be the best you can do.” Fuad reported, “The King was not pleased with the idea and refused it.” Sykes recorded Hussein’s reaction in almost identical words: “The King disliked the idea26 naturally.” He added, “And Fuad said that this was the end of Arab independence.” Picot suggested that the king accept an agreement with France for Syria along the same lines as the one he had accepted with Britain for Baghdad. “The King utterly refused,” Fuad wrote. He would allow the French into Syria on his terms or none at all. The meeting lasted nearly three hours. No agreement was reached.
Afterward, on the way to Wilson’s Jeddah residence, presumably for a late lunch, Sykes confided to his host that if Picot did not change his attitude, “it appeared hopeless to try and bring France and the Sharif together.” No doubt Sykes spent a good part of the afternoon and evening attempting to modify Picot’s approach, but at some point he had a brainstorm. He got into touch with Fuad and asked him to come aboard ship. When the latter arrived, he strongly advised him to convince the king to focus on Picot’s last point: “that the relations between27 the Arab Government and France should be the same in Syria as that between the King and the British in Baghdad.” Get the king to accept that much, he instructed Fuad, and then leave everything to me. He hammered at this twice more, wiring ashore to Wilson later the same evening and then early the next morning, directing him both times to reiterate the same instructions to Fuad.
Fuad did as the Englishman wanted: “I took three hours to convince the King to accept Sir Mark Sykes’ wish.” He and the king and Feisal would have huddled all that evening, talking the matter up and down; and here Hussein’s romantic, indeed unrealistic understanding of British history and of Britain’s future intentions becomes relevant. Hussein finally accepted Fuad’s argument, not because he thought France would do good things for Syria, but rather, as Fuad explained, because the king “trusted what the British Commissioner says. He knows that Sir Mark Sykes can fight for the Arabs better than he can himself in political matters, and knows that Sir Mark Sykes speaks with the authority of the British Government and will therefore be able to carry out his promises.”
There may have been more to it than that. Hussein must have asked himself why Sykes suddenly insisted that the French have in Syria the same arrangement with him that Britain had in Baghdad. And then he would have remembered what he thought McMahon had promised him at the end of 1915: a temporary occupation of Iraq paid for by a generous monetary compensation. That would be fine for the territory along the Syrian coast too. Triumphantly Hussein turned to Fuad: “I have in my pocket a letter from Sir Henry McMahon which promises all I wish. This I know is all right as the British Government will fulfill her word.” Neither Fuad nor Feisal had seen the letter; nor did Hussein show it to them.
Let us recall what McMahon’s letters actually said. In his second note to Hussein (October 24, 1915), the high commissioner had written with regard to the vilayets of Baghdad and Basra that his country’s “established position and interests there will call for the setting up of special administrative arrangements to protect those regions from foreign aggression, to promote the welfare of their inhabitants, and to safeguard our mutual economic interests.” In the third (December 13, 1915), he had written that Britain’s interests “in the vilayet of Baghdad necessitate a friendly and stable administration such as you have outlined.” In his fourth and final note he had added merely that “we shall examine the matter28 with the utmost care after the defeat of the enemy.” It is hard to interpret any of these statements as an unequivocal promise to recognize Arab independence. Either Hussein had received other letters about Baghdad of which historians are unaware, or wearing his rose-tinted glasses, he simply misconstrued British intentions.
For the moment, however, his aperçu was enough. The three Arabs composed a statement for Hussein to read next morning when negotiations resumed, this time aboard the Northbrook. The statement does not survive, but records of the next day’s meeting agree that it went roughly as follows:
His Majesty the King of Hejaz29 learned with great satisfaction of the approval of the French Government of Arab national aspirations and, as he had every confidence in Great Britain, he would be quite content if the French pursued the same policy towards Moslems and Arab aspirations on the Moslem Syrian littoral as the British did in Baghdad.
And so we may guess that King Hussein went to bed that evening with a sense of triumph. He thought he had the French over a barrel.
But had he interpreted Sykes’s reasoning correctly? Perhaps he did. Sykes, after all, had read the McMahon-Hussein correspondence; he would have known what Hussein wanted for the Syrian coastal region. Possibly he may have thought he could arrange it for him. At any rate, self-confident and forceful as he was, the Englishman really did believe that he could defend Arab interests better than Hussein could. That has to be why he repeatedly told Fuad to leave everything to him.
Sykes’s attitude toward annexation at this date is difficult to pin down. Once, obviously, he had thought it the natural prerogative of a great power. Now he understood that formidable forces in America and Russia, and in England and France for that matter, opposed it. He concluded that “formal annexation is quite30 contrary to the spirit of the time and would only lay up a store of future trouble.” Anyway, as he wrote to Percy Cox, a chief British officer in Mesopotamia, the Anglo-French agreement would enable Britain to get “what we want without31 infringing the kind of theories [favored by] … President Wilson and the new Russian Government.” The problem is that he wrote the letter to Cox four days after the meeting on the nineteenth. He wrote against “formal annexation” three months after that. But two days before it, he and Picot prepared a joint statement on “general policy”32 in which annexation is neither endorsed nor discounted but certainly remains an option. What are we to conclude? Perhaps that Sykes played a completely lone hand during the negotiations of mid-May. Let Hussein leave everything to him; let Picot think the French would annex part of Syria; he would later persuade him, and the great men in London, to forgo annexation. England and France could attain their Middle Eastern objectives without recourse to that counterproductive, anachronistic tactic.
At this stage Sykes likely foresaw an Arab empire or confederation with Hussein as its figurehead in Mecca. It would encompass the territory outlined in the original Sykes-Picot Agreement: Red Area and Area A, Blue Area and Area B, in which France and England would have predominant interest and influence but not absolute control. The two spheres could be ruled by Feisal and one of his brothers. Formal annexation by Britain and France would not be necessary.
King Hussein, Feisal, and Fuad arrived at the jetty next morning at about 9:20, and Wilson, who would attend the negotiations that day, brought them out to the big boat. Sometime during this meeting, Sykes and Picot finally acquainted Hussein with the details of the Tripartite Agreement. They seem not to have spoken precisely of annexation. They did not leave him with a written copy. And they asked him to accept it then and there. “Any criticisms or exclamations33 were stopped by Sir Mark Sykes asking me [Fuad] to induce the King to agree” to focus on getting the French to act in Syria as Britain would in Iraq. Luckily for Sykes, Fuad shared Hussein’s faith in Great Britain: “I am under the belief that Sir Mark Sykes had some very good plan or proposal which will enable the formation of a whole Arab Empire to be realized; and that the plan would only be possible by following his advice and leaving all to him. Hence my course of action.”
A little later, perhaps, Hussein read aloud the statement that he, Fuad, and Feisal had prepared the previous night, and he followed up by adding that he had reversed position “because he relied entirely on the British Government keeping their agreement with him … he only knew France through Great Britain [but he] … had complete confidence in Sykes’ word as he came direct from the British government.” Sykes expressed great satisfaction. King Hussein wished “to play the game.” Picot was “obviously delighted”34too: “On such a reply35 he would have a useful communication to make to his Government and … he hoped that after discussing matters with his Government he would have a further communication to make. The interview then concluded with a very good feeling prevailing.” But of course it did. Hussein thought he had tricked the French; Picot thought he had tricked Hussein; and Sykes, if our reading is correct, believed he could square this circle at a later date.
If the principals were satisfied, however, some of the lesser figures were not. They shared neither Hussein’s faith in Sykes nor Sykes’s faith in Sykes. Colonel Cyril Wilson, for one, felt deep unease. When the king read his statement, “it struck me as possible36that the sharif [Hussein], one of the most courteous of men, absolutely loyal to us and with complete faith in Great Britain, was verbally agreeing to a thing which he never would agree to if he knew our interpretation of what the IRAQ situation is to be.” He took Sykes aside: “Does the Sharif [Hussein] know what the situation at Baghdad really is?”
“They have the proclamation,”37 Sykes replied, referring to the statement, written by himself, and delivered by General Maude upon capturing Baghdad from the Turks. The proclamation is deservedly famous: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators,” it reads. “I [General Maude] am commanded to invite you, through your nobles and elders and representatives, to participate in the management of your civil affairs in collaboration with the political representatives of Great Britain who accompany the British Army.”
Sykes asked Fuad if he had read the proclamation, and Fuad replied that he had. The matter dropped.
Wilson “said nothing for a few minutes as I was an onlooker, but later remarked that the Proclamation said nothing more than asking Arabs to cooperate in the Government.” In other words, it employed the same ambiguous language that Sykes and Picot were using that day with Hussein. Wilson remained deeply troubled.
Feisal was troubled too. After the meeting he went to his father. “Supposing Great Britain does not carry out the agreement in Iraq or that they have one idea of it and you another?”
Hussein lost his temper. He had the letter from McMahon, he said. “Don’t you know the British? I trust them absolutely.”
Later that evening Fuad too developed second thoughts. He and Feisal contrived a meeting with George Lloyd and Colonel Newcombe, whom Feisal knew and trusted from the desert campaign against the Turks. The two Arabs aired their worries: that the king relied too heavily upon Mark Sykes; that he had conceded too much in accepting the Tripartite Agreement and French occupation of Syria; that conceivably he misunderstood what Britain intended for Baghdad and therefore could have no true understanding of what the French would do in Syria. “Certainly,”38 argued Feisal, “the large number of persons hanged in Syria and the Lebanon had not died to liberate their country from the Turks to give it to the French.” “Let it be agreed,” he said to the two Englishmen, “that France would be offered concessions first, applied to for loans and advisers, but unless the people wished otherwise, let the Government be Arab.”
Newcombe and Lloyd appear to have been troubled too by what Feisal and Fuad told them. Lloyd advised Fuad to go to Cairo right away to explain his worries to Clayton and to Wingate. Newcombe composed an extraordinary note for the Cairo contingent to ponder. Basically he condemned the way in which Sykes and Picot had conducted their meetings. Hussein had been told of the Tripartite Agreement “and asked to give a final decision upon [it] at a moment’s notice: while French and English governments have had months to consider their point of view.” Implicitly he suggested that the two Europeans had acted dishonestly. The king had “agreed to the Syrian coast being governed by the French on the same terms as Baghdad by the British, having no idea what the latter are: It was not pointed out to him either that the two countries and the conditions differ fundamentally.” Newcombe hoped that no irreparable damage to British honor had been done. Nothing had yet been signed. “Further and very much wider [emphasis in the original] discussion is possible and very desirable.”
Newcombe then went directly to Colonel Wilson. Their discussion only heightened Wilson’s existing unease. Afterward he put together a twelve-page document, repetitive, poorly organized, but moving—in fact, extraordinary. The essence of his message was:
As you know I have all along been a strong advocate of being as open as possible with the Sharif [Hussein]. My considered opinion is that we have not been as open and frank as we should been at this last meeting.
Special representatives of Great Britain and France came expressly to fix things up with the Sharif and when the latter agreed to France having the same status in Syria as we are to have in Iraq surely the main points of our agreement re Iraq should have been stated to prevent all chance of a misunderstanding which might have far reaching consequences …
Everything may be all right, as Baghdad and Iraq except Basra may be going to be entirely Arab and independent with British advisers, financial control, etc. If so well and good but if the Sharif puts one construction on McMahon’s letter and we another, there is likely to be serious trouble.
Several lines later he put the whole thing in a nutshell. He feared that “we have not played a straight forward game with a courteous old man who is, as Sykes agrees, one of Great Britain’s most sincere and loyal admirers.” And finally he issued a warning: “If we are not going to see the Sharif through, and we let him down badly after all his trust in us, the very ‘enviable’ post of Pilgrimage Officer at Jeddah will be vacant because I certainly could not remain.”
So did the Zionists and the Arabs learn about Anglo-French plans for the Middle East; and so did British officials in Jeddah learn how their superiors treated an Arab potentate. They all could have been forgiven for thinking that Allied statements about the rights of small nations were so much hot air. King Hussein managed to convince himself that all would be well (later he would claim that he learned the details of the Sykes-Picot Agreement only when the Russian Bolsheviks published details of Allied “secret treaties” in December 1917); other leading Jews and Arabs feared that they had been betrayed or tricked. Hussein’s credulity and Feisal’s disquiet deeply troubled Colonels Wilson and Newcombe, which is much to their credit. As for Mark Sykes, at this crucial moment he appears to have thought he could manage the Zionists, the Arabs, the French, and the British Foreign Office all at once, and perhaps he could, but to what end? Whether in May 1917 he meant for the Anglo-French agreement to be revised, reinterpreted, or implemented without alteration remains an open question. He wrote and said different things about it.
What he most certainly did not yet do was inform the Arabs about his plans for Zionism in Palestine.