The Sykes-Picot Agreement

EVEN AS THE HIGH COMMISSIONER of Egypt and the grand sharif of Mecca were conducting their protracted and ultimately unsatisfactory correspondence, British and French representatives closeted in London were also discussing the future of the Middle East. The Foreign Office kept Sir Henry McMahon apprised of these conversations; it told Sharif Hussein nothing about them; nor did McMahon. It was a sin of omission rather than commission, but once again British officials were sowing dragon’s teeth. The Anglo-French discussions culminated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. This document, although never implemented, created nearly as much ill will and distrust among the principals and their followers, and subsequent disagreement among historians, as the McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1914–15.

When Aubrey Herbert arrived in Cairo early in 1915, he wrote to Mark Sykes in London, “Our policy has been1 clear and high in this war. We have not gone out for loot but to protect small people.” It was a romantic interpretation and, at this early stage, a common one. Most Britons believed their country was defending little Belgium from mighty Germany; that it would protect tiny Serbia from the bullying military clique in Vienna; that it would lift the onerous yoke that the Turks had fastened upon various minorities within the Ottoman Empire. Later on a certain amount of disillusionment would set in; even Aubrey Herbert would rethink his early optimism.

At the outset, however, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and others articulated what might be called a liberal imperialist viewpoint. They upheld the notion of the “white man’s burden,” doubting the capacity of dark-skinned peoples, including Arabs, to govern themselves. But they thought that further extending the empire would be economically expensive and strategically problematic; in their view, Britain held sufficient territory already. Although he was a Conservative member of Parliament, Aubrey Herbert shared this liberal imperialist view.

The recipient of his letter, Mark Sykes, who was also a Conservative MP, took a very different position. He wanted to enlarge the empire for political, economic, and strategic reasons. At this stage he belonged to a group of aggressively imperialist diplomats, Foreign Office officials, and politicians. To the dismay of Liberals like Grey, the more sweeping imperialist outlook increasingly dominated discussion and determined policy in British governing circles.

Early in 1915 Russian diplomats informed their Western allies that they intended to take and to keep Constantinople, thereby finally satisfying their country’s centuries-old aspiration for a warm-water port and access to the Mediterranean Sea. They invited Britain and France to claim the parts of the Ottoman Empire that they would require as compensation. France was willing. Her cultural influence and financial interest in the Middle East were strong, especially in Syria, which she defined as extending from Anatolia right down to the Egyptian border, thus including Palestine. Britain too had important interests in the region, as even the liberal imperialists acknowledged. First and foremost she wished to protect Egypt and the Suez Canal. Some believed she must guarantee the land route from Egypt to Persia and Mesopotamia and, in the distance, to South Asia by further accretions of territory and influence. The British government in India and its sympathizers in the Foreign Office coveted parts of Mesopotamia as well. But Britain also wanted Grand Sharif Hussein of Mecca to rebel against Turkey and, as we know, had offered him inducements to do so.

Britain may or may not have dealt fairly with Sharif Hussein; in any case, she must deal also with her ally France. The goal was to persuade her to support the sharif’s rebellion. “Unless this is done,”2 warned Grey, “Egypt and India may be endangered and the Turk will control the whole of North Africa.” Since France held most of the latter region, this was a warning to her too. For her own part, Britain was willing to pay a price for the sharif’s support. She would “give back Basra &c., if the Arabs came in,” Grey promised (although in the event she did not). France must be persuaded to make a sacrifice as well: “The French Government should be asked to resign their immediate hopes of Damascus etc.”

It was not that simple. A stated willingness to renounce Basra notwithstanding, if the British kept any part of Mesopotamia after the war, then its northern border might abut the southern boundary of territory in Anatolia occupied by Russia during her march toward Constantinople. Better to create a buffer zone between them, British strategists argued, a shield against possible future Russian aggression. France, with her long-standing interests in the region, immediately came to mind.

As is so often the case with imperial aggrandizement, acquisition of one territory necessitated acquisition of another. In this case, the acquisition of Mesopotamia by Britain would necessitate her acquisition of a port on the Mediterranean Sea, either Haifa or Alexandretta, for strategic and economic reasons. But this meant Britain must persuade France not merely to support the sharif and renounce territorial claims in Syria, as Grey had indicated, but to renounce as well whichever of the two Syrian ports Britain chose to annex, and to take territory between British Mesopotamia and Russian Anatolia as Britain wanted her to do, perhaps instead of taking territory elsewhere.

Grey kept the French informed in a general sense about British contacts with Sharif Hussein in Mecca. By November 1915 it was clear that Britain must bring France more fully into the picture, if only to gain her support for the sharif’s planned rebellion. It was time, too, that the two powers hammered out their agreement regarding the future of Ottoman territory in the Middle East, as Russia had suggested. The Foreign Office proposed that Anglo-French discussions take place in London. The French government agreed the time was ripe and it chose François Georges-Picot to represent its interests there.

Picot, at present the first secretary of the French embassy in the British capital, was the consul general who had fled Lebanon at the outbreak of war with Turkey, leaving incriminating documents in the embassy safe. When the French dragoman led the Ottomans to these documents, they used them to identify local nationalists and eventually to arrest, torture, and execute many of them. Picot, however, gave no outward sign that his disastrous oversight troubled him. Tall and elegant, Catholic and conservative, with a long face, thinning gray hair, and a neat mustache, he was a practiced diplomat and tough bargainer with expert knowledge of the Middle East. He boasted strong imperialist convictions and familial links. (His father was founder of the Comité de l’Afrique Française, and his brother was treasurer of the Comité de l’Asie Française.) Picot was an obvious choice to defend France’s Middle East ambitions in discussions with the British.

Meanwhile the war had forced the French to modify their designs on Ottoman territory. Before the war French imperialists had favored maintaining a weak Ottoman presence in the Middle East, which the European powers would divide into spheres of influence. France would have scope to advance her interests in the region without the bother of governing or administering any part of it. With the advent of war, however, French imperialists shifted position. Now they favored terminating Ottoman rule in the Middle East altogether. They wanted direct French control of the eastern Mediterranean coastline, including an enlarged Lebanon. They wanted, too, indirect control through puppet rulers of the Syrian interior, all the way to Mosul in present-day Iraq. These were Picot’s goals3when he arrived in London in late 1915.

He took part in two4 extended sessions with representatives of the British Foreign Office, India Office, and War Office in Whitehall, the first of which occurred on November 23. By this date most of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence had been written. The British acquainted him with its particulars and with the sharif’s planned rebellion, in effect asking him to accept a fait accompli. Picot refused to be stampeded. He ridiculed the sharif’s pretensions and Britain’s willingness to accept them. Picot “did not believe in any but5 a few Arab tribes joining us no matter what we promised,” a Foreign Office official reported glumly. Moreover, although (as we now know) he was prepared to concede much Syrian territory to Britain, he absolutely refused to sacrifice any during this first meeting, warning that “No French government would stand for a day which made any surrender of French claims in Syria.” Nor would he accept Grey’s contention that the Allies must detach the Arabs from Turkey, by supporting the sharif’s rebellion, in order to protect their position along the southern and eastern rim of the Mediterranean: “Though an Arab union with Turkey and Germany might be very awkward for us in Egypt and India,” the same official recorded Picot as pointing out, “the French were quite happy about Algeria and Tunis.”

In short, Picot and the British representatives could not agree on anything. The Frenchman returned to Paris for consultations. When he reappeared in London a few weeks later, he seemed a changed man, willing to make significant concessions. At this point Lord Kitchener directed Mark Sykes, recently returned from Cairo and fresh from his interview with the War Council, to hammer out an agreement with the Frenchman.

It did not take long. Sykes was a human dynamo, bubbling with enthusiasm, teeming with ideas, easy to like. Picot was urbane and reserved. Perhaps in this case opposites attracted. 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 yielding6 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. Sykes was happy to accept, though we may guess that he too appeared grudging when he did so.

Together Sykes and Picot redrew the Middle Eastern map. We may picture them in a grand conference room at the Foreign Office, crayons in hand. They colored blue the portions on the map that they agreed to allocate to France, and they colored red the portions they would allocate to Britain. Within those areas they proposed that the two countries “should be allowed to establish7 such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire.” Since both parties coveted Palestine, with its sites holy to Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike, they compromised and colored the region brown, agreeing that this portion of the Middle East should be administered by an international condominium. East and south of the blue portion of the map they outlined an Area A also in blue; east and north of the red portion they outlined in that color an Area B. These two contiguous regions, A and B, represented part of the future Arab state or confederation of states. Conceivably its ruler would be Sharif Hussein. But France in Area A and Britain in Area B “should have priority of right of enterprise and local loans [and] … should alone supply advisers or foreign functionaries at the request of the Arab confederation.” In short, the two areas would become French and British spheres of influence. Finally, within the Brown Area, Palestine, Britain reserved for herself the ports of Haifa and Acre and the right to construct a railway connecting them with the red-outlined Area B. The two men negotiated less important measures as well. Finally they agreed that if the sharif failed to rebel, or if his rebellion failed, then all the arrangements would be canceled.

This, then, was the famous, or infamous, Sykes-Picot Agreement. Within weeks higher authorities in both London and Paris studied and accepted it. In the British cabinet only Asquith seems to have had doubts. He “thought the Arabs would not be8 content with the A and B areas,” the cabinet meeting minutes record, but “Sir E. Grey pointed out that the four cities Homs, Damascus, Hamma and Aleppo have been assigned to them which would satisfy them.” The prime minister’s hesitations vanished.

The two governments dispatched Sykes and Picot to Russia to acquaint their partner, the third divider of the anticipated Ottoman carcass, with the agreement’s provisions. Sykes, who already had traveled around the Middle East and to India and back again, announced that he would make this further trip under a pseudonym. If he should be captured, the Germans would not know who he was and would not learn of the treaty with France. Unfortunately an English newspaper wrote that he would be journeying to Russia on official business and published his photograph. The disappointed diplomat9 had to make the passage under his own name. But once he got to Moscow and Picot arrived, the Russians told them they found the agreement good too. After some minor adjustments, the Sykes-Picot Agreement became the Tripartite Agreement, the essentials unaltered.

When Sir Henry McMahon in Cairo learned what Sykes and Picot had wrought, he warned the Foreign Office not to tell the Arabs. “I feel that divulgence10 of agreement at present time might be detrimental to our good relations with all parties and possibly create a change of attitude in some of them … It might also prejudice the hoped for action of the Sherif who views French penetration with suspicion.” Here was the crux of the matter. As with the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, so with the Sykes-Picot Agreement: Interested parties at the time and ever since have argued over the aims and motives of the men responsible for it. The issue around which the debate revolves is whether Sykes-Picot contradicted promises that McMahon had conveyed, or was in process of conveying, to Sharif Hussein. In short, did the agreement shortchange the Arabs?

There was first the matter of land west of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo. Sykes and Picot allocated it to France. The British could truthfully say that they had reserved that strip of coastline for France in the correspondence with Hussein. But Hussein could reply with equal accuracy that he had stated clearly in his own letters that the coastal strip was intrinsic to Arabia; he had merely deferred insisting upon it in order to maintain good relations with Britain and so that Britain could maintain good relations with her wartime ally France. Later when they learned of it, the sharif and his followers charged that Britain acted in bad faith by conceding this territory to France without obtaining Arab agreement first.

There was second the matter of land south of that coastal strip. Sykes and Picot had allocated to France the stretch extending nearly to Acre. To the international condominium, they allocated land reaching south all the way to Gaza (except for the British enclave at Haifa and Acre). To Britain, they gave land south of Gaza all the way to the Egyptian border. Taken together, these allocations were essentially the land of Palestine. Again the British could point to McMahon’s letters, which withheld from the sharif land west of the vilayet or district of Damascus. As we have seen, however, whether that included Palestine or not depends upon the definition of vilayet. Accordingly here too, when they learned what the British and French had done, the sharif and his followers may or may not have had legitimate cause for complaint.

A similar cloud of doubt hovers above the Red Area claimed by Britain in Mesopotamia, most of which is now present-day Iraq. McMahon, in his third note to Hussein, had excluded from the sharif’s kingdom-to-be the vilayet of Baghdad; now Britain could argue that she was not contradicting terms laid down in the high commissioner’s letters. On the other hand, the sharif had accepted only that Britain might occupy this land temporarily for a fee. Moreover, in subsequent letters both McMahon and Hussein deferred final settlement of the question. Was Britain acting prematurely in claiming it now? The Arabs charged that she was.

As for Areas A and B,11 the French and British spheres of interest, this was land where Sykes and Picot envisaged establishment of a “State or confederation of States under the aegis of an Arabian prince.” It is worth noting that its original northern border, the upper limit of Area A (amended after consultation with the Russians), corresponded to a line, Alexandretta-Aintab-Birijik-Urfa-Midiat-Zakho-Rowanduz, that the Arab deserter from the Turkish army, Faruki, had suggested to McMahon even as British officials were conferring with Picot. That it appears virtually unaltered in the first published iteration of the Sykes-Picot Agreement seems to indicate that Britain was trying to take Arab views into account while negotiating with her French ally. But the British did not inform Faruki (or Hussein) that the negotiations were taking place, which suggests that they favored France over Arabia and would sacrifice the interests of the latter to the former if necessary. This is what the Arabs later charged the British had done.

A still more pertinent question about Areas A and B: Would the Arabian prince who governed them be truly independent? Here as elsewhere the evidence is ambiguous, even contradictory. The great Arabist Gertrude Bell prepared a report on the Sykes-Picot Agreement soon after the three powers approved it. “Regarding areas A and B,”12 she wrote, “the elected Council is still the only solution … its obvious place of meeting is Damascus. Its president can be no other than an elected native of the country … Native representatives of the Red, Blue and Brown areas should also be summoned to it, together with representatives of the Arabian princes, the King of the Hijaz, Ibn Saud etc.” She went on to suggest that English and French observers should attend council meetings, although she does not specify what their role should be. Nevertheless her report seems to indicate that at least one important British authority envisioned some form of Arab self-government and determination in that area. T. E. Lawrence appears to have shared her view. “The Sykes-Picot treaty13 was the Arab sheet-anchor,” he argued some years later, after the agreement had been discarded. “It was absurd in its boundaries, but it did recognize the claims of Syrians to self-government.” And he added: “It was ten thousand times better than the eventual settlement.”

Let us be clear, however. In a different context Lawrence was quite prepared to argue the other way. “Self determination has been a good deal talked about,” he said shortly after the war. “I think it is a foolish idea in many ways. We might allow the people who have fought with us to determine themselves [by which he probably meant those Arabs who had supported the grand sharif’s rebellion]. People like the Mesopotamian Arabs who have fought against us deserve nothing from us in the way of self-determination.” As for Bell, she once wrote to Lord Cromer, the predecessor of Kitchener as high commissioner in Egypt: “They are an easy people14 to govern, the Arabs … to punish is sometimes necessary, to punish thoroughly is frequently salutary, to … kill half a dozen men and then go away … that’s … generally harmful,” which does not suggest a commitment to Arab self-government on her part after all.

In any event Bell and Lawrence were merely advisers to the men who set British policy, about whom the evidence is also mixed. At meetings of the Eastern Committee, which was a subcommittee of the War Cabinet chaired by Lord Curzon, the subject of Arab independence recurred often. On April 24, 1918, Curzon instructed his committee to assume that Turkey would be defeated. The Ottomans would depart the Middle East altogether, leaving British troops in control. Then “we should construct a State15 with an ‘Arab Façade,’ ruled and administered under British guidance and controlled by a native Mohammedan and as far as possible an Arab staff.” Curzon further pointed out that the titular head of this state need not be Sharif Hussein, despite the “assurances given by Sir H. McMahon … [and] never entirely withdrawn.”

Seated around the table in Curzon’s room at the Privy Council Office were Sir Percy Cox, mastermind of the British army’s political relations in Mesopotamia; Lord Hardinge, now removed from India and become permanent under secretary of the Foreign Office; several of his advisers; Lord Balfour; and Sir Mark Sykes. Not one person demurred from Curzon’s statement. Clear-eyed as always, Arthur Balfour observed that the policy of the “Arab Façade” had a “more or less specious inconsistency with the principle of ‘self-determination.’” Since the Arabs were incapable of self-government, a “Façade” was all they could expect. Cox directly contradicted Gertrude Bell, pointing out that “nothing in the nature of a plebiscite could be arranged. It was quite unsuited to Arab thought and habits and could only excite the liveliest misgivings.” At another meeting of the Eastern Committee, Lord Robert Cecil, the assistant secretary of state for foreign affairs, offered a classic justification of British imperialism: “From the point of view of16 the inhabitants we should almost certainly [govern the region] better than anybody else and therefore it would be better for us to do it.” No self-determination there; and similar statements may be found scattered throughout the relevant archives.

Even in these unabashedly imperialist circles, however, ambiguity was not absent. On June 18, 1918, Curzon summarized the views of his committee as follows: “1. That His Majesty’s17 Government is still determined to secure Arab independence and to fulfill the promises made at the beginning of the Hejaz revolt; 2. That His Majesty’s Government will countenance no permanent foreign or European occupation of Palestine, Iraq (except the province of Basrah) or Syria after the war; 3. That these districts will be in the possession of their natives and that foreign interference with Arab countries will be restricted to assistance and protection.” What is a historian to think? We are returned to the original difficulty noted in the early correspondence between Lord Kitchener and Sharif Abdullah in 1914. Perhaps the two sides understood the Arab demand for independence differently.

We have no notes or minutes of the meetings between Sykes and Picot, so we cannot know precisely what the two men meant by the word “independence,” but this has not kept leading scholars from taking sides. Essentially they fall into three camps. One defends the agreement,18 arguing that had Hussein known of the negotiations, he would not have been upset, although later he pretended to be; after all, he knew at least in a general sense what French and British claims to Middle Eastern territory were, and still he cast his lot with them. Arab independence, this camp continues, would have developed under the “protective umbrella” offered by the French and British spheres of influence, and Sykes did genuinely attempt to reconcile French and Arab ambitions while the negotiations were taking place, although (as one historian adds) Sykes failed to appreciate how deeply the Arabs longed to be quit of foreign control. Nevertheless, according to this school, Sykes was negotiating in good faith.

A second group of historians19 who are sympathetic to the Arab position do not mince words: They regard the Sykes-Picot Agreement as “a shocking document … the product of greed at its worst … a startling piece of double-dealing.” But that was written in 1946. More recently a third camp has emerged that accepts that British and French diplomats acted honorably by their own lights, but within a context we no longer find acceptable. This attitude is summarized best, perhaps, by Margaret MacMillan in herPeacemakers: Six Months That Changed the World (2001). The Sykes-Picot Agreement, she writes, “was reasonable enough,20 if you were a western imperialist.”

The Sykes-Picot Agreement is important for the light it casts upon British thinking about the Middle East during World War I but not for what it accomplished—for it never was implemented. Shortly after taking power, the Russian Bolsheviks discovered and published what they termed the “secret treaties,” revealing that the Entente countries intended to redraw the map of the world in their own interests once they won the war. In keeping with their ideology, however, Russia’s new rulers declined to participate in this thieves’ banquet. They relinquished previous claims to territory in Asia and the Caucasus, including Constantinople. In powerful and inspiring language, the Bolsheviks called upon colonized peoples not merely to revolt against their foreign overlords but to overthrow their own social elites as well. In words equally stirring, the American president Woodrow Wilson broadcast a competing vision of democratic internationalism: The Western powers must recognize they had no right to dictate to other portions of the globe.

Spurred by Wilson and Lenin and a thousand other causes stemming from the war, the population of each belligerent country became disillusioned with national and military leaders. In the court of public opinion Sykes-Picot, a “secret treaty” if ever there was one, stood branded as an example of all that Leninist and Wilsonian anti-imperialists loathed. To the firestorm of public protest, old-style diplomats bowed with honeyed words; in private they struggled to redefine the new ideology in more traditional and acceptable forms. Surely, said Lord Balfour at the April 24 meeting of the Eastern Committee, President Wilson “did not seriously mean to apply his formula [regarding the self-determination of peoples] outside Europe.” But many thought he did. In Britain a revivified liberal and socialist Left clamored for their leaders to define the country’s war aims, to include no annexation of additional land, anywhere. Thus, in an unforeseen way, the earlier liberal imperialism of Sir Edward Grey and Aubrey Herbert, who had opposed extending Britain’s sway from the outset, was vindicated in the public mind.

The French and British were willing to let Sykes-Picot lapse anyway. Once Russia gave up her claim to Constantinople and territory east of it, the British no longer needed French troops to occupy territory immediately north of her own lands. They had no need for a buffer against the Russians to the north, for there were none. Few French troops remained in the Middle East at the end of the war either. Soldiers fighting for Britain had done all the heavy lifting. Britain could pretty well write her own ticket there, as Curzon and Cox and Balfour recognized. But (and here was the rub) she must do so without incurring the odium that a large fraction of the British public now attached to old-style imperialism.

The British had another factor to consider. When Sykes and Picot were busy with their maps and crayons, they may or may not have been endeavoring to satisfy Arab nationalism in addition to British and French imperialism. Now an additional force, a newly powerful Jewish nationalism, had emerged in the Middle East. The Zionist movement had been gathering strength in fits and starts since the late nineteenth century, when it was founded by the Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl, and ever more quickly since the Ottomans had decided to join World War I. But before we can consider the remarkable story of Zionism’s far-from-inevitable rise, and its impact upon British policy and policy makers, we must finish tracing the last steps of Sharif Hussein and his sons, and the movement they led up to June 1916, which culminated in yet another declaration of war.

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