One hundred years on: the Sykes-Picot Agreement and a legacy of bloodshed

In May 1916, Britain and France signed a secret treaty known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement to carve up the Levant and Middle East. This not only took self-determination away from Arabs but left a legacy of sectarianism, instability and violence that continues to inflame the region. Historian John McHugo argues that past lessons must be learnt.

French soldiers arrive in Beirut after the Sykes-Picot Agreement that placed Lebanon under French rule. Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images.
Powered by automated translation

Whether solid, dashed or shaded, the lines on a map that attempt to define where one state begins and another ends more often than not also sketch out the terrain of a bitter argument between neighbours. None more so than when borders have been imposed on one state by a third party or parties.

The names Sykes-Picot spring to mind as soon as boundaries imposed by outsiders are mentioned. The two names are run together as though they were a double-barrelled surname like that of Franklin-Bouillon, the French diplomat whose name still adorns the treaty that settled the Turkish-Syrian border in 1921. Yet Sykes and Picot were very different men. Sykes was a British official and Picot was his French counterpart.

Picot was a passionate defender of what he saw as France’s interests in the Levant. His other claim to fame apart from the Sykes-Picot agreement was his carelessness, which caused the death of many of the Arab nationalists who were hanged by the Turks in 1915. As French consul in Beirut, he had to leave in a hurry when Turkey entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Unfortunately, he failed to destroy the files he had kept on his conversations with figures in nationalist movements. The individuals listed in those files paid the price. He did not.

Read more: Sykes-Picot at 100: Arabs must take the lead

Sykes was a forceful British member of parliament who was perceived as an expert on the Middle East. Like many such “experts” he gave an air of possessing a deeper knowledge than he actually had. He was as passionate about extending the influence and control of his native land in the Middle East as Picot was in the case of France. For this reason, he played a major role in the promotion of the Zionist movement in British politics that led to the Balfour Declaration, the 1917 letter that pledged British support for creating a home for Jewish people in Palestine. His concern was pragmatic, not ideological: he wanted to ensure that, when the war ended, Britain, not France, would have control of Palestine as well as a land route from the Mediterranean to Baghdad and Basra.

In May 1916, Sykes and Picot devised a formula by which their countries would share a large part of the Ottoman Empire of Turkey, including the predominantly Arabic-speaking areas, once they had won the war. North of Palestine, France would have direct control over the coastal plain and the mountains behind.

Crucially, this would include the Christian Maronite heartland where there was strong support for a degree of French involvement. Such support for the French existed nowhere else, but France would also have a large area of what is now eastern Turkey, including the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris. In addition, it would have indirect control over an autonomous Arab state covering those parts of Syria which were not under direct control.

Britain would have direct control over Baghdad and Basra and the oilfields near the shore of the Arabian Gulf. Some British officials wanted to incorporate this area into British India. Britain would also have indirect control of its land route from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, mirroring that of France over the areas immediately to the north. The parts of Palestine containing the Holy Places would be an international zone, but Britain would have an enclave giving it the ports of Haifa and Acre. In practice, if not necessarily in theory, the rest of Palestine would be strategically dominated by Britain. The areas of indirect British and French control would become an Arab state or two separate Arab states, reflecting the Anglo-French partition. In reality, all that would be granted to their inhabitants would be internal autonomy. Even autonomy was not guaranteed in the other partitioned territories.

All this was in blatant contradiction of the promise of Arab independence Britain had already made to the Sharif of Mecca, and which would lead to him performing his part of the bargain and launching an uprising against the Turks only a month after Sykes-Picot was signed. Would he have done so if he had known the truth? We can only guess. But the deception of Sykes-Picot, coupled with the deviousness of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, would lead to a long-term alienation of many people in the Arab and Muslim worlds from the West. This now finds its prime expression in militant jihadism and is why, in the Middle East of today, Sykes-Picot conjures up truly infamous associations.

Sykes-Picot also led to the tragedy of modern Lebanon. The Maronite heartland on Mount Lebanon (which had been an autonomous area under the Ottomans) was not a viable independent state. By an administrative decree conducted without any plebiscite, France added substantial Muslim and Orthodox Christian areas to it in 1920, even though this was resented by many non-Maronites. That action was ultimately the cause behind Lebanon’s instability to this day.

Read more: Sykes-Picot at 100: end sectarian strife

The actions of Sykes and Picot led to the imposition of the three League of Nations Mandates on Syria, Palestine and Iraq, and the consequent watering down (or sometimes outright denial) of self-determination for their peoples. People often refer to the boundaries between the mandates and the modern states which have replaced them as the “Sykes-Picot boundaries”.

This is not entirely accurate as can be illustrated by an event in 2014. After they had overrun the border areas between Syria and Iraq, ISIL carried out a publicity stunt and removed the barbed wire and earthworks that had marked the frontier. A Vice News video report made by a crew given access by ISIL shows how the extremists were able to capitalise on the resentment the Anglo-French partition had caused. An ISIL leader talks about how "we do not believe in the Sykes-Picot Agreement", while fighters from Syria and Tunisia express their delight at being able to travel from one Arab country to another without passport or visa. Ordinary people also talk about how they are now able to visit their relatives on the other side of the old border for the first time.

The footage also has a distinctly sinister side, although it contains no direct evidence of violence. It shows the hapless Iraqi soldiers who used to man the border post. Their hands have been tied and they have been forced to squat in the back of a pick-up truck like sheep on the way to market. An ISIL guard, who speaks with a sadistic, suppressed relish in his voice, slaps one of them jovially on the neck, and says he is going to cut his head off with a knife. This disgusting scene is redolent of guilt by association: the soldiers of the modern Iraqi state are perceived as tools of that old European imperialism that divided the Arab and Muslim lands. As so often, ISIL brutality is combined with an appeal to put right an old grievance.

In actual fact, the partition agreed upon by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot envisaged a rather different border between French-controlled Syria and British-dominated Iraq from the one that exists today. Sykes and Picot had included within the future French zone a huge area of what is now northern Iraq. This extended across the plain of Nineveh, through Mosul and the mountains to the east right up to the Iranian border and would have brought a substantial section of the Tigris valley within French control. The boundaries of what would become the British and French Mandates were redrawn at the San Remo conference in 1920 and France graciously conceded this eastern area to Britain in exchange for shares in an oil company and goodwill to be cashed in on some other occasion.

The ISIL leader in the clip is therefore wrong in claiming he was obliterating the Sykes-Picot boundary. But who cares? This is a detail that does not matter very much except to the historian. Sykes-Picot has become a symbol, and that is what the ISIL leader is referring to. When they negotiated the boundaries, France and Britain were thinking primarily of their own interests: compensation for their losses in the titanic struggle with Germany, spheres of influence in the Levant, and pride and prestige for their respective nations and empires which would be popular with electorates back home.

The story of the negotiations, both between Messrs Sykes and Picot in 1916 and later for the League of Nations Mandates at San Remo in 1920, shows that the rights and interests of the people who lived in the areas bartered around were lesser priorities for those who decided their fate. Or, quite possibly, the men who negotiated the carve-up were so convinced of their own righteousness that they believed it mattered not: they were masters of the universe and they could make sure that all would come right in the end.

Of course, we now know that it did not all come right. With the benefit of hindsight it seems incredible that anyone could ever have expected that it would. What is therefore surprising is that there have been subsequent occasions when foreign powers have once again assumed everything would be rosy in the garden when they have taken drastic action in the Middle East: the resolution to recommend the partition of Palestine in 1947 and the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 are two of the most obvious. When things went wrong, the problems which had been created were seen as needing to be “managed” rather than “solved”.

All this is stuff of which we should be mindful today as we contemplate the agony of Syria. Outside powers have arrogated to themselves strategic interests in Syria, just as Britain and France did in Greater Syria in 1916. Whisper it not too loud, but mandarins in London and Washington talk of how any solution must take into account the interests of Saudi Arabia, of Turkey, and now of Iran, at the same time as they contemplate what price must be paid to bring Russia on side. The truth is that foreign interference is a reality that must be coped with. We should ask ourselves how we came to a situation in which that has become inevitable. But let us not pretend that the interests of the Syrian people are necessarily uppermost in everyone’s mind. We should acknowledge that we are in grave danger of following the example of Sykes and Picot.

John McHugo is the author of A Concise History of the Arabs and Syria: A Recent History. He appeared at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai this year.