1. Journalist [archival]: Syria is splintering and fragmented further as the long Civil War continues, as chief international correspondent for BBC World News Lyse Doucet has reported extensively from the Syrian War.
2. Lyse Doucet [archival]: When I’m in the Region, not a day goes by without someone mentioning the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the kind of post-War Agreements at the turn of the last…
3. Mark Colvin [archival]: The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes, who would have thought that these things would emerge from the first half of the 20th Century to dominate the picture now.
4. Lyse Doucet [archival]: …this is it, and People are saying that it’s the first chance of a redrawing of the boundaries that we have seen since the end of the First World War and where Britain and France drew the boundaries of the Middle East and that these are in danger of unravelling.
5. Quince: The Sykes-Picot Agreement Lyse Doucet was discussing with Mark Colvin in 2013 was signed between Britain and France on 16th May 1916, 100 years ago, and it redrew the Borders of the modern Middle East.
Hello, this is Rear Vision on RN and via your ABC radio app, I’m Annabelle Quince, and today we take a look at the Sykes-Picot Agreement, why it was drawn up, how it reshaped the Middle East, and if the Borders it created 100 years ago are likely to survive.
But let’s start with the men the Agreement was named after, Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. James Barr is the author of A Line in the Sand.
6. Barr: Mark Sykes was a conservative MP and he was the assistant to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, and that’s what made him a player in this particular Negociation. Now, he’d had a very strange upbringing and he had two very strange parents. His father Sir Tatton, his three passions in life were Church Architecture, milk pudding, and the maintenance of his body at a constant temperature. And Mark Sykes’s mother, Jessica, was an alcoholic, sadly. But the two of them, they had an unhappy Marriage but they took Mark Sykes repeatedly to the Middle East. And there’s no doubt that Sykes was absolutely entranced by what he saw, like many People who have been ever since then.
Effectively he was an adventurous tourist, and this all culminated in 1915 with the publication of a book. He wrote a two-inch thick tome called The Caliphs’ Last Heritage, and it was in part a travel diary, a rather dyspeptic travel diary, and partly a description of the decay of the Ottoman Empire, from its zenith in the 16th Century to this rather crumbling, backward cul-de-sac, if you like, of Europe by the beginning of the 20th. The Caliphs’ Last Heritage came out at the beginning of 1915, just as a Debate was beginning to rumble about the future of the Middle East.
François Georges-Picot, on the other hand, was a bit older than Sykes, he was in his mid-40s. And the Picot family were well-known imperialists. And François Georges-Picot would have started out or wanted to start out as a lawyer. But aged 28 in 1898, he changed Careers. But the date when he changed careers is very important because he went and joined the French Foreign Office, the Quai d’Orsay, as a junior diplomat. And that was the year of the Fashoda Incident, and this was a struggle between Britain and France for the Control of the Upper Nile.
And that year in 1898 there was a Confrontation between British forces led by Kitchener and the French expedition which was about eight men strong on the Upper Nile at Fashoda. And in these circumstances, François Georges-Picot joined the French diplomatic service. And I think this really coloured his view of Life. Many French People felt that jingoistic Britain had made Threats that the French should have stood up to. And François Georges-Picot certainly absorbed that lesson and decided that in future Negociations with the British he would take a much tougher line.
7. Quince: While the Agreement between these two men was signed at the height of World War I, according to Rashid Khalidi , the substance of the Agreement can be found in the colonial aspirations of Britain and France.
8. Khalidi: The actual Partition Agreements between Britain and France as far as the Middle East, known as Sykes-Picot, and other similar deals between Britain, France and Russia about other parts of the Ottoman Empire, were signed during this Crisis Period of World War I, as you say. But in fact the Great Powers had been laying out the Areas in which they wanted to have a sphere of influence from many, many years before that. Britain had already developed in trust in southern Mesopotamia, what is today Iraq, in Palestine the French had already done so in Syria, and similarly with the Russians and Italians and so forth in other parts of the Ottoman Empire.
And in the years immediately preceding World War I, these understandings were made much more definitive in a series of railway Agreements. And we find that in fact there’s a remarkable overlap or similarity between the pre-World War I railway understandings between these Powers and the deals that they actually cut during World War I. So it is in that sense that there were several precursors to the actual Sykes-Picot Partition that took place during World War I.
9. Quince: So particularly for France and for Britain, what was it they were looking for in terms of developing these spheres of Interest?
10. Khalidi: Well, France specifically was interested in a couple of things. They claimed that French Interests went right back to the Crusades, arguing that most of the Crusaders were French or French-speaking, and that that provided them with sort of an anchor for the legitimacy of their claims. They also had economic Interests all over Syria in particular. The railway system between Damascus, Homs and other Regions was French owned. The silk Industry of Lyon had developed a Relationship with growers of mulberry trees and rawsilk produces all over Syria, mainly in Lebanon but other parts of Syria as well. So France had both these emotional and religious claims to various solid economic Interests. They owned the tramways in various Cities, they owned the electrical Companies, the gas Companies and so forth.
For the British it was partly economic and partly strategic. In Palestine and in Iraq they claimed a variety of Interests, but one of the most important Interests was to control the shortest route between the Mediterranean and the Gulf. And in addition they had a strategic interest in seeing that the area on the other side of the Egyptian frontier, what is today Israel-Palestine, was an Area in which there would be no Railway building such that the Ottomans could not bring Troops right up to the frontier. They were very worried about the Ottoman Empire being able to push into Egypt. That’s a fear that went right back to 1906. And in fact in that sense the British were prescient because during World War I the Ottomans did push an Army across the Sinai Peninsula right up to the Suez Canal.
11. Barr: By the end of 1914 the Western Front was in deadlock and so was the Eastern Front, and People particularly in Britain started to try to think of ways to win the War, to break the deadlock. And a group of People called the Easterners decided that the best way was to launch an Attack on the Ottoman Empire. And the thinking behind that was that if you knocked the Ottomans out of the War, you could open a new Front in south-east Europe and the Germans would be forced to divert Resources there, and that would weaken them on the Western and Eastern Fronts so that Britain and France on the Western Front and the Russians on the eastern could then defeat Germany. So that was the Grand Strategy.
And the assumption at the Time, partly because of People like Sykes who had portrayed this crumbling, decrepit Empire, was that the Ottomans would cave in pretty quickly. And that’s partly why the British embarked on this strategy of landing at Gallipoli, in the Dardanelles. They thought that if you landed 150 miles away from Constantinople, that it would take a matter of weeks to defeat the Ottomans there and march through European Turkey and up to the capital and that would be the end of the War. Now, that of course opened the hypothetical question of what would happen to the Ottoman Empire after the War, after its defeat. And it was at that point that Britain and France started to think a bit about what they would do about it.
12. Journalist [archival]: The French opened the game by asking for a great deal, for the whole of the Levant, beginning on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey itself, and running down to what is now the Gaza Strip in southern Palestine. The French wanted all this coastline and a substantial part of the hinterland of that coast, including Palestine. This was not acceptable to the British. The British certainly didn’t want the French sitting on the Egyptian Border, threatening the Canal, Britain’s gateway to her Indian Empire.
13. Barr: The French were already suspicious of what Britain was up to. By the beginning of 1915 there was quite a serious division between the British and the French, because while the British were increasingly interested in attacking Gallipoli, the French were still foursquare behind an assault on the Western Front. And what this meant in practice was that while the British saved up and concentrated on training the volunteer Army that would eventually fight the Battle of the Somme, the French launched repeated offensives, and these were extremely costly. So by the beginning of 1915, the French had lost far more men than the British had. And in the British mind, this created a sense of Debt and a sense of Guilt. But it also raised the question about whether the French really had it in them to carry on fighting at this rate.
The other thing was that of course when Sykes came to Cairo and told the French about the scheme, the French started to suspect that the true purpose behind Gallipoli was actually an imperial one, it wasn’t really about winning the War at all, it was more about enhancing the Security of the British Empire. And François Georges-Picot was among those who argued that it was Time to confront Britain about this and reach some sort of deal. So in August 1915, François Georges-Picot effectively posted himself to London as a diplomat. François Georges-Picot went to see the British for the first Time in October 1915. It became very clear at this meeting that there was going to be no deal, and Georges-Picot was absolutely adamant that France’s Ambitions in the Middle East had to be respected by the British, and the British on the other hand weren’t going to give either.
In the meantime or very soon after that, the British also had to admit something else they were doing behind the scenes which was negotiating with the Sharif of Mecca. The Sharif of Mecca, descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, had agreed to launch an uprising against the Turks if he got some British support. And in exchange for that the British had offered him a large Empire after the War, which encompassed much of the area that we now think of as Syria, Lebanon and Israel, Jordan and Iraq.
14. Khalidi: Well, the deal is known as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence between Sharif Hussein of Mecca, ruler of Mecca under the Ottomans, and Sir Henry McMahon. So McMahon, operating under orders from London, got in touch with Sharif Hussein and asked him whether he would be willing to join the Allies and oppose the Ottoman Empire. And Sharif Hussein said, well, you know, I have a variety of requirements. And among them were the Idea of Arab Independence, in which Sharif Hussein told the British was that he wasn’t simply negotiating on his own behalf, he was speaking on the behalf of Arab Nationalist Societies all over the Arab Provinces. We want Independence for the Arabs from the Ottomans. And this was what was negotiated between the British and the Sharifians and the Hashemites. The Arabs understood this as Independence in almost all of the Arab provinces, with the exception of a couple of Regions where either Britain or its ally friends had Interests. And how that was to be squared with Arab Independence was never clarified.
The British understood it somewhat differently, because at the same Time other British representatives than Sir Henry McMahon, in fact Sir Mark Sykes, were negotiating with the French and with the Russians for the Partition of the Ottoman Empire, and for a set of Arrangements that differed quite markedly from at least what the Arabs understood the British had promised them.
15. Barr: When Georges-Picot heard about this he was absolutely astonished, because the French had some inkling this was going on but they had never thought the British would actually cave in to what Sharif Hussein wanted because they regarded him as a very, very unimportant character. But it became clear that the British were going to support that. And at that point, Georges-Picot played his ace. This was to play on this British Guilt about how the War had gone so far. So Georges-Picot said, Look, we might have agreed to this Arab Empire, but having lost so many People so far, there’s no way that France will just accept these kinds of claims, you have to come to a deal with us.
Those were the circumstances in which Sykes went to the War Council in December 1915. The negotiations with Picot were deadlocked. He went along proposing dividing the Middle East down a straight line from the Mediterranean to the Persian Border. At that point someone asked him, ‘Where do you propose putting that line?’ And Sykes says to them, ‘I should like to draw a line from the e of Acre to the last k in Kirkuk.’ And the War Cabinet, who had many other things to worry about at that Time, welcomed his Intervention. And it’s very interesting because one of them emerged from the Meeting under the impression that Sykes, from what he’d said, could speak both Turkish and Arabic, but in fact he could speak neither Language.
16. Khalidi: I do not believe he knew much in the way of local Languages. I don’t think he understood either Turkish or Arabic very well, and I don’t think that he had much of a sense of the pulse of the Peoples of the Region, even though he had travelled extensively. He knew the Geography very well. And he knew something about the Middle East. He had been there many, many times for lengthy trips, by himself with a guide.
So this was not a man who was ignorant of the Region, and that was really true of most the People, including several People in the Cabinet. Churchill had fought in the Sudan. Kitchener commanded the Army in the Sudan. Curzon had travelled across Persia and Central Asia on a donkey. You had in the case of both the War cabinet itself and officials advising them, like Sykes and Lawrence and so forth, Gertrude Bell, People who had spent chunks of Time in the Region. In the case of Kitchener he actually knew both Arabic and Turkish.
So you had People who knew a great deal about the Middle East but they knew it, as it were, from a distance, they knew it as aristocrats, they knew it as upper-class Englishmen who looked down upon almost everybody else in the World, including People in their own Society, not to speak of lowly Peoples, in their eyes, such as the Arabs and the Turks. And you can see this in everything they write. I mean, the condescension is palpable. [Accurate.]
17. Quince: You’re with Rear Vision on RN and via your ABC radio app. I’m Annabelle Quince and today we’re tracing the history of the Sykes-Picot Agreement which was signed in 1916 and established the modern boarders of the Middle East.
18. Barr: Sykes and Picot met for the first Time in December 1915, and they were able to agree to a carve-up of much longer lines than Sykes had proposed to the council a few weeks earlier. But what they couldn’t agree on was the future of Palestine, because from the British point of view Palestine needed to be part of the strategic cordon across the Middle East that would protect India. But the French had a rather more sentimental view of it. They wanted Palestine because they thought back to the Crusades, they also thought back to the fact that France had long been recognised by the Ottoman Empire as the protector of all Christians in the Ottoman Empire. They had had a semiformal status like that. And so the French wanted Palestine because of the presence of the holy places there, and they wanted to revive that kind of crusading glory, as they saw it.
So Sykes and Georges-Picot couldn’t agree on the future of Palestine, and so what they agreed instead is that it would have an international Administration. That was a pretty horrendous compromise, certainly for the British for whom the idea of an uncertain international administration right on their frontier, right close to the Suez Canal which was the artery of the British Empire, that was something that they just did not like.
19. Journalist [archival]: After a good deal of give and take, the Agreement the French and British finally came to produced a Map which looked like this. The Area which is now called Syria and the Lebanon was to be in the French sphere of influence. The Area which is now Jordan, southern Palestine, and a good deal more besides, was to be in the British sphere of influence. Most of the area which was later Palestine was called in the Agreement the ‘brown Area’. The brown Area was not to be under the Control of any particular Power, for the ostensibly high-minded reason that the holy places were there.
20. Barr: So no sooner than Sykes and Georges-Picot had cooked up this deal and cooked up this particular compromise, the British started thinking about how they might get around it, and they didn’t have to think that far back because already the British had been wondering about how they might use Zionism, the political Campaign to get a Jewish State in Palestine, how they might use that Campaign in their own interest. And a member of the British Cabinet, Sir Herbert Samuel, had written a paper about this back in the end of 1914, and he had highlighted the strategic arguments behind settling Jews in Palestine. They would be grateful, he argued, and Britain would essentially create what another British general called a buffer Jewish State on the east side of the Suez Canal.
So in 1916, just after Sykes and Picot had done their deal, the British start approaching the Zionists. And the key person in this in fact is Lloyd George because he appreciated the point of this scheme more than any other minister, and he started making assurances to the Jews that they would get this very early in 1916. This culminates at the end of 1917 in the Balfour Declaration where Britain makes the promise to the Zionists that they will get a Jewish national home in Palestine. So the Balfour Declaration arises out of this loophole in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. If the Sykes-Picot Agreement had left Palestine in British hands unequivocally, I don’t think there would have been the same pressure to join Forces with the Zionists. But instead because it left a loophole, the British went and approached the Zionists and offered them their support, and that was a way of undermining the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
21. Khalidi: The Balfour Declaration had a strategic objective. Whatever sympathy Balfour may have had for Jews or Zionism, the primary objective of the Balfour Declaration was to establish exclusive British Control over Palestine. That was not actually achieved until 1919 when Lloyd George and Clemenceau met in London and agreed that instead of being internationalised, Palestine would come under British Control. But the Balfour Declaration was sort of a pawn in that chess game with the French, leading of course to the joke I suppose it is, that Palestine was a thrice promised land, it had been promised to the French and the Russians, promised to the Arabs, as the Arabs understood it, and then promised to the Zionists.
22. Quince: So when and how did the Arabs discover that their Agreement in a sense with the British meant nothing?
23. Khalidi: They found out after the Russian Revolution that the British and the French had cut a secret deal behind their backs, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, because Leon Trotsky, who was the first commissar for foreign affairs of the Bolshevik Government in St Petersburg, released all of the secret Treaties that the Czarist Government had negotiated, including the Sykes-Picot Agreement and others about the Ottoman Empire, and it was a huge shock and the British had to send someone racing to Mecca to reassure the Sharif of Mecca that in fact the Agreement didn’t say what in fact it did say and that their correspondence with Sharif Hussein meant what he thought it meant.
They found out about the Balfour Declaration because it was a public statement of the British Cabinet. And so they received two quite rude shocks in November of 1917, one being that their Agreement with the British was in some measure compromised by the secret Agreement the British had negotiated with the French and that their understanding of their Agreement with the British extending to Palestine was compromised by what the British had just promised the Zionist Movement.
24. Woodrow Wilson [archival]: The World must be made safe for democracy…
25. Journalist [archival]: When Wilson went to Europe the first Time, the World’s heartbeat was with him. In France, they lighted candles in his Honour. He was cheered as no conqueror ever was. In Rome, his picture hung in almost every home. In England, his path from the Channel coast to Charing Cross Station was strewn with flowers. This indeed was a man of Peace. But less than a year later, the man of Peace was a mere man of Politics. He had made two trips to Europe and spent six months at that green baize table with Clemenceau, Orlando and Lloyd George. And to keep his dream alive had been forced to compromise and conciliate, barter and bargain to such an extent that the Product he brought home for approuval was already suffering from the anaemia which was the old World’s chronic Disease.
26. Barr: So the Sykes-Picot Agreement did survive, or it survived in part. The question of why it survived is a really interesting one because at the end of the War nobody would have expected it to, least of all Sykes. Sykes thought that the Agreement was embarrassing really and that it would never survive People’s desire to run their own affairs. But the reason it did so. Several reasons, but the most important one, the most instant one was Oil because by the end of 1918 the British had appreciated that there was Oil in northern Iraq in the area that Sykes had agreed to give to Picot. So around Mosul, the city that Sykes always rather hated, there was Oil there. And that was something that the British deeply wanted because they were worried about their own Oil stocks.
At the end of 1918 the British Prime Minister, by then it was Lloyd George, meets the French Prime Minister Clemenceau, and at this point the French desperately need British support to get back Alsace-Lorraine, so the Territory they had lost to Germany in 1870. And Lloyd George seized on that weakness to rewrite the Sykes-Picot Agreement for the first Time. And Clemenceau asked him, ‘What are we to discuss?’ And Lloyd George says, ‘Palestine and Mosul.’ And Clemenceau says straight out, ‘You can have them.’ And Lloyd George leapt on French weakness to get this part of northern Iraq and join it onto British Territory. So the reason why the line ‘from the e of Acre to the last k of Kirkuk’ didn’t quite survive was because of Lloyd George at the end of the First World War.
And the second reason was really an increasing willingness by the British to bend to French demands. Because at the end of the War, the British were quite adamant they were in the Middle East, the French weren’t really, they would impose the Settlement. But as the Versailles Treaty, the Paris Peace Conference went on, it became pretty clear that they hadn’t come up with something that was going to prevent another War, that another War was going to happen sooner or later. And at that point Britain assumed that it would need France on its side, so it became more and more reluctant to annoy France over the Middle East.
The French wanted to get direct Control of Lebanon and Syria. The British had always thought that they would have a much more hands-off arrangement and give the Arabs at least some sense of Control. But the fact that the French wanted to do that and the fact that the British wanted to exploit Iraq’s Oil meant that the British took a much more and increasingly hardline view of the situation. So from wanting to give the Arabs some degree of Independence, they moved increasingly to thinking that they needed a British Government in Iraq because they were very worried that if they didn’t have that that they wouldn’t be able to get the investors to pump money in to fund Oil exploration. They thought investors would run a mile from what one man called an untested Arab Government.
27. Journalist [archival]: On November 21, 1919, François Georges-Picot, the co-architect of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the French General Gouraud, arrived in Beirut. And so began the imposition of the French mandate for Syria and Lebanon. Faisal, who had been the governor of Damascus now for 16 months, had been consolidating his position. When he was proclaimed King by the Syrian National Congress, the French were incensed, and General Gouraud sent in his Troops. By August 7, 1920, Faisal had been deposed and had to flee to Palestine. The promises to Sharif Hussein and Faisal of a single independent State were now a distant Memory for the Europeans.
28. Khalidi: The British ended up with a Revolt in Mesopotamia in 1920. The French had to fight their way into Damascus in 1920, and had unrest in the northern parts of the Country for several years after that and a huge Revolt in 1926, ‘25 and ‘26 in Syria and parts of Lebanon. And there were disturbances in Palestine in 1920, ‘21, and then again in 1929. So this was not well received by the Peoples of this Region, and where they were able to rise up, they did. The British managed to master the Iraqi Revolt using the Royal Air Force, and some of the first recorded bombings of civilians take place in that Region.
29. Quince: Look, just one final question, the lines that were drawn on the map that created the Middle East back in the end of World War I, can they survive and do they still have any relevance today?
30. Khalidi: We really don’t know. There are all kinds of pressures that seem to be operating against the existing Nation-States and the existing Borders, whether from repressed Kurdish Nationalism, whether from the Islamic State, which claims that it’s going to destroy these Borders, whether from the creation as a result of Interventions by multiple Powers of failed States in Iraq and Syria. The other thing is that there are very powerful international pressures against changing frontiers. There are major players in the Middle East, notably Iran and Turkey, which have very strong views about changing the Borders and which have the strength to assert themselves in defence of those views, both of which are very much opposed, both to the Islamic State and to Kurdish Nationalism. So I’m not sure that these Borders are going to necessarily disappear overnight.
31. Quince: Rashid Khalidi . My other guest was James Barr, author of A Line in the Sand. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was just the beginning of the story. Rear Vision now has a new website that traces the story of the Middle East through the 20th Century and into the 21st. The rise and fall of Arab Nationalism, Palestine and Israel, the Iranian Revolution, through to the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamic State. If you have any interest in Middle East history or politics you need to check out this page. You can find a link on the RN web page.
I’m Annabelle Quince, and this is Rear Vision on RN.