In May 1916, Britain, France and Russia reached a secret agreement which came to be known by the names of its French and British architects: Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot.
Its main purpose was to lay down a post-war division of the northern provinces of the Turkish Empire between their two countries. There were also provisions for Russia, but these were repudiated by the Bolsheviks, who published the text of the agreement in November 1917.
The Sykes-Picot agreement contradicted the spirit of British undertakings to Sherif Hussein of Mecca, leader of the Arab Revolt. Its publication was therefore acutely embarrassing to the British government.
It has remained a thorn in the flesh of Anglo-Arab relations ever since. As an example of inept wartime planning for the aftermath of victory, it surely ranks with the more recent failures in Iraq and Libya. How did this come about?
Perhaps the biggest factor was the fragmented organisation of British relationships with the Middle East. The Foreign Office was principally concerned with relations with France, Britain’s ally on the Western Front. Responsibility for promoting the Arab Revolt fell to the British High Commissioner in Cairo, who in practice acted in liaison mainly with the War Office and the War Cabinet in London.
Relationships with Mesopotamia – broadly equivalent to modern Iraq – as well as eastern and southern Arabia, were handled by the government of India, represented in London by the India Office. Each of these departments had different aims.
During 1915, as an Arab revolt grew more likely, French diplomats began earnestly promoting the case for French colonial rule in Syria. This campaign, much publicised in Cairo, was plainly incompatible with the Arab demands for future self-government being discussed with Hussein, Sherif of Mecca.
Something had to be done, so in April 1915 an inter-departmental committee was set up to consider British desires in the region. A problem was the dearth in London of real experts on the Middle East. Those most involved with the prospective Arab Revolt were 3,000 miles away in Cairo.
A key figure to emerge from this process was an ambitious aristocratic MP Sir Mark Sykes, who had travelled in the Middle East before the war and worked for a while as an honorary attache at the British Embassy in Constantinople.
In October 1915, Britain invited France to send a representative to agree plans for the future of the Middle East in the event of allied victory. The French chose Francois Georges-Picot. The agreement they reached would give France direct control of the Syrian littoral to the north of Palestine and indirect control of a far larger area inland. The government of India would have an equivalent role in Mesopotamia. There would be international administration in Palestine. The British in Cairo were not told about the negotiations until it was too late to protest.
At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Hejaz delegation made every effort to overturn the Sykes-Picot arrangement, but after the Americans lost interest, an alliance between France and the government of India carried the day. The frontiers agreed in May 1916 became the basis for the final settlement, a set of League of Nations Mandates established in 1920. While the colonial arrangements envisaged by Sykes and Georges-Picot gradually unravelled, the frontiers remain.
With hindsight, the outcome would have been far better had Turkey opted to remain neutral. Had they not done so, the map of the Middle East might today be very different, and possibly far less problematic.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Why Sykes-Picot got it all wrong’