Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

100 Years Ago: Sykes-Picot Agreement Approved

Marina Ottaway, Woodrow Wilson International Center

The first of a long series of agreements that defined the post-Ottoman Levant was one reached by a British and a French diplomat, Mark Sykes and Fran├žois Georges-Picot, in 1916. It was approved by their respective governments on 16 May 1916.  Today, the “end of Sykes-Picot” has become the short hand for speculation about a possible reconfiguration of the states of the Levant.

Mark Sykes
Very little of the Sykes-Picot agreement was implemented, and the borders that were eventually established bear almost no resemblance to the lines drawn—in exquisite imperial fashion—by the two diplomats whose main concern was to decide how Britain and France would divide among themselves the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire.

Paradoxically, it is the failure of the agreement that makes it relevant to understanding the forces currently threatening the disintegration of Levant states and possibly reconfiguring the region. If Britain and France had succeeded in shaping the Levant as they liked, the agreement could be dismissed as the product of a bygone colonial era with little relevance to the present. But they were not. The actions of Arab and Turkish nationalists, the demands of minorities, the ambitions of politicians, the collapse of czarist Russia, and the bankruptcy of Britain and France in aftermaths of the war shaped a Levant quite different from the one the two diplomats had envisaged.

And that is the relevance of Sykes-Picot to the present. The United States, Russia, and to some extent the European Union—the new international powers who have replaced Britain and France in trying to shape the region—have their own ideas of how the region should evolve and have invested lives and treasure to realize their goals. Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—the major regional powers—have their own plans for the future of the region. But once again it is the ever changing array of local, state, and non-state actors that will shape the final outcome.  

The Actors Sykes and Picot Forgot:

Several factors explain why, once the dust settled over the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Sykes-Picot Agreement had become largely irrelevant: the upsurge of nationalism in the region; the rise of modern Turkey; the Bolshevik revolution that turned Russia from an ally into an enemy of France and Britain, to be contained rather than awarded territory; and the bankruptcy of the two major colonial powers—France and Britain—in the wake of the war, which kept them from devoting to the region resources commensurate with their original aspirations. Ultimately, France and Britain could not realize their goals, despite their superior power and the League of Nations mandates over the Levant they had awarded themselves. They succeeded in drawing the borders of the new countries, but they had limited capacity to shape the states contained within those borders.

Fran├žois Georges-Picot
Going into the war, France and Britain were convinced that the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire were not ready for self-government and would not be ready for a  long time—statesmen in both countries were in total agreement on that point. The  issue they wanted to settle was not whether these areas would be under foreign supervision, because that was a foregone conclusion, but which areas would be supervised by France and which by Britain. The Sykes-Picot Agreement provided the answer. Britain would get complete control over an area of “Mesopotamia” starting north of Baghdad and extending through Basra all the way down the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula. France would get complete control over an area extending along the Mediterranean coast from Haifa to southern Turkey and inland to a part of Anatolia. Britain and France could do what they wanted: putting these areas under direct administration by colonial officials or indirect control through local rulers of their own choosing. In addition, France and Britain also awarded themselves their respective zones of influence, where they would set up independent Arab states, or a confederation of states, under their supervision. Finally, an area comprising roughly today’s Israel and the West Bank, would be declared an international zone controlled jointly by Britain, France, and Russia. The Arabian Peninsula, with the exception of the east coast claimed by Britain, would be left under Arab control. The text of the agreement and British-French correspondence around it show clearly that the main concern of both France and Britain was to protect their interests against the other—there is much discussion about access to ports and the impositions of tariffs, none about the interests of the local population. 

In negotiating the agreement, Britain and France had ignored not only the issue of the rights of the Arabs whose territories they were disposing of, but also their probable reaction. Convinced that Arabs were not ready to govern themselves, the colonial powers also seemed to believe that they would remain passive. Instead, the  high-handed approach of the European powers stirred nationalist reactions through the region, where currents of Arab nationalism had been evident for a long time. With the weakening of the Ottoman grip, nationalists gained prominence in Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad, among others. The British themselves contributed to stirring up Arab nationalism by dangling in front of Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, the vision of an independent Arab state under his rule when they were trying to enlist his support against the Ottomans and stir the Arab Revolt. Finally, the issuing by Britain of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration, which declared support for the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine, encouraged the Zionist movement and inevitably an Arab nationalist reaction. Additionally, after the defeat of the Ottomans, Turkish nationalists under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk fought fiercely against attempts to dismantle the Turkish core of the Ottoman Empire and formed a new strong Turkish state that had not been part of the Sykes-Picot plan. Local actors, in other words, had no intention of remaining passive and allowing Britain and France to design a post-Ottoman Levant as they saw fit.  

The outcome of the war also made Sykes-Picot impossible to implement in the original form. Syria, including Damascus, was supposed to fall in the French zone of Influence, but it was the British, not the French, that entered Damascus and expelled the Turks. The British also expelled the Turks from Palestine and remained there, although Palestine was supposed to be put under international administration.  Furthermore, U.S. intervention toward the end of the conflict changed the dynamics of peace negotiations, and the formation of the League of Nations meant that the Arab territories Britain and France had viewed essentially as colonies or protectorates to remain under their control indefinitely became instead League of Nations mandates. The mandates, on  the other hand, were temporary and carried the obligation for the mandatory powers to prepare the countries under their care for independence. The difficult economic situation both Britain and France faced at the end of the war, furthermore, made them unwilling to invest much in the new territories. Both countries were under pressure to demobilize the troops and return men to civilian  and to reduce the cost of controlling and administering the new territories. 

Original Sykes-Picot Agreement Map

Britain under the leadership of Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill pioneered in Mesopotamia the idea of reducing the number of ground troops by relying on the air force for control—a tantalizing antecedent to current U.S. policy in Iraq.  

In conclusion, when the Ottomans surrendered in October 1918, Sykes-Picot could no longer provide an answer for the future of the Arab territories.  Instead, it took until 1925, repeated rounds of negotiations and several treaties for the map of the Levant to take the familiar shape commonly identified with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Little survived of the Sykes-Picot Agreement: Syria, including what is today Lebanon, remained in a French zone of influence but as a League of Nations mandate and with boundaries that bore little similarity to those envisaged by the two diplomats in 1916.  Similarly, Mesopotamia stayed in the British zone but as a mandate that did not include the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula but included the former Ottoman province of Mosul that Sykes and Picot had given to France. Everything else was different: Palestine had not become an international zone but a British mandate, which included Transjordan but not the much larger zone of influence, extending well into the Arabian Peninsula, designed by the two diplomats. And while an Arab state had indeed arisen in the Arabian Peninsula, as envisaged in the original agreement, it was not the one centered on the Hejaz that Britain had dangled in front of Sharif Hussein’s eyes but one dominated by Ibn Saud, who had brought much of the peninsula under his control starting from the Najd. Turkey had lost the empire, but it had successfully fought against dismemberment of its core and had become an independent, fiercely nationalistic, and secular republic. And Egypt, from where Britain had plotted the war in the Levant and directed military operations, had also become independent, although the Suez Canal zone was still controlled by Britain and France.


  1. I'm fond of Sean McMeekin's argument that it should be called Sykes-Picot-Sazanov, given the enormous importance of Russia in the deal.

  2. Politicians today need to study their history. Once the genie of Arab nationalism was out of the bottle, it would never be put back. All attempts of the Arabs to unite into a super nation ala Nasser has foundered on this rock. This I believe is why Iranian efforts to reestablish a new Persian Empire will also fail, but they are more dangerous today with modern weapons and delivery systems.

  3. On a much lighter note, Lt. Col. Sir Mark Sykes Bart. was a territorial battalion commander in the Green Howards (Queen Alexandra's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry) as was the well-known Downton Abbey character, Robert the Earl of Grantham.

    1. Thanks that is an interesting little tidbit. I did a web search coming up with other details some of our readers may likewise find of interest...he passed away @ age 39 in 1919 from the Spanish Flu, and there is intriguing figure. another Anonymous contributor