What Was the Sykes-Picot Agreement and How Has It Shaped Middle Eastern Politics?

Laura Mackenzie

3 mins

19 Jun 2018

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a deal struck by Britain and France in spring 1916 that planned for a carve-up of much of the Middle East in the event of an Ottoman defeat in World War One. When this defeat became a reality, so did the carve-up, with borders drawn that decades later are still being debated and fought over.

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Concluded on 16 May 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was named after the diplomats who carried out the negotiating — Britain’s George Sykes and France’s François Georges-Picot — and centred on the Ottoman Arab provinces that lay outside of the Arabian Peninsula.

At this point in time, the Ottoman Empire had been on the decline for decades. Though fighting on the side of the Central Powers in World War One, the Ottomans were clearly the weak link and it no longer seemed a question of if but when their empire would fall. And when it did, both Britain and France wanted the spoils in the Middle East.

In true imperialist form, the sharing of these spoils was not determined by the ethnic, tribal, linguistic or religious realities on the ground, but by what France and Britain believed would benefit them most.

Lines in the sand

During negotiations, Sykes and Georges-Picot famously drew a “line in the sand” between areas that would fall under either British control or influence and areas that would fall under French control or influence.

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This line — which was actually a pencil marking on a map — more or less stretched from Persia and, heading west, ran between Mosul and Kirkuk and down towards the Mediterranean before abruptly turning north to take in Palestine.

The French portion fell north of this line and included modern-day Lebanon and Syria, areas where France had traditional commercial and religious interests. The British portion, meanwhile, fell below the line and included the port of Haifa in Palestine and most of modern-day Iraq and Jordan. Britain’s priority was the oil in Iraq and a route by which to transport it via the Mediterranean.

Broken promises

Further lines were drawn within the French and British portions to denote areas where the imperial powers would have direct control and areas where they would have so-called “indirect” control.

But not only did this plan fail to take into account the ethnic, tribal, linguistic and religious lines that already existed on the ground in the Middle East, it also went against a promise that Britain had already made to Arab nationalists — that if they helped the Allies’ cause by rebelling against the Ottoman Empire, they would gain independence when the empire eventually fell.

Feisal party at Versailles Conference. Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T. E. Lawrence, Faisal’s slave (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri.

These failings would ultimately be overlooked, however.

Within a few years of the Allies winning the war in 1918, the pencil lines of the Sykes-Picot Agreement would become close to reality, with the deal helping to form the basis for part of a mandate system authorised by the League of Nations.

The deal’s legacy

Under this mandate system, responsibility for administering the Asian and African territories of the war’s losers was divided up between the war’s victors with the intention of moving these territories towards independence. In the Middle East, France was given the so-called “mandate” for Syria and Lebanon, while Britain was given the mandates for Iraq and Palestine (which also covered modern-day Jordan).

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Although the borders of today’s Middle East do not exactly match those of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the region is still grappling with the deal’s legacy — namely that it carved up territory along imperialist lines that gave little thought to the communities living there and cut right through them.

As a result, many living in the Middle East blame the Sykes-Picot deal for the violence that has plagued the region since the end of World War One, everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the rise of the so-called Islamic State group and the ongoing fragmentation of Syria.