This article is an edited transcript of The Sykes-Picot Agreement with James Barr, available on History Hit TV.
At the end of 1914, when there was deadlock on the eastern and western fronts of World War One, a group within the British government known as the “Easterners” started to think about an attack on Ottoman Empire to knock the Ottomans out of the war. They planned to open up a new front in south-east Europe that the Germans would have to divert troops to.
The idea of that, even before the Gallipoli landings happened, provoked what was then called the “Eastern Question”: what would happen after the Ottomans had been defeated? To both pursue and answer that question, the British government set up a committee.
Mark Sykes (main image) was the youngest member of the committee and he spent the most time of all its members on the subject, thinking through what the options were.
Who was Mark Sykes?
Sykes had been a Conservative MP for four years by 1915. He was the son of Sir Tatton Sykes, a very eccentric Yorkshire baronet who had three joys in life: milk pudding, church architecture and the maintenance of his body at a constant temperature.
Sir Tatton Sykes had taken Mark to Egypt for the first time when he was about 11 years old. Mark was blown away by what he saw, like many tourists have been since, and he went back there repeatedly as a young man and as a student.
After he got a job as an attaché in the British Embassy in Constantinople, the younger Sykes returned to Egypt repeatedly. This all culminated in 1915 with the publication of his book The Caliphs’ Last Heritage, which was a part-travel diary and a part-history of the decay of the Ottoman Empire. The book established him as an expert on that part of the world.
But was he actually an expert?
Not really. Mark Sykes was rather what we’d think of as an adventurous tourist. You would get the impression (as people did within the British cabinet) that he could speak a number of Eastern languages, including Arabic and Turkish. But, in fact, he could speak none of them beyond sort of saying marhaba (hello) or shukran (thank you), and things like that.
But the book, which is about two inches thick, gave him this kind of air of learning, not to mention that he’d actually been to that part of the world.
That in itself was a relatively rare thing. Most British politicians had not been there. They would have even struggled to place many of the most important towns and cities on a map of the area. So in contrast to the people he was dealing with, Sykes knew a lot more about it than they did – but he didn’t know that much.
The strange thing was that the people who did know about it had by and large been posted out to Cairo or to Basra or were based in Deli. Sykes enjoyed influence because he was still back at the seat of power and knew something about the subject. But there were many people who knew more about the issues than he did.
Splitting the sick man of Europe in two
The committee that was set up to determine Britain’s strategic interest in the Middle East finalised its views in the middle of 1915 and Sykes was sent out to Cairo and to Deli to canvas British officials about what they thought about the ideas.
The committee originally thought about dividing the Ottoman Empire up along its existing provincial lines and creating a kind of Balkan system of mini-states in which Britain could then pull the strings.
But Sykes had a much clearer idea. He proposed to divide the empire in two, “down the line that ran from the E in Acre to the Last K in Kirkuk” – with this line in practice being a British-controlled defensive cordon across the Middle East that would protect the land routes to India. And, surprisingly enough, the officials in Egypt and India all agreed with his idea rather than the idea of the majority of the committee.
So he went back to London saying, “Well, actually, no one likes your idea, but they like my idea of this belt of English-controlled country” – that was the phrase he used – that would go from the Mediterranean coast to the Persian frontier, and act as a way of keeping Britain’s jealous European rivals away from India.
Did oil play a big part in this British decision?
The British knew about oil in Persia, now Iran, but they didn’t at that point appreciate how much oil there was in Iraq. So the bizarre thing about the Sykes-Picot agreement is that it’s not about oil. It’s actually about the fact that the Middle East is a strategic crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa.