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This article is an edited transcript of The Sykes-Picot Agreement with James Barr, available on History Hit TV.
In 1914, the Ottoman Empire was struggling to modernise itself. As a result when it went to war against Britain, the world’s mightiest naval power, as well as their French and Russian allies, it was a very poor decision.
So why did they do it?
The Ottomans had done their utmost to stay out of the war. They had tried in the run-up to war to use the Germans to fight the British and the French whilst they stayed back and picked up the pieces afterwards, but in that they failed.
They ended up throwing in their lot with the Germans and the German price for supporting Ottoman Turkey was to get them into the war. The Germans also persuaded the Ottomans to declare a jihad, or a holy war, against their British and French enemies.
Why were the British so afraid of this?
This declaration was a huge threat to British-Asia. Britain had about 60 to 100 million Muslim subjects. In fact, the British used to call themselves the world’s greatest Muslim power at that point. But the British were terrified that these mostly Sunni Muslims would rise up, obey the Sultans’ call and launch a series of revolts in the wider empire.
They feared they would then have to divert troops away from the Western Front – away from the place where they would ultimately defeat the Germans. They would have to divert troops away to fight wars in the Empire.
In fact, the British used to call themselves the world’s greatest Muslim power at that point.
Britain had spent the last 200 or 300 years desperately trying to keep the Ottoman Empire together. It had spent a huge amount of time trying to protect and stabilise the Ottoman Empire, and even in 1914 they still had a naval mission advising the Ottomans on how to modernise their navy.
The British didn’t fully give up on the Ottomans until the very last moment, but there had been signs earlier on that they were beginning to change their position.
The Ottomans went bankrupt in 1875, and in response, Britain took control of Cyprus and seized Egypt in 1882.
These were signs that British policy towards the Ottoman Empire was changing, and that Britain was looking with a more acquisitive eye towards the Ottoman Empire by the beginning of the First World War.