Image credit: Turkish Government / Commons.
This article is an edited transcript of The Sykes-Picot Agreement with James Barr on Dan Snow’s HistoryHit, first broadcast 16 May 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
The palpable anger about the Sykes-Picot Agreement in the Middle East today is due mainly to two things.
It is partly to do with two imperial powers dividing up the Middle East but it’s also a reflection of what the British had promised Arabs at the time.
As a way to blunt the force of the Sultans’ jihad, the British had come up with this cunning plan to approach the ruler of Mecca, Sharif Hussain, who claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed and had the telephone number Mecca-1.
Hussain was already uncertain about Ottoman designs in his part of the world in Mecca and he had carried on clandestine correspondence with the British from an early stage in the war.
In the middle of 1915, Hussein made large demands concerning the formation of an Arabian empire after the war.
The British initially were inclined to disregard him, but then they received intelligence that suggested that actually he was a key player in this extensive network of Arab nationalists, and that the British would do well to give him what he wanted.
This meant that immediately before Sykes and Picot came to their agreement, the British made a very big offer to Hussein: he could have territory broadly encompassing the Middle East today – Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and what was then Palestine, and stretching right down into the Arabian Peninsula as well.
This would be his reward if he launched a revolt against the Ottomans.
The revolt started in 1916 and then started to fizzle out, and that was when Lawrence of Arabia became involved.
Lawrence himself was deeply anti-French and could see the other advantage of the revolt was that it would – if it succeeded – deny France the territory in Lebanon and Syria that they wanted and keep them away from the Suez Canal. He was an imperialist thinking in the big picture.
Lawrence met Sykes in May 1917 for the first time. Sykes explained what his plan was and Lawrence was appalled by it because he had been busy telling the Arabs about what they would have after the war, and Sykes’ scheme with Picot cut completely across this.
Lawrence had travelled extensively in the Middle East before the war and he knew a charlatan when he saw one, and he thought that Sykes was just such a man – that he talked a good game, but then actually he didn’t really know what he was doing.
Lawrence then made it his mission to get the Arabs to Damascus before the end of the war.
By the end of 1918, the Arab revolts had done pretty well. Together with Allenby’s army in Palestine, the Arabs had driven the Turks out of Jerusalem and had managed to capture Damascus.
Had Lawrence not succeeded in his push for the capture of Damascus, the extent of British bad faith probably would never have become so obvious. Instead the British were forced at the end of the war to decide which of the two promises they were going to keep: the promise that they had made to the French, or their promise to the Arabs.
The critical decision
As we now know, they chose the promise to the French. Just after the end of the war Britain’s Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was able to do a deal with the French Prime Minister, Clemenceau, which resolved two problems with the Sykes-Picot agreement.
These problems were territorial issues around Palestine and Northern Iraq. The British had worked out that there was a surfeit of oil under Northern Iraq, complicating matters further. They had also realised that the Acre to Kirkuk line devised by Sykes ran south of where this oil was and they desperately needed to change the line.
Lloyd George met Clemenceau at the end of the war, and Clemenceau desperately needed British support to win back Alsace-Lorraine. Lloyd George used that weakness and said,
“Well, in that case, I want Palestine and Mosul,” and Clemenceau said, “You can have them.”
This explains the present-day Iraqi borders. Syria doesn’t extend all the way to Mosul, but instead, the Iraqi border cuts northwards to encompass Mosul.
The Sykes-Picot line is in spirit still the line that divides Israel from Lebanon, Jordan, and from Syria, and then Syria from Iran, but the actual borders were thrashed out during the 1920s by British and French surveyors.
The idea of the line and its rough direction remains much the same. It is almost exactly as Sykes intended regarding the Syrian border with Jordan and Iraq. The straight-line border that Syria has with Jordan and Iraq is Sykes’ line. Elsewhere it is different.
Why did IS destroy the border signs on the Sykes-Picot line?
It’s a good question. One thing that is important to note is that the section of border that IS were pictured driving a bulldozer through isn’t actually on the original Sykes-Picot line. It is north of that, and it’s instead on the border that was created after the French had given Britain Northern Iraq.
But the point remains the same, namely that Sykes-Picot is a powerful symbol of western bad faith because they remember the promise that was made to the Arabs. I’m not sure how much that resonates.
I think the key thing is it’s a symbol of western interference or foreign interference, and it’s for that reason that IS and, in fact, Osama Bin Laden before that tried to make so much play over it.
It is true that lots of people in the Middle East think these states were just invented by Europeans, and that’s probably true of a dozen states bordered by straight-lines in Africa as well.
I think you’ve got to be quite careful about saying that these are different because ultimately, all borders are created.
But many borders here do just cross open desert, and they are very porous to people and ideas, and, in fact, the whole region has been porous to people and ideas going way back.
The Middle East has been fought over since the beginning of time by people, by forces from the east and the west trying to dominate these routes between the east from the Gulf and from the Silk Roads through to the Mediterranean.
That is what Sykes and Picot were trying to do in 1916, and people have been trying to control the region for millennia before that and ever since their agreement.