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.
During World War One, the British government set up a committee to answer the question of what would happen to the territory of the Ottoman Empire once it had been defeated. The youngest member of that committee was a Conservative MP named Mark Sykes.
Sykes was considered an expert on the Near East after he had published a part-travel diary / part-history about the decay of the Ottoman Empire early in 1915. In actual fact he didn’t know that much, but he knew a lot more about that part of the world than the people he was dealing with.
Sykes heads east
In 1915, the committee came up with the idea of 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. So they sent Sykes out to Cairo and to Deli to canvas British officials about their idea.
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.
When Sykes was on his way back from Cairo, he bumped into French diplomats and, perhaps unwisely, described his scheme to them.
These diplomats, who had ambitions of their own in the Middle East, were pretty alarmed by what Sykes had told them and immediately wired a report back to Paris about what the British were planning.
That raised alarm bells at the Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign ministry, including with a man there named François Georges-Picot. Picot was among a group of imperialists within the French government who felt that the government as a whole was pretty lax at pushing France’s imperial agenda – particularly when it was up against the British.
Who was François Georges-Picot?
Picot was the son of a very famous French lawyer and came from a family of very committed imperialists. He had joined the French foreign office in 1898, the year of the so-called Fashoda Incident in which Britain and France nearly went to war over the ownership of the Upper Nile. The incident ended in disaster for France because the British threatened war and the French backed down.
Picot took from it a sort of lesson: when dealing with the British you needed to be pretty tough with them.
Upon hearing of Britain’s plans for the Ottoman Empire’s territory in the Middle East, he arranged for himself to be posted to London to begin negotiations with the British. The French ambassador in London was a supporter of the imperialist faction within the French government, so he was a willing accomplice in this.
The ambassador pressed the British government and said, “Look, we know what you’re doing, we know your ambitions now that we’ve heard about them from Sykes, we need to come to a deal over this”.
Picot arrived in London in the autumn of 1915 and his genius was to play on a neurosis that was haunting the British government at that point – essentially that, for the first year of the war, France had done most of the fighting and taken most of the casualties. The British view was that it should hang back and train up its new and vast volunteer army before committing it.
But the French, of course, had Germans on their territory from the beginning of the war, and they faced this constant internal pressure to get rid of them as fast as possible. So the French had launched all these offensives which were extremely costly and had lost hundreds of thousands of men.
The British felt very guilty about this and they also worried about whether France would last the war. Picot arrived in London and reminded the British about this disparity, saying that the British were not really pulling their weight and that the French were doing all the fighting:
“This is very well for you to want this sort of Middle Eastern empire. We might have agreed at one point, but under the current circumstances there’s no way that you’ll get this past French public opinion.”
And Britain began to cave in.
An agreement is reached
By November, Picot had had a couple of meetings with the British, but both had shown the two sides to still be deadlocked on the issue. Sykes was then called in by the British War Cabinet to try and work out a way to move things along. And that’s the point at which Sykes came up with his idea of doing a deal with the French along the Acre-Kirkuk line.
At that time, the British government was far more worried about a domestic debate over conscription – it was running out of volunteers and wondering if it should take the extreme step of bringing in conscription. To parcel the Middle East question off on Sykes, who seemed to understand the problem, was a blessed relief for them, and that’s what they did.
So Sykes straight away met Picot and, over Christmas, they began to hammer out a deal. And by about 3 January 1916, they had come up with a compromise.
Britain had always thought that Syria wasn’t worth very much anyway and there wasn’t much there, so they were willing to give that up without difficulty. Mosul, which Picot wanted too, was a city that Sykes had visited and hated so that wasn’t much of a problem for the British either.
Thus, the two countries were able to come to some sort of arrangement broadly based on the line that Sykes had come up with.
But there was a really important point on which they didn’t agree: the future of Palestine.
The Palestine problem
For Sykes, Palestine was absolutely crucial to his scheme of imperial defence running from Suez through to the Persian frontier. But the French had regarded themselves as the protectors of Christians in the Holy Land since the 16th century.
They were damned if the British were going to have that rather than them.
So Picot was very, very insistent on the fact that the British weren’t going to get it; the French wanted it. And so the two men came up with a compromise: Palestine would have an international administration. Although neither of them were really happy with that outcome either.